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Supporting students to become self-regulated learners: Teaching metacognition matters

3 min read


One of the authors of this article, Paul A Kirschner, featured in a webinar about ‘How Learning Happens’. We recorded the video for you to watch back.

When a teacher announces the deadline for an upcoming test, students are instantly faced with a number of decisions: when to study for the test, how long to study, what strategy to use and why, how to apply that strategy to the subject matter, how to adapt the strategy based on the feedback they receive. The problem is that many, if not most, students are not well-equipped to make these (metacognitive) decisions.

Metacognitive knowledge and skills

Effective, self-regulating students tackle these decisions in a seemingly effortless way. They space out shorter study sessions instead of cramming them into one large one because they know that spaced practice enhances retention. They apply self-testing to rehearse subject matter instead of simply rereading because they are aware of the benefits the act of testing themselves for retention in and recall from long-term memory. In addition, they use the feedback they received from previous study activities and use this to make adjustments for future study sessions (Zimmerman, 2000). Their decisions are influenced by the extent to which they know and understand what strategies they are using when they study, which strategies are most effective and why (both are metacognitive knowledge) and whether they are able to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning (metacognitive skills) (Veenman Van Hout-Wolters & Afflerbach, 2006).

To a certain extent, students pick up metacognitive knowledge and skills from interaction with their parents, peers and teachers (Veenman et al., 2006). However, it is important to remember that students’ metacognitive knowledge may be incorrect and/or incomplete and their skills suboptimal, as students are often not aware of the benefits afforded to them by evidence-based strategies such as self-testing, spacing and elaborating (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013). Therefore, instruction in strategy use is essential, especially for students who might not have heard or learned about these strategies elsewhere. Students need support to become effective, self-regulated learners, and that’s where the teacher comes in.

Strategy instruction

Strategy instruction typically involves a four-step process that needs to happen within an actual learning and/or testing situation so that the actions carried out in the different steps are contextualised.

Step 1: raise awareness by explaining why the choice of a strategy matters and what the benefits of a chosen strategy are. You can do this by cultivating metacognitive talk in the classroom and by asking students purposeful questions about which strategy they think is most appropriate for a certain task and why; which strategies they have used before; and whether they were effective.

Step 2: model the appropriate strategy. This should include explaining what you do and why. Experts (teachers) implement these strategies unconsciously and automatically, but for novices (students) it is valuable to make them explicit and verbalise the expert’s thinking.

Step 3: practise the strategy, providing scaffolding that is then gradually withdrawn. This helps students move from guided practice to independent practice.

Step 4: encourage students to reflect on how effective the strategy was and provide feedback so they can update their metacognitive knowledge and skills.

Self-regulation and metacognition have been found to be context-dependent so transfer across subjects does not occur automatically. Ideally, strategy instruction is embedded in subject teaching across subjects and teachers. To do this, teachers may need support, training and above all time to practise and implement strategies to support students’ metacognition. Still, it is worth the effort as there is ample evidence that metacognitive skills make a distinctive contribution to learning over and above the impact of intellectual ability (Veenman et al., 2006).

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