Metacognition, or, Making Students Partners in their Learning


It is not uncommon for faculty who have redesigned their courses around active learning methods to initially find improvements in student performance but also an increase in student expressions of dissatisfaction. Usually this phenomenon occurs because students find themselves abruptly moved from a context in which they get small amounts of feedback on their learning from faculty interspersed across a semester to one where they are getting more detailed information frequently. Their dissatisfaction reflects their uncertainty about what to do with all of this new information and what is expected of them in this new format.

Employing metacognition techniques can help. Metacognition, simply put, is thinking about thinking. It refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. When we incorporate metacognition in learning design, students become partners in their learning by becoming aware of their own knowledge and knowledge-building. Partnering with students in their learning helps students succeed in the classroom and creates independent, life-long learners. Students move from “I don’t know the answer” – not just to “I know the answer,” but “I know what I need to do to figure out the answer.”

The short video below explains the basics of metacognition and includes seven questions to help your students start thinking about their learning:

Using metacognition in learning design also helps instructors become clearer in communicating the unstated goals in a course, from the purpose of readings and assignments to the larger assumptions of the discipline. This clarity can open the course material up for students who come to it from differing backgrounds and levels of experience and give them confidence in their ability to learn it.

Best Practices

With a few simple steps, you can get started bringing metacognitive techniques into your course design.

  • Include a “How To Take This Course” paragraph or section in your syllabus that explains your learning design for the course and and your reasons for choosing it. In the examples section below, there are several good models of the different ways faculty at NYU and beyond have handled this.
  • Give students opportunities to reflect on the learning strategies they are using for your course. This can be regularly posing a question — how are you studying for the test or quizzes? How are you preparing for the essay or the one page assignments? How do you approach reading for the class? Or it can be more structured, such as having students do annotations on course readings together or giving them “exam wrappers”, three-question quizzes that focus their attention on aspects of their performance on a graded assignment and actionable steps they can take to improve it.
  • Build in opportunities for students to give you feedback specifically on learning design at the beginning, middle, and end of courses or units. Quick, uncomplicated methods for doing this include short surveys, questions at the end of an assignment, or a special course discussion forum. The most important thing is to make sure that you acknowledge the feedback students give you and think about it when you iterate on your learning design.
  • Building metacognitive ability in students requires a slightly different kind of assessment of instructional methods. The focus should be on how do students know where they are in their learning and how to structure assessments so students can reflect on their own learning goals, areas for growth, and next steps. Some of the questions instructors may need to answer in order to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts include:
    • How are you documenting that learning is taking place?
    • How are you communicating to students the formal vs. informal ways their performance will be evaluated?
    • How do students know where they are in their learning?
    • How do your assessments connect to one another throughout the course?
  • Involve your students in assessment building. Working with your students to develop a rubric (or other evaluation metric) is a powerful way to help students build understanding of what good work looks like.
  • Consider an additive syllabus, or backwards grading system. In a traditional grading system, students begin with an “A” grade, which gets lower and lower as the student receives anything less than a 100 on any assignments, tests, etc. Within the additive framework, students all start with zero points, and earn points towards a successful grade by completing each assignment. In “Companions of Aeneas: Gamifying Intermediate Latin,” Ted Gellar-Goad elaborates on how using points to create an additive rather than subtractive syllabus helped students better understand their participation grade:

“Anecdotally, this had a palpable impact on student complaints regarding participation grades. In my standard courses where students lose points for absences or lackluster class participation, there are invariably a handful of complaints regarding the number of points lost. In courses where I have employed an additive system, this is surprisingly not an issue. There seems to be a clear understanding that students do not lose points due to their absence, they simply cannot earn points when they are not present. The end result (a daily participation grade of zero) remains the same, but student attitude is quite different.”


This may be the only course students have where they are being asked to be full partners in their learning and thus they are not getting reinforcement in the methods but having to switch back to the older, more passive mode. The lack of widespread adoptions can sometimes make them more skeptical of the methods’ efficacy.


For her US History II course at Worchester, Dr. Tona Hangen includes the following “How to take this course” section in her syllabus. Since this course can be taken as a requirement, she offers three approaches students can take for success, from shallow “wading” to deep “diving.” Note she makes no judgement on which approach a student may take. 

screenshot of chart explaining how to take this course in US history course syllabus
In the “How to take this course” section of her syllabus, Dr. Hangen offers three approaches students can take to succeed in her US History II course.



  • Google forms – can use for quizzes and surveys, easily view response summaries (or detailed reports in Sheets)
  • Google Docs – inline commenting and versioning for documents
  • Hypothesis – browser extension for text annotation of HTML, PDF, and ePUB 
  • NYU Classes Tests and Quizzes tool – lots of question types
  • Qualtrics – robust NYU supported survey tools, allows for more complex logic
  • Kahoot – game based classroom response system – fun, interactive quizzing tool – also allows for survey and discussion
  • Formative – online, all-student response system provides teachers the opportunity to assign activities to students, receive the results in real time, and then provide immediate feedback to students.
  • Poll Everywhere (free for course under 40; currently in limited pilot for FAS) – can be embedded in Google slide presentations

Further Resources

  • In “Promoting Student Metacognition,” Tanner (2012) offers several simple assignments for putting metacognition into practice, as well as recommendations for developing a “classroom culture grounded in metacognition.” While she is focused on the undergraduate biology classroom, her prompts, assignments, and questions for students are easily adaptable to almost any discipline.
  • In Enhancing Student Learning Through Effective Formative Feedback, the authors share seven principles for formative feedback with simple, concrete steps for encouraging students’ metacognitive practice.