Teaching Students How to Learn

by Dr. Sue Pieper, Coordinator of Assessment

Photo of instructor standing in front of blackboard as four students watch.An Inside Higher Ed article titled “Can Students Learn to Learn?” piqued my long-standing interest in students and metacognition. As a teacher of writing for nearly twenty years, I have been intrigued by differences in the ways that students learned and have sought to understand how two students of similar ability could perform so differently in my English composition classes. Over many years of working with student writers, I noticed that most of them didn’t take the time to reflect on their writing. They weren’t asking basic questions: What worked well in my writing? What didn’t? What can I try next time? What I observed in my students was a lack of metacognitive skills.

What is metacogniton?

Strict definitions vary, but the common definition of metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” Many researchers believe that metacognition involves two steps: knowing one’s own cognitive processes and using that self-awareness to regulate those processes (Brown, 1981; Niemi, 2002; Shimamura, 2000). By comparing the behaviors of expert and novice learners, researchers (Butler, 1997; Lovett, 2008; Pintrich, 2000; Winne & Hadwin, 1998) have discovered that experts, unlike novices, routinely move through a self-regulation cycle of

  1. Photo of statue "The thinker" (a seated figure whose chin is propped on hand and elbow on knee)Planning
  2. Setting goals
  3. Applying strategies
  4. Monitoring
  5. Evaluating
  6. Adapting

By teaching these self-regulation strategies to our students, we can improve their learning.

The “Can Students Learn to Learn?” article reported on the efforts of members of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) who are doing just that. One of the projects highlighted was led by Kristen Bonnie, an assistant professor of psychology at Beloit College. Bonnie described a simple technique for prompting metacognition in her students. On a multiple-choice test, she lets students select a few questions that they don’t want her to grade. She also requires them to give a reason for their selection, providing a list of reasons for students to choose from, for example “I don’t remember the material” or “I’m not confident in my answer.” Her goal is to make students stop and think more about why they don’t know an answer. The ACM projects are only two years old, but they are already showing promise in terms of improving student learning.

Photo of a female and male professor arguingThe comments following the article were even more interesting than the article itself. Many commenters were already using metacognitive strategies in their own classrooms or were eager to try these techniques. Other commenters disagreed with the idea of teaching students how to learn, asserting that the goal of university instructors is to teach their subject and that teaching metacognition skills is a waste of instructors’ time. Instead, they argued, students should come to college prepared and should be held accountable for their work.

One commenter asked, “What good is teaching if too many students are not actually grasping the material?” Her question is a good one. Students should already know how to learn, but many students don’t have these skills. We need to teach students how to learn, not only to help them to understand the content we teach, but also to give them the opportunity to practice and improve their metacognitive skills. Most importantly, we want them to develop a lifelong habit of thinking about their thinking.

Some higher education professionals are already working on this. One commenter from the Office of Faculty Development at California State University Channel Islands described an intriguing initiative, a “learning across the curriculum” movement, where faculty were encouraged to teach one thing about learning in every course. Ideally, teaching students how to learn should happen in all courses across the curriculum and in all modes of delivery, but teaching metacognition might be especially important in online courses. Macdonald (2004) argued that to be competent, e-learners need a self-directed approach to learning, in addition to basic information and communication technology skills, information literacy skills, and collaborative learning skills. In my next post, I’ll explore some easy-to-implement strategies for teaching metacognition, both face-to-face and online.

Are you teaching students how to learn in your courses? If so, what strategies are you using? Please comment on your experiences with teaching students to learn.


Brown, A. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self control, and other mysterious mechanisms. In F. Weinert & R. Kluwe, Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

Butler, D. (1997). The roles of goal setting and self-monitoring in students’ self-regulated engagement of tasks. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL.

Lovett, M. C. (2008, May 5). Educause Learning Initiative Events. Retrieved May 18, 2008, from Metacognition and Monitoring: Understanding and Improving Students’ Skills for Learning

Macdonald, J. (2004). Developing competent e-learners: The role of assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 215-226.

Neimi, H. (2002). Active learning—a cultural change needed in teacher education and schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 763-780.

Pintrich, P. R. (2000). The role of goal orientation in self-regulated learning. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner, Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 451-502). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Shimamura, A. P. (2000). Toward a cognitive neuroscience of metacognition. Consciousness and Cognition, 313-323.

Winne, P., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated learning. In D. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. Graesser, Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 277-304). Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

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