How Metacognition Impacts Student Success

Research has found that students who use their metacognitive skills gain a better ability to transfer knowledge and higher rates of success

Marisa Bluestone · Oct, 2023

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Research has found that students who use their metacognitive skills have higher rates of success -- not only do they earn better grades, but they also gain a better ability to transfer knowledge and achieve higher graduation rates. It’s something that we’ve long been interested in at Macmillan Learning, and are excited to learn even more about -- especially as it relates to under-represented student populations. To that end, we partnered with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research and test equity-centred enhancements for digital courseware, such as our learning platform, Achieve, in the introductory courses of psychology and sociology.

We believe that if we increase under-represented students’ sense of belonging and metacognitive skills in key gateway courses, then we can increase the likelihood of students successfully completing these courses along with other courses to come. But why is that? To explain better, it’s important to have a better understanding of what metacognition is and how it can impact student success.

About Metacognition

Metacognition is thinking about ways to improve your own thinking and learning processes. It’s valuable within an education setting because it helps students analyse new problems, identify which resources and strategies are useful to solve those problems, and also to assess and adjust their learning strategies as necessary. In other words, the metacognition required within self-regulated learning helps students to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning.

Picture this scenario: A student is taking a low-stakes exam in their psychology class. They begin by reviewing all of the end-of-chapter questions to identify which questions they can answer straight away, and which they need to think more on and save for later. Throughout this process, they’re monitoring how many questions they have left and how much time they have before they need to turn their work in. Once they finish, they then reflect on questions they may have gotten wrong and some concepts they could have understood better. They decide to set aside time to look back on the chapter and join the class’ study group. Within this example, the student would have used all three metacognitive skills: planning, monitoring and evaluating.

  • Planning: When students are setting goals for tasks, identifying the task’s critical features, and planning strategies to solve the task.
  • Monitoring: When students are tracking where they are in their learning and monitoring progress towards their goals.
  • Evaluating: When students are reviewing whether they met their goals and reviewing the strategies they used to accomplish them.

Using these skills will help make them a better student by enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of the class’ content and develop more productive ways to study.

How Metacognition impacts student success

At its heart, metacognition is a student’s ability to adapt problem-solving behaviours to different academic tasks. Primarily, it impacts the skills and motivations that control how a student learns, and it's critical for successful subject mastery and achievement. It’s also something that’s commonly referred to as self-regulated learning.

By better understanding how they best learn, students will not only retain more, but they will also instil a greater understanding of how that knowledge can be applied to other situations. Some students may need extra time for writing assignments, or know that they need to put their phone away to avoid distractions when studying. It’s having this kind knowledge about how they learn that helps them to create an environment that enables them to succeed. It can also help them to make better use of their own time, allowing them to make even more progress.

Picture this scenario: A student approaches their instructor after class to understand why they didn’t do as well as they thought they would on an exam. They read the material and highlighted the points they thought were most important. The instructor asks a question about how to apply the knowledge to a different scenario, and the student is unable to. While the student became familiar with the topic, they didn’t understand it deeply or learn how to apply what they learned. With strengthened metacognition skills, the student would be better able to reflect on their own learning and develop the kind of higher-order thinking that’s required to succeed in class and throughout their university experience. With time, it will be second-nature to the student as they continue to think about improving their learning.

How Instructors Can Support Metacognition

One of the most important things an instructor can do is to create connections between how students can apply what they learn to their goals -- both within their class and the real world. Psychology and sociology are often required within a student’s general education and are critical to learning about human nature, but not necessarily tied to their major. While students may not have prior knowledge of or interest in the course material itself, the instructor’s role and metacognitive activities become even more critical to the students overall success.

Another way is for instructors to ask prompting questions. Research has shown that asking these questions can lead to students’ increased learning and performance. An example of this is requiring explanations of students’ thought process or asking them to defend a position within their homework assignment. This type of task would help the student to think about their thinking and would prompt the kind self-explanation required to demonstrate understanding of the concept.

A different set of interventions aimed at increasing metacognition are self-reflection exercises. These goal setting and reflection surveys can serve several purposes including offering insight into students, establishing a baseline students can measure future progress against. This can be done via surveys or exam wrappers, and would include a likert scale and open-ended questions to help students reflect on their study plans and goals. Instructors can also ask students to go through their graded exam to reflect on the answer they got wrong and think about how they could improve on future exams. Our own research has demonstrated that courses which assigned two or more surveys saw a minimum 15% increase in assignment completion, which resulted in at least an 8% point increase in student grades in the course compared to those that assigned only one or no surveys.

And finally, instructors can help students to build self efficacy by normalising adversity. Tools such as Learning Curve’s adaptive quizzing with targeted feedback can help students succeed. The adaptive algorithm selects questions for each student based on their own performance, challenging them with more difficult questions as their performance improves. It’s completely normal to struggle in class, and tools like this can help students to identify gaps in their understanding, get targeted feedback and hints, and allow them to solve the problem again correctly.

Both the goal setting and reflection surveys as well as Learning Curve’s adaptive quizzing are available within Achieve, Macmillan Learning’s digital learning system.