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Employing Metacognition (Thinking about Your Own Learning) as a Learning Tool

Instance Description

Metacognition (thinking about your own learning) is a self-regulated behavior that students can use to gain control over their own learning. Self-regulated behaviors, like managing time effectively or asking for help, begin with monitoring, which helps us reflect upon or evaluate the information we’re trying to learn (I’m getting the answers wrong. Am I making simple mistakes, or don’t I understand the concept?). Next comes control, or our ability to modify our behavior based on information we’ve acquired (If I don’t understand the concept, I can ask some clarifying questions, and I can identify some strategies for studying more effectively). Working with metacognition and gaining control can help motivate students to learn.

Instructors can help students by offering metacognitive activities and by partnering with students to consider their work and their learning. Metacognitive activities can take different forms, depending on the subject matter and class format, but the basic idea is to help students focus attention on the factors that have influenced their performance on a task (confusion, misunderstandings) and to address any issues that have been revealed (like pre-task overconfidence). The goal is to help students move forward successfully.

See it in Practice

Muddiest pt exit slip: I'm struggling with the relationship between the radius & coordination number.
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Instructors looking for a simple, no-stakes way to help students evaluate their understanding of material will find value in the Muddiest Point activity. This activity offers students an opportunity to think about their own learning (employ metacognition) in order to identify which aspects of the course information are confusing or unclear to them. This can be achieved by allowing students to write down lesson concepts or points that they find confusing or unclear. By engaging students in this type of anonymous feedback loop, you offer them the ability to enhance and deepen their learning, thereby increasing their satisfaction with the course. You may also find indications that some of your instructions may be confusing.

To implement this activity, follow these steps:

  1. Select the modality you wish to use to implement the activity.
    • Notecards (best for in-person courses)
    • Online tools such as a Google Jamboard or Canvas survey (best for online courses)
  2. Distribute the notecards or a Jamboard or survey link at the beginning of class.
  3. Offer 2-5 minutes at the end of class to allow students to reflect on what they have learned and to identify points of confusion or unclarity.
  4. Spend some time reviewing the students’ muddiest points prior to the next class to effectively prepare concise, yet detailed explanations of the material.
  5. At the beginning of the next class, take a few minutes to address the points raised by the students and to clarify or re-teach, briefly.

Some additional benefits to using this activity include giving students a sense of agency and making them feel recognized by the instructor.  It can also be a valuable tool for modifying instructor lectures to align with student needs more effectively.  


3 things you learned, 2 things you found interesting, 1 questions
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

The 3-2-1 method is a student-centered formative assessment activity that can be used to gauge student understanding of course material and determine where students might need additional support. Students are asked to consider a lesson, video, lab, etc., and respond by describing three things they learned, two things they found especially interesting, and one question they still have. This method provides students with structure to reflect on their own learning and it encourages critical thinking. Student responses help instructors determine what material may need to be reviewed and where students are feeling engaged. The results can be valuable for instructors to consider when modifying their lesson material for future classes. This strategy can also be used at the start of class to reflect on what was learned in a previous lesson or at the end of a class to consider what was learned that day.


  • It can be helpful to share the questions students have with the entire class and review the answers with everyone.
  • The 3-2-1 activity can also be used as a pre-assessment tool. Ask students to name three things they already know about the topic, two things they find most interesting about the topic, and one question they want to have answered about the topic.
  • This can be used in both face-to-face and online learning.
  • Consider making this a low-stakes activity to encourage participation.


pencil drawing on the brain with gears inside
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Credit: © Olga Rai /

Assignment wrappers are communication tools that facilitate partnering with students to analyze their work and their learning. The use of assignment wrappers can help students improve on future assignments and let students know that you are available to help them succeed.

The following example shows a wrapper for a writing assignment and includes four essential elements: rationale, reflection, comparison, and adjustment. A rationale gives the reasoning behind the use of the wrapper, the reflection section helps students engage with the way they tackled the work for the assignment, the comparison section guides students as they consider what they've done well and what areas need improvement, and the adjustment portion helps them consider tweaking their studying and learning process and signals your willingness to help.



