Teaching students to think like professionals in the discipline requires developing metacognitive skill

March 31, 2015

We often identify the ability to think like a professional in the discipline as an important program-level student learning outcome. The ability to frame and solve problems like a professional requires both specific disciplinary skills and general metacognitive skills. Psychologists use the term metacognition to refer to our knowledge about how we think and awareness of our thinking while we learn new material and solve problems. Metacognitive skill extends to our ability to apply our understanding about our cognitive processes to make decisions about how we will monitor and regulate our behavior: how we plan, monitor progress, identify and correct errors, and select strategies to solve problems.

Students will make more progress toward achieving course learning outcomes if they have strong metacognitive skills but novices in a discipline frequently have poor metacognitive skills, particularly for thinking strategies specific to the discipline (Dunning Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003). What can faculty do to help students develop metacognitive skills and make progress toward developing disciplinary approaches to thinking and problem-solving?

Turner (2012) describes strategies faculty can use to prompt students to reflect on and improve their ability to think about their learning and problem solving in the discipline. Her work focuses on improving metacognition and “thinking like a biologist,” but the strategies are applicable to multiple disciplines.

      • Make learning and conceptual change explicit. Ask students to reflect on how their thinking about a disciplinary topic has changed by including a prompt for a reflective essay as part of a major exam or as an in-class “minute paper.” Ask students to describe how they thought about a topic at the beginning of the course and how they think about the topic now. For example, students might describe 2 or 3 ways in which their thinking about a topic has changed based on class discussions (e.g., evolution, climate change, dominant group privilege).
      • Encourage students to monitor and reflect on their learning strategies. Ask one or more questions as a graded reflective component for written assignments and major projects in which students write about the process of completing the assignment. What was the most challenging or confusing part of this assignment? What questions did you have to think about to complete this assignment? What new skills did you develop while completing this project? What did you learn from completing this project that will help you on future assignments? What advice about how to complete this project would you give to a student who planned to take this course next term?



Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 83-87.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE—Life Sciences Education 11, 113-120. doi:10.1187/cbe.12-03-0333


03/31/2015 ecr