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Help students learn how to learn: Create assignments to guide student practice with meta-cognition and self-regulation skills

September 16, 2014

One of the greatest surprises for a new faculty member (and a repeated surprise for faculty accustomed to teaching advanced undergraduate and graduate students) is that many students do not approach learning with the same study skills and motivations we used as students. Faculty skillfully regulate their learning. We evaluate how well we understand new material, identify areas that we need to clarify, separate important information that we need to remember from other information presented in a reading or lecture, and determine when we have learned what we need to learn about a new topic. We evaluate the quality of our work and identify areas we need to improve (e.g., before we submit a manuscript for publication).

Some faculty learned these self-regulation and meta-cognitive skills implicitly and with little effort. Others had valuable mentors who modeled these skills and provided guidance and feedback.

Entering students might not have these skills. Worse, the methods of assessment they encountered in their pre-college experiences might have reinforced superficial learning. When these students enter university classes, they discover that old habits of cramming facts the night before an exam do not produced the results they expect when exams require more sophisticated learning than fact recognition.

Nilson (2013) describes multiple assignments and learning activities that can promote development of meta-cognitive skill and guide students toward habits that will help them monitor and regulate their learning. Reflective learning assignments should be short and low-stress for both students and instructors. Each assignment should contribute only a point or two and be easy to grade (usually pass/fail, competed/not completed).

Remember that students seldom do optional activities and those who choose to do optional activities are probably more advanced as self-regulated learners. Although the assignments should be required, which means they must be graded in some way, they are effective when assigned as low-stakes pass-fail learning activities. This approach creates a learning benefit for students while minimizing grading burdens for instructors. If you create an in-class reflective learning writing activity (less than 5 minutes), you can gather the papers and simply check that they were done and use them as evidence of attendance.

Explain the purpose of the assignments and describe the benefit they will have for students’ performance on higher-stakes assignments. Students will be more motivated to take these assignments seriously if they experience the connection between the skills they acquire through self-reflection assignments and increased success in other class learning activities.

Examples of reflective learning assignments:

  • Create one or two questions on an assigned reading and ask students to prepare and submit a written response at the beginning of class. Do not simply ask for a paraphrase of content; ask students to identify something that puzzled them, identify the idea that interested them most, or describe how the ideas might be used to solve a problem students face in everyday life.
  • Ask students to re-solve a problem they missed on a homework or exam or ask them to solve a similar problem. In addition to correcting their errors, they should describe the procedure they used to solve the problem correctly after seeing feedback on the incorrect solution in their first homework.
  • When students receive a graded exam, ask them to reflect on their grade and the strategies they used when they studied. Did they receive the grade they expected or were they surprised? How did they prepare for the exam? Did they study enough? Did they study the right material? Where did they lose points? What might they do differently when they prepare for the next exam?

Nilson (2014) describes findings from a mathematics course that used three reflective learning assignments during the term. Students improved their performance on the final class exam, were more engaged with optional learning activities, and expressed appreciation for the reflective learning assignments.


Nilson, L. B. (2014, June 16). The secret of self-regulated learning. Faculty Focus.

Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating self-regulated learning: Strategies for strengthening students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Update: 09/16/14 tjf