This activity will help you evaluate your preparation and performance for this assignment and help you adjust your future practices. The goal is to help you improve the quality of your writing. Your responses will have no effect on your grade and are solely to help you improve. Being totally honest with yourself is an essential part of self-examination.

Reflection: How did you tackle this assignment?

This includes consideration of time management and the percentage of time you spent on the following:

  • ____ PREPARING: reading and note-taking on the class materials and researching/finding supporting articles and taking notes on them.
  • ____ THINKING: putting the assignment into your own words, consulting the grading rubric, thinking, brainstorming, conceptualizing, and sharing ideas with others (Thinking includes understanding the issue(s), thinking about supporting your position, and figuring out how to connect to your audience).
  • ____ WRITING: writing an admittedly bad first draft and letting it sit around for at least a day.
  • ____ EDITING: revisiting the first draft and editing it for clarity /making sure support is in place for your arguments/getting your citations right/working with our writing tutor.
  • ____ FINALIZING: preparing for submission: final read-through, tweaking - formatting, proofreading, etc..


Now that you've looked over my feedback and the rubric and have considered the way you tackled the assignment, consider this question: What kinds of mistakes did you make?


What will you do differently next time? Naming three specific things is a good goal. Do you have the information necessary to meet the goals you've set? What else do you need? What can I do to help you?


directions for using an exam for learning. Described in text
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Students first take the exam independently, and then, during the same class period and before seeing their results, they get into groups of 4 to 5, discuss the exam problems, and retake the same exam as a group. Each student chooses whether or not to complete and submit a second exam. Students have the option of simply accepting their original, independent exam score only, if they wish. For students choosing to submit a second time, the exam attempts are weighted so that the first attempt is worth 70% of the total and the second attempt is worth 30% of the total.

This activity provides some agency on the part of students and fosters collaboration as well as cohesion of the classroom community. The activity also helps students look to each other for answers instead of relying solely on the instructor and may replace classroom time during which instructors must review misunderstood concepts for the benefit of just a few students. This method has been shown to increase median exam scores. 


This activity can be executed via Zoom, if necessary, with the use of breakout rooms for student discussions.


In GEOG 438W: Human Dimensions of Global Warming, rubrics are used not only to evaluate student work but are employed as a tool for fostering a feedback cycle focused on reflection and inquiry. In addition to a draft of their paper, students are asked to submit a marked copy of the assignment rubric, which is casual in tone and student-centered, to show how they think they’ve done with their writing. The instructor then marks the rubric as well, and a conversation follows, as the completed rubric provides a good picture of the differences between student and instructor evaluations. According to Wherley & Robinson (2020), This activity offers “…the potential to increase feelings of student agency and motivation, and enhances the quality of learning in this course. Furthermore, students’ practice with these self-reflective and metacognitive skills will serve them in future work in and outside of the classroom.” Rubrics for GEOG 438W were made in Microsoft Word.

The following rubric was used by a student to self-assess his/her work on Essay 1 and was turned in along with Essay 1. Instructor use of the rubric was done during grading, and instructor comments, below the rubric, were provided at that time as well.

Student: Please highlight the statement in each row which best describes your assessment of your work. The instructor will color the box in each row which best describes the instructor’s assessment of your work.

