Getting Students to Think About Their Thinking

headThinking about thinking. It’s not a new concept and can be linked to higher order thinking in which a person takes “active control over the cognitive processes engaged in [their] learning” (Livingston, 1997, para. 1). The process of thinking about one’s own thinking is often called metacognition, although by definition, metacognition is “cognition about cognition.”


The historical roots of metacognition first took hold in the 1970s—the concept was introduced by developmental psychologist John Flavell, whose “work focused on children’s metamemory” (Baker, 2013, para. 3). Flavell’s definition of metacognition comprised both knowledge and control of ones cognition, in which knowledge is what a person knows about how they know and perceive information: Knowing how one learns best, what the person is supposed to do, and the best ways the person can accomplish a task (Baker, 2013). The control component considers how the person understands the process of knowing: The actual plans and strategies used to make progress in learning something. The process can include a using a specific method to learn a task, evaluating the progress made, and making changes to accomplish a task if necessary (Baker, 2013).

At the Spring 2013 Teaching Effectiveness Institute, Get Students to Focus on Learning Instead of Grades: Teach Them How to Learn, Dr. Saundra McGuire (Louisiana State University), offered ways to incorporate metacognitive strategies in the classroom. Dr. McGuire suggested that students who take an active part in thinking about their thinking, and analyze what they are doing, are better able to comprehend information which can lead to better grades. McGuire contends that metacognition is “the ability to think about one’s own thinking, be consciously aware of oneself as a problem solver, monitor, plan, and control one’s mental processing (e.g., “Am I understanding this material or just memorizing it?”), and accurately judge one’s level of learning” (McGuire, 2013 citing Flavell).

McGuire stresses the importance of helping students who may be struggling “to make the grade” through individual learning consultations. During these meetings, McGuire suggests a series of steps in which you can motivate students to improve their academic performance. First, build a relationship with students by making them feel comfortable – helping them realize that they can be successful. Creating hope – show how previous students’ low scores have been improved when they use learning strategies. In building confidence, have the student work on an activity that demonstrates how failing one part of the exercise can be turned into A or B level performance just by having them use one learning strategy. Guiding analytic reflection is where you ask the student to distinguish the difference between studying and learning, where they often reveal that they have been in study mode instead of learn mode. Introducing new ideas such as metacognition and Bloom’s Taxonomy helps students connect what they know to strategies they can actually use and succeed. At the end of the consultation, you can build motivation to change by reviewing the usefulness of the strategies and encouraging students to actually use them to succeed.


Below are strategies you can implement in your teaching that can make an immediate impact on students’ learning to help them think about their thinking:

  • Establish a nurturing and engaging classroom environment where students are more likely to feel emotionally secure and confident that they can succeed
  • Create a community of scholars where students are accountable to each other (everyone must participate or there will be a quiz next class session; implement group quizzes)
  • Assign classwork and homework that require higher order thinking skills (refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy)
  • Provide students opportunities to teach course content (these “mini lectures” will allow students to prepare and check their understanding of the content)
  • Assess students’ learning frequently (formatively, throughout the semester through quizzes, questions, observations, discussions)
  • Provide frequent feedback to students (use rubrics; include substantive written comments on papers, projects, exams; make affirming in-class comments about student input, achievement, etc.)
  • Create learning goals for your students (to help them become better learners and keep them on task)
  • Show students how to use concept maps and graphic note taking strategies for textbook readings and class notes
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to reflect on what is being taught (think-pair-share, journals, classroom discussions, questioning)
  • Teach students concrete learning strategies (demonstrate strategies in class and provide resources such as SQ5R, Study Cycle, Intense Study Sessions for access outside of class)
  • Use Skip Downing strategies, which are innovative ways to help students achieve greater academic success and retention

You can share the following strategies with your students to help them think about their own thinking (helping them learn and positively impact their grades).

  • Establish a set of personal learning goals (How do you learn?, How do you take tests?, etc.)
  • Create a self report card (self report cards allow students to think about their own progress in class)
  • Focus on the whys instead of the whats
  • Look at relationships between concepts and ideas
  • Think of analogies in your lives that relate to the new information being presented and how you are using it
  • Analyze and write down what specific learning strategies you will use between learning new information and taking a test of that information (SQ5R, Study Cycle)
  • Analyze what questions you missed on the first test and determine why you missed those questions
  • Solve problems without first looking at examples or solutions (this will help you think critically and creatively)
  • Use concept maps, notetakers, and other visual note taking devices to outline textbook readings and lecture notes (these devices can assist you in learning how to learn, helps with review, helps improve higher order thinking skills – refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy)
  • Ask students the following question: “If you were asked to teach this class, what kinds of strategies would you use to help you learn new information?”

To introduce students to the importance of thinking about their thinking, McGuire suggests a Metacognitive Get Acquainted Activity by Simpson and Rush (2012) that can be quickly implemented in class. If conducted early in the semester, the results can also serve as formative feedback. This feedback can serve a number of purposes: first, that you value students’ opinions; second, to help students focus on what they know and what they can do; and third, that you can adjust course content to meet students’ needs before the semester ends. Here are the three open-ended questions:

  1. What do you believe is important to understand and learn in [insert your discipline here]?
  2. What do you believe to be critical characteristics of successful students in [insert your discipline here]?
  3. How will you study and prepare for exams in [insert your discipline here]?
    Simpson & Rush (2012, p. 268)

Developing a mindset that can help you motivate and encourage your students to think about their own thinking takes time and effort. Saundra McGuire (2013) recommends, therefore, the following points as you search new ways that can help make you a better educator:

  • Embrace challenges rather than avoiding them.
  • Persist when presented with obstacles rather than giving up easily.
  • Take the path to mastering tasks that require effort rather than considering them fruitless.
  • Learn from criticism rather than ignoring it.
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others rather than feeling threatened by them.


“We can significantly increase student’s ability to learn by teaching them the learning process and provide specific strategies; avoid judging student performance on initial performance; encourage students to persist in the face of initial failure; and encourage students to use metacognitive tools to help them succeed” (McGuire, 2013). Implementing metacognitive strategies in the classroom will help students transition from being passive to actively engaged learners who can impact their own learning both in and out of classroom.

Saundra McGuire recommended a number of books that you can use to help your students understand their own learning, all of which are available online.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School by Bransford & Brown (2000)

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dweck (2006)

Teaching Strategies in Developmental Education: Readings on Theories, Research, and Best Practice by Hodges, Simpson, & Stahl (2012)

The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by Shenk (2010)


Baker, L. (2013). Metacognition. Retrieved from

Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231-236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved from

Simpson, M., & Rush, L. (2012). College students’ beliefs, strategy employment, transfer, and academic performance: An examination across three academic disciplines. In R. Hodges, M. L. Simpson, & N. A. Stahl (Eds.), Teaching study strategies in developmental education (pp. 265-275). New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Professional Resources.

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