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Learning Strategies

Why Reflect? Effective Learning through Metacognition and Self-Regulation

March 22, 2021
Dominique Vargas

Teaching metacognition and self-regulation through structured reflection can help students become better learners as they navigate the crucial weeks leading up to the end of the semester. 

Much has been said about cultivating a growth mindset, particularly in times of stress or anxiety, but this paradigm really goes hand in hand with metacognition and self-regulation as pedagogical practices that can help students change the way they learn. In educational development, metacognition refers to the practice of intentionally focusing attention on the act of learning and self-regulation is defined as the ability to control one’s body and self, to manage one’s emotions, and to maintain focus and attention on the activities at hand. Together, they are modes of leveraging student motivation. A student who can effectively self-monitor, evaluate their progress, and change behaviors to achieve a desired outcome is more likely to be resilient and successful in your course. 

However, it is important to remember that a growth mindset must be cultivated and student motivation may ebb and flow throughout the semester. We can help students stay motivated and become better learners by emphasizing metacognition.

Developing metacognition can increase student motivation and create a sense of belonging in the classroom community. If we explicitly teach metacognition through structured reflection, we can increase the effectiveness of learning activities and encourage students to incorporate feedback and grades from midterms in order to harness intrinsic motivation. This may also help disrupt harmful study behaviors (like cramming) and replace them with more effective and distributed practices. 

Self-evaluation after exams and large projects promotes students’ critical thinking about how they approached a task, what worked and what didn’t and why, how they might approach the task differently in the future, and how this particular task fits into the larger course goals. Research on student self-assessment suggests that self-assessment is most beneficial, in terms of both achievement and self-regulated learning, when it is used formatively. 

Exam reflections and narrative self-evaluations are two strategies that may help students develop the skills of metacognition and self regulation. These are also a great way to provide low-stakes grades and promote effective learning strategies. Remember that it is important to design these activities with transparency. Students should know why they are being asked to do reflection activities, they should be taught how to use the activities, and they should be prompted to set goals and make concrete plans to reach those goals. 

Exam Reflections 

All too often when students receive the graded exam, they focus only on the score. Guided reflections can help them to make sense of the grade, plan, monitor and evaluate their progress, and adjust learning strategies–make sure to share these benefits with students. 

When implementing exam reflections, consider providing a guided reflection sheet that asks students to: 

  • Identify areas of individual strengths and areas for improvement
  • Reflect on the adequacy of their preparation time their study strategies
  • Characterize the nature of their errors and look for patterns 
  • Set goals for implementation of feedback
  • Name at least one way the instructor can provide support to reach these goals

Narrative self-evaluation

This kind of reflection allows students to make personal connections between learning, course goals, and the wider context of their field of study. The purpose of these reflections is to improve learning through goal setting, self-regulation, making organic connections between experiences, identifying interests, and planning. 

When implementing narrative evaluations/reflections remember to share the purpose of the assignment and give specific instructions. For example: 

  • Contextualize your reflection: What are your learning goals? What are the objectives of the course? How do these goals fit in with the concepts taught in the course so far? 
  • Provide important information: What do you think you have done well so far? Can you identify a particular area/concept of understanding that you would like to improve? 
  • Analytical reflection: What did you learn in this assignment/unit? How do you contextualize this within the course and/or your field of study? 
  • Lessons from reflection: How did this assignment/unit fit with the goals and concepts of the course? What are your lessons for the future? How will you achieve your goals for the course? Name at least one way the instructor can provide support to reach these goals.

Self-reflection is not reporting what a student has done; rather, we are helping them to make meaning of their learning. Even if a student is a reflective, conscientious learner, everyone needs to learn how to effectively use that reflection. These exercises can help students to make sense of the course in the larger context of their educational journey. 

Other sample self-reflection activities: 

  • Exam Wrappers 
  • Create a quiz based on Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Illustrate learning with mind maps, concept maps, or other visuals and explain it in writing or orally to the instructor

What to Do After the Test – Notre Dame Learning | The Kaneb Center
Exam Review Self-Reflection – The Learning Center University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Student Self-Evaluations – Center for Teaching and Learning Hampshire College
Teaching Tips – 2018-2019 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium
How to Write a Reflection Paper – Trent University 
Kaplan, Silver, LaVague-Manty, & Meizlish – Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (2013)
McGuire & McGuire – Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (2015)