Criteria Exceptional Very Good Adequate Inadequate Incomplete/ Incorrect
Answers all facets of the question thoroughly. Yes! I think I answered this question correctly and thoroughly! I feel like I've covered most of the facets of the question but maybe I left out some minor details. I've answered the question with some detail, but maybe it's not enough? I don't think I answered the question thoroughly enough. Maybe I just didn't know the answer well enough or maybe I went off on a tangent. I think I missed the boat on this one. I'm not sure I answered this question correctly or completely.
Demonstrates genuine understanding of the human dimensions of climate change in the conext of the question and relates the physical sciences to the human causes, impacrts, and/or responses as appropriate. I feel confident in how I was able to talk to the human dimensions of the issues in this question. I'm connecting the dots! I made some good connections between the human dimensions and the physical science based on the question, but I think I probably missed some minor details along the way. I connected the human dimensions to the physical science, but I'm not sure I've done it quite as thoroughly as I could have. I struggled to connect the human dimensions to the physical science, I need to think more about how to connect these dots for next time. I don't know that I've made any compelling connections between human dimensions and the physical sciences.
Supports answers effectively and appropriately with contemporary scholarly and relevant evidence. Integrates cited material into student's own writing effectively and eloquently I have wowed the instructor with data and evidence! I've justified my position solidly with credible evidence. I'm feeling pretty good about my evidence supporting my position, but there might be a few spots that could use a bit more support. I've supported statements throughout, but I'm not sure this is enough to be a strongly supported position on this issue. I need to work on this for next time. I don't really know how/when/where to integrate support. I haven't supported my answers with evidence from outside sources at all, I've just made my statements and let them stand on their own.
Composes well-structured and organized writing that demonstrates careful editorial review and exhibits organized paragraphs, appropriate grammar, and good writing style. Submission is written in appropriate style and format for intended audience as assigned. Wow! I wrote this? I'm a better writer than I imagined! I think this is well-written and it turns out proofreading really does help!? This is really good! I'm proud of this and know that if I had a bit more time, I could tweak it to be even better. Not bad. I'm pretty proud of this writing, but I think I've got a lot to learn still about organizing my thoughts and conveying them clearly. Well…I tried. But the things that made sense in my head didn't come out as clearly as I hoped when I tried to write the essay. This is not a shining example of the writing I know I can do. Whether I faltered on time management or just struggle to write, I know that I need to work harder for next time to get my writing in shape.
Implements all formatting requirements correctly and includes an edited draft with the final essay submission. Nailed it! I feel confident I got the formatting right. I think I've gotten most of the formatting correct, but there were a few things I wasn't sure about. I've attempted to get the formatting right, but I don't think it's quite what it needs to be. I need to work harder on formatting for the next exam. I haven't gotten many of the requirements correct. Formatting requirements? Uh-oh.


Hi [Student],

Please consider the comments provided here in conjunction with the rubric above and my edited markup of your Essay 1 submission.

I'd like to highlight some things you've done really well (glow!) and some things to work on for next time (grow!).

Glow: You have done very well organizing your thoughts and thoroughly answering the question, and with some minor tweaking of your intro and conclusion, you'll be in excellent shape in this department (see my edited markup of your essay). Overall, the writing itself is clear, and I can see that you've edited for grammatical and other issues – good work!

Grow: Please spend some time reviewing the formatting requirements for assignments in this course – losing points in this area is preventable. The biggest issue by far to work on is that this response doesn't use any supporting evidence to justify the claims you're making about economic growth, population growth, and personal vehicle use patterns in the US and Italy. Many of your statements were super general, and I can’t see that they were researched much at all. There are no numbers to support economic indicators of vehicle ownership, and neither of these countries is growing rapidly enough population-wise to support the connection you're trying to make there. I'm concerned about this aspect in particular because it's really important to substantiate your position with evidence to make it compelling, and I see on our rubric here that this is something you felt like you had done really well with for this essay. Please review our writing workshop page on supporting statements with evidence and let me know if you have additional questions.



