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Metacognition and Self-Assessments in Higher Education

Updated article originally published January 21, 2016.

Metacognition is the practice of “thinking about thinking.” In this process an individual analyzes, monitors, and regulates their thinking and learning processes in order to develop them more effectively. It sounds complicated, but it is actually something we do all the time. Consider this premise from John Dunlosky and Janet Metcalfe’s book Metacognition: “when was the last time you failed to recall someone’s name, but were absolutely sure you knew the name.” This tip-of-the-tongue state is “metacognitive in nature because you are having a thought (‘I’m sure i know this person’s name’) about a cognition (in this case, your thought is ‘that the person’s name is in your memory’).”

This is a handy way to conceptualize the phenomena, which in the past 30 years, has become a significant focus in higher education due to research suggesting that metacognition improves the academic success of students. As such, it may be useful to think of methods to trigger metacognition to enhance learning.

Metacognition and Self-Assessments: Keys to Deeper Learning

Thinking about one’s thinking is a form of self-assessment. and the benefits of self-assessments have been substantiated with an array of research. For example, a study done by Heidi Goodrich Andrade involves asking seventh grade students to assess their own work using a rubric. The study found that the treatment group had statistically greater success achieving student learning outcomes. This study sets the foundation for the idea that self-assessment causes deeper processing of information, resulting in increased learning.

In the higher education realm, a group of researchers from the Hong Kong Institute of Education looked at the learning process of student teachers in a Bachelor of Education program and found the “metacognitive approach supportive of their learning and self-assessment. Students were more aware of their learning and thinking processes at the end of the study. Further, “teachers involved in the project found the method demanding yet generating useful feedback which enhanced their teaching”.

Other researchers who developed metacognitive studies in higher education found a relationship “between performance and some students’ metacognitive knowledge characteristics […] high achieving students seem to be aware of more cognitive rules and to evoke metacognitive knowledge about cognitive processes and cognitive results more frequently.” These studies, and others, help to understand the importance of incorporating metacognition in the classroom, but they leave one wondering how to do so.

Incorporating Metacognition and Self-Assessments in Higher Education

There are a number of ways to encourage students to practice metacognition, many of which are easy to incorporate into a syllabus. One approach is to ask students to reflect upon the following at the end of term:

  • What strategies did they use for the course?
  • How did they prepare for examinations?
  • How did they approach the assignments?
  • Which strategies worked well and which ones did not?

The goal of this questioning is to encourage students to acknowledge their procedural study habits and evaluate the ways in which they could be more effective. It also yields the benefit of course feedback, which could be useful for assessment and curriculum design.

Another metacognitive approach, developed by Dr. Tanner at the San Francisco State University, is the “retrospective post-assessment.” Students are asked to record their preconceptions of the course material at the beginning of the term. At the end of the term students complete a self-evaluation to directly compare their current knowledge with what they believed at the beginning of the term. This allows students to directly observe their academic growth and reflect upon their learning strategies.

A third method is to have students compile a portfolio of all their work throughout a course. At the end of the term students read over their work and write an analysis of their progression. This tactic is useful for keeping students focused on continually improving their academic strategies throughout the term.

Metacognition is a valuable skill that improves the lifelong academic and professional success of students. Having students reflect on their own approach to the coursework and study habits encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning. It also fosters group reflection in the classroom, and learning is enhanced in an atmosphere of cooperation. While metacognition is not a skill that may come naturally to students, introducing activities to practise and develop the ability will better prepare them for the remainder of their academic journey.

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