Help students develop effective metacognitive strategies to improve learning

February 6, 2018 | Claudia Stanny

Help students develop effective metacognitive strategies to improve learning

Metacognition refers to our knowledge about how memory and cognitive processes operate and how we use this information to select activities and learning strategies to improve our memory and regulate our learning. However, many students hold false beliefs about which strategies are most effective in helping people learn (Chew, 2015; McCabe, 2011; McGuire, 2014).

When are students most receptive to advice about effective study?

Although faculty can help students be more successful in their classes if they provide them with relevant information about effective study strategies (Schraw, 1998; Tanner, 2012), they should think about the best time during the term to give this advice. Intuitively, it makes sense to offer advice about study strategies during the first week of class. However, students begin the term with high expectations about their ability to excel. Students may be overconfident and ignore suggestions to adopt a study strategy they don’t already use. They believe they have great study strategies and the advice is directed at other students (McGuire, 2014). Students are not motivated to consider alternate study strategies until they have concrete evidence that the strategies they now use do not produce the results they want.

A better time to suggest new study strategies is immediately after returning the first graded work in a course. The first grade is the first concrete feedback students get about the quality of their performance. This feedback creates a window of opportunity in which students might be more receptive to helpful advice. A disappointing grade tells students that the study strategy they used did not produce the grade they wanted.

How to motivate students to change their study habits

Here are two ways to create a situation that will make students more receptive to your suggestions to study differently.

Intervention Model 1:
Discuss metacognitive strategies with students in class when you give them their scores on the first exam

The first “wake up” feedback should be based on graded work that is important enough for students to take seriously but not such a large part of the final grade that a student who performs badly is doomed. 

Make the first graded work a relatively low-stakes assignment (in terms of percentage of final grade – say, 15-20%) so that students can recover from a poor grade.

Students should complete this work early in the course (first 3-5 weeks). 

The assessment should be as challenging as the high-stakes assessments you will use later in the term.

  • Use questions that are similar in content and difficulty to questions students experience on high-stakes exams.
  • Require students to use cognitive skills they must use for other class assessments. For example, if major exams require students to apply theoretical principles to solve problems, ask them to do this in the first assessment.
  • Do not create a first exam that only requires memorization of facts and definitions.
  • The first graded work should provide students with accurate feedback about the adequacy of their study strategies.

Intervention Model 2:
Include a reflection question on exams

Offer a small bonus (e.g., 2 extra points on a 100 point exam) to students who write a complete, detailed, reflective response to a question about their study behavior.

The following is a suggested prompt for an exam reflection question:

Answer the following three questions about your preparation for this exam:

  • What grade do you think you earned on this exam? (percent score)
  • How much time did you spend preparing for class and this exam? Did you study on more than one day?
  • Describe the specific strategies you used to study. Describe the strategies you used to prepare for class as well as for the exam.

Follow-up Feedback (both models)

On the day you give students grades or other feedback on their first graded work, refer them to resources about effective study skills.

Give them a copy of Saundra McGuire’s handout on metacognition. Discuss how students can apply these strategies to their learning for your course.
[The handout is available on the CUTLA web site:]

Another option is to ask students to view videos on metacognition (below) to help them better understand how to apply these metacognition strategies.

Saundra McGuire
Study Smarter: Dr. Saundra McGuire on the Study Cycle
LSU interview

Stephen Chew Videos
How to Get the Most Out of Studying
First of 5 videos (about 5 minutes each)


Chew, S. L. (2015, April). Improving student performance by addressing student and teacher misconceptions about learning. Presentation at the University of West Florida.

McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462-476. DOI 10.3758/s13421-010-0035-2

McGuire, S. Y. (2014, October). Get students to focus on learning instead of grades: Metacognition is the key! Presentation at the University of West Florida.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26, 113-125.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 11, 112-120.