This activity can be used online or in resident or hybrid courses and can be added to an LMS such as Canvas or Blackboard. The tables must be accessible with a proper caption and headings.


notecard with random journal prompts on it.
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Also known as reflective writing, journaling can serve as a valuable metacognitive practice to help students think about their own learning. Journaling reflectively as a metacognitive activity is a form of monitoring, where students write to focus attention on their experiences with class activities or assessments. This type of journaling can be a regularly occurring assignment or used as an infrequent check-in during the semester. The point is to give students opportunities to think about their own learning, to consider the feedback they’ve acquired, and to plan for how to modify their learning behaviors for success. Additionally, metacognitive writing can simply provide students with space to think about the ways their thinking has evolved with exposure to course material or to write about how they will approach future activities and experiences. Instructor feedback, and/or a follow-up discussion with students can enhance the metacognitive process and help students gain control of their learning. The following prompts offer some ideas:    

  1. What study strategies did I implement and how effective were they? Is there anything I could change? Where might I find help with this? 
  2. How did my strengths help me complete this exercise? What did I do that worked particularly well? 
  3. For answers that I got wrong, did I make simple mistakes, or do I not really understand the concept? What can I do to work on concepts I’m unclear about?  
  4. What did I bring to the group assignment? What did I learn from others in my group? How can I use this information to improve the work I do with groups in the future?  
  5. How has my thinking about [a subject] changed after the assigned reading? Or how hasn’t it changed? 
  6. Consider the instructions for the [x] assignment. Be honest about how you met them or didn’t meet them, and write about the things you did well and the mistakes you made. How will this help you tackle the next assignment?  
  7. Use the feedback you received on the assessment to determine you highest priorities for studying for the next assessment. Discuss some strategies that you’ll try next time.  


  • Clearly articulate the goals and parameters of the reflective writing process/assignment.  
  • Offer participation grades for metacognitive assignments.  


line drawing of a brain with a lightbulb in it
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Credit: © Olga Rai /

Use a simple form with low-stakes assessments to help students analyze their results and think about how to improve their study plans. The kind of form pictured below (based on one developed by C. Book at Lubbock Christian University and best used with assessment questions that align with lesson objectives) can be used along with a short assessment and then again after the correct answers have been revealed. First, students mark the form as they are taking the assessment to show whether they are confident or unsure of each of their answers. Later, when answers have been revealed, students can consider their choices for each question, discover how they’ve done, and mark the form to indicate whether each mistake was simple or indicative of a larger problem. Following up with students to review appropriate study strategies and to offer clarification and assistance is essential.

  1. As you work on the assessment activity, mark each question as "confident" or "unsure" depending on how you felt about your answer.
  2. After the answers have been revealed, indicate which questions you got right and wrong.
  3. For answers you got wrong, consider if you made a simple mistake or if you really don't get it.
  4. Determine your strengths, highest priorities for studying and review, and where you need help.
  5. Document how you prepared for this exam.
  6. Set some learning goals and determine what study strategies might help you meet those goals. Ask for help!
Assessment Analysis table
Problem # Confident Unsure   Right Wrong Simple Mistake Don't get it
1     -        
2     -        
3     -        
4     -        
5     -        


One Minute Paper with questions. The questions are included in the text of the page..
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

The one-minute paper is an assessment strategy that can be used to evaluate what students have learned and what they are struggling with. Students are asked two to three questions about a lecture, video, lab, field trip, discussion, or any other activity, and are given one minute to write their response. The questions should encourage students to consider what was most significant, surprising, important, disturbing, or useful, and what was unclear or difficult to understand. This can be done at the start of class to reflect on what was learned in the previous class or at the end of class to consider what was learned that day.

The instructor should read the minute papers to evaluate student progress and identify any gaps in learning and understanding. Information gathered can be used to identify areas that need clarification or review. This activity will also highlight areas the instructor should consider covering more thoroughly in future class periods.

This activity can be done with pencil and paper, or it can be done using technology such as discussion boards, surveys, or low-stakes quizzes in your LMS, etc. One-minute papers can be used in online and face-to-face classes.



  • Bowen, J. (2013, August 22). Cognitive wrappers: Using metacognition and reflection to improve learning. José Antonio Bowen: Educator, Musician, Scholar, Consultant.
  • Lang, J. (2012). Metacognition and student learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from
  • Rhodes, M. G. (2019). Metacognition. Teaching of Psychology, 46(2), 168-175.