How Courseware + Metacognition = Student Success

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Metacognitive skills help to make students more active participants in their own learning.  Whether offering “debriefs” after exams, activities such as “think-pair-share”, or using goal setting and reflection surveys, there are a variety of instructional methods being used to teach metacognition to aid students’ learning. Teaching these soft skills is becoming more and more common as instructors are noticing their students gain deeper understanding of their materials and doing better in class. 

Students’ ability to self-monitor and reflect on their learning can have a lasting impact on their lives both in and out of the classroom. Literature reviews on metacognition have provided insight about its many benefits and the mechanisms that make it such a successful tool within education. At Macmillan Learning, we have partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to learn even more about the impact it has on student success - in particular about the benefits of using digital tools to deliver metacognitive support.  We plan to share our findings with the broader educational community.

To learn more about metacognition, and the potential impact that courseware may have, I spoke to Macmillan Learning Research Scientist Kelly Boden and Research Specialist Sarah Gray. They shared interesting insights on its role in college classrooms, why it’s such a powerful tool, how features within our digital learning system Achieve can be used to harness its potential, and what instructors can do to have an oversized impact on students ability to develop their metacognitive skills.

Is the use of metacognition becoming more common in classrooms? 

Boden: Metacognition literature has grown exponentially in the past decade, and evidence for the powerful impact that instructional methods that support it is mounting. However, it’s unclear how much of that research is making its way into classrooms. Instructors participating in some of our research studies who are using Achieve seem aware of what metacognition is, and also a majority report supporting metacognition in some way within their classrooms. This is a positive sign that metacognition is becoming more common in college classrooms. 


What is something about metacognition that you'd like instructors to know?

Gray: Metacognitive skills, such as self-monitoring skills, help make students more active participants in their learning. When paired with effective feedback, strong self-monitoring skills can help students foster deep learning. It allows students to compare their actual performance to the learning goal, and determine on their own what action they need to take to close this gap in knowledge. 

Boden: Metacognition is something we all do - we’re not taught explicitly to think about our thinking. Although it’s something we all do, we’re not always very good at it! Previous research has found that students are frequently inaccurate in their judgments of their own learning, often being overconfident in their accuracy on a task or topic. Luckily, there are research-backed methods to help support students’ metacognitive skills that can be incorporated into any classroom, virtual or in-person, that can have significant impacts. 


When instructors think about metacognition, do you think courseware comes to mind? 

Boden: Instructors that we’ve surveyed or interviewed usually don’t mention courseware when discussing metacognition. Most are aware of the concept of metacognition, and report using various techniques/methods to support it in their classrooms. Few, if any, mentioned courseware in those descriptions. I don’t think this necessarily means that instructors think that courseware can’t support or incorporate metacognition. Rather, they first think of the underlying instructional methods before attaching it to a particular courseware. 

Instructors who have reported incorporating metacognition into their instruction with Achieve have described using it in a variety of ways. For example, one instructor has students complete short polls at the end of each class asking students to rate their familiarity with the content they covered, as well as their confidence in that content. Another instructor gives students “debriefs” after exams asking students to reflect on how the exam went, what they wish they knew going into an assignment, and how they could improve. Yet another instructor described a variety of activities including self-assessments, peer reviews, and group discussions. Others described activities such as “think-pair-share” and critical thinking discussions, all aimed at increasing students’ metacognition. 

Within Achieve, instructors definitely identify the Goal-Setting and Reflection Surveys (GRS) as a useful tool for having students reflect on their own learning and strategy use in order to support their metacognition. Instructors have also reported using iClicker as a way for students to self-assess and complete confidence checks of their current understanding of a concept or topic. Also, the adaptive quizzing tool LearningCurve has been identified as a useful tool to support students’ metacognition by helping them to identify what they do and don’t know. This adaptive quizzing style helps students both identify and practice gaps in their understanding.  

Gray: Several instructors have indicated to us that they really value having resources such as the GRS in the courseware; they note that this gives students an opportunity to reframe the way they think about their course as something they really have agency in deciding how they experience. Others have also indicated that having reporting on their student’s GRS results makes it easier for instructors to be aware of issues their students are facing, and better support them as a result.

What one thing within Achieve can an instructor can do that could have an oversized impact?

Gray: There’s a lot of research out there on what kinds of metacognitive interventions are most impactful for students. Research suggests that the interventions that have the biggest impact on students involve instructors delivering direct instruction on metacognitive strategies, providing opportunities for students to practice these skills, and giving feedback on their work. 

Boden: Our own research has found that having students complete at least two of the Goal-Setting and Reflection surveys (intro and one checkpoint survey) can significantly increase their course grade by at least 8 percentile points. Our research has also found that completing at least one survey significantly increased students’ reported self-efficacy, engagement, and their sense of belonging. Given these findings, I would highly recommend the Goal-Setting and Reflection surveys!

What kind of new features within courseware could help support metacognition?

Gray: One set of resources we are piloting in some select disciplines this spring are critical thinking resources - which include not just explicit instruction on critical thinking skills, but also opportunities for students to reflect on how they use critical thinking skills in their assignments as well as their everyday lives. This is direct instruction plus opportunities for practice in action! 

Boden: We are developing new ways to directly support students. This includes a website with additional resources about the strategies included in the Goal-Setting and Reflection surveys, which is offered to be directly emailed to students after they complete a survey. The website includes information on the research behind the strategies, practical ways of incorporating the strategies, as well as helpful additional resources (exam checklist, post-exam reflection, & SMART goals template). We’re also thinking of new ways to share and display survey responses with students that will further support their metacognition and learning.