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Improving metacognition through explicit instruction of learning strategies

Written by: Claire Badger and Matt Corry
5 min read

A relatively incontrovertible aim of education is to enable students to become independent in their learning, equipping them with the skills to make strategic and reflective choices in their learning so that they become lifelong learners. What is more controversial is exactly how a school goes about achieving these aims. Since the publication of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets (Dweck, 2000), there has been a great deal of interest in mindset interventions. However, a recent study by the EEF (Foliano et al., 2019) has shown little impact of mindset interventions, and some authors have suggested that a focus on improving students’ metacognition may be more successful (Sherrington, 2019).

Our approach

Following a similar approach to that taken by Durrington School (Allison, 2018), a Year 9 biology class was explicitly taught the six strategies for effective learning from the Learning Scientists (Weinstein et al., 2018): retrieval practice, interleaving, concrete examples, dual coding, elaboration and spaced practice. The value of combining words with visuals (dual coding) to design their own diagrams was demonstrated to students by looking at the ‘lock and key’ model for enzyme action and adding only labels relevant to the explanation of the mechanism. Elaboration was explored through everyday examples, such as there being a maximum rate at which a student could eat Smarties in a given time to explain why enzyme rate plateaus at high concentrations of substrate. The regular interleaving that was built into the sequence of lessons on digestion was highlighted to the students, including discussions as to why and whether it was helpful for them to switch between and revisit different concepts during lessons.

Regular low-stakes retrieval tasks were used to reinforce the learning strategies themselves, as well as to develop the students’ understanding of how they applied in the context of their biology learning. The first part of such a task related directly to the learning strategies in isolation (for example, name the six learning strategies or match the learning strategy with the appropriate description); the main body of the exercise involved questions related to biology; and the final part involved students reflecting on the task as a whole (both the questions and their answers), highlighting where different learning strategies had been used and supporting their evaluations with brief written explanations. It was evident from the annotations on the scripts and from discussions during peer review that the students were developing their understanding of the learning strategies, thereby demonstrating enhanced metacognition.

As the students explored their understanding of the learning strategies, discussions increasingly became more analytical as to when or whether a particular strategy related to a given context. For example, students questioned how long a gap was needed for spaced practice and discussions occurred around whether a given illustration was ‘elaboration’ or a ‘concrete example’ (for example, the use of a brick wall to signify a polymer and a brick to signify a monomer, when studying the concept of the breakdown of food in human digestion). It was evident from these discussions that the students were becoming more strategic and reflective in their approach towards enhancing their understanding of biology through the learning strategies they had been taught.


The impact of the initiative was evaluated as part of the school’s internal annual review cycle. Rather than the usual format of a whole-class lesson observation, it was felt that a more in-depth appraisal of the students’ metacognitive development could be ascertained through interviews with students. Three students were chosen using their most recent ‘Myself-as-Learner Scale’ score (Burden, 1998) as a means of identifying students with a high, medium and low degree of confidence in their ability as a learner in relation to the rest of the class. The interviews were carried out by the reviewer and took the format of a semi-structured one-to-one discussion, recorded and subsequently reflected upon by both the reviewer and the class teacher. During the interviews, students were asked to rank the six effective learning strategies in order of the ones that they found most helpful to least helpful for their learning in biology. Different students gave the strategies different rankings; they could clearly articulate their reasoning, demonstrating that they had knowledge not just of the strategies themselves but also of when and where they would be appropriate to use. For example, they related the strategies to their learning in different ways: annotating diagrams in their notes as a means of dual coding; concrete examples through doing experiments; and elaboration to explain concepts such as monomers and polymers. It was evident that the students were able to provide these examples through the explicit teaching that they had received; they were, however, also able to make links as to how other classroom activities related to the learning strategies – for example, an online quizzing app being used as a means of retrieval practice. Throughout the interviews, there was a clear sense from the students that they felt ‘safe’ and confident with their teacher, that they had really embraced the learning strategies and that they valued the explanations as to why particular activities were valuable for their learning. In this way, it was evident that the students had moved from what Perkins (1992) describes as a tacit understanding of their own learning to a much more strategic application of different strategies.

Next steps

One area probed in the interviews was the extent to which students’ use of the strategies was teacher-directed and how much was independently initiated. The vast majority was teacher-directed, which highlights the importance of explicit instruction of metacognitive strategies in the first instance. Moving forward, we hope to shift ownership more onto the students themselves to encourage them to become more reflective learners – for example, through activities such as exam wrappers, which could be used to discuss what strategies students could employ for their revision before exams and to evaluate afterwards how well these strategies have worked.

The type of metacognitive thinking we are hoping to improve in our students would not have been possible to measure via a traditional lesson observation; therefore, a key aspect of this work was the value of interviewing the students as part of the evaluation process.


Allison S (2018) How can we use evidence to help students become more effective learners? Impact 3: 54–55.

Burden R (1998) Assessing children’s perceptions of themselves as learners and problem-solvers: The construction of the Myself-as-Learner Scale (MALS). School Psychology International 19: 291–305.

Dweck CS (2000) Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. London: Psychology Press.

Foliano F, Rolfe H, Buzzeo J et al. (2019) Changing mindsets: Effectiveness trial. Evaluation report. Education Endowment Foundation and National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Available at: (accessed 3 December 2019).

Perkins DN (1992) Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: The Free Press.

Sherrington T (2019) Mindsets vs. metacognition: Two EEF reports and a clear conclusion. In: Teacherhead. Available at: (accessed 3 December 2019).

Weinstein Y, Madan CR and Sumeracki MA (2018) Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications 3: 2.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas