Active Learning & Metacognition

Active Learning & Metacognition

Research indicates that students who engage actively with course content – by asking and answering questions, discussing issues and presenting ideas, applying and synthesizing their knowledge, etc. – perform better and retain their knowledge longer than those who passively listen to lectures or videos, memorize content for quizzes or exams, or simply repeat back in discussion or writing what instructors or texts say (Freeman, et al., 2014; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010).  As Chickering and Gamson (1987) put it in their classic essay on key principles in undergraduate education, "Learning is not a spectator sport. Students...must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves."

Such an approach to learning puts emphasis on students taking an active role in constructing their own knowledge, developing their own skills, and thinking at a higher order, including self-reflection on how and why they learn, that is, metacognition. By structuring courses to include more active learning and metacognition, instructors can challenge students to do the hard work of learning and support students in becoming more effective learners, thereby promoting student success.


Related Topics: Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

“To provide a working definition…in the context of the college classroom, active learning [can] be defined as anything that ‘involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.’”​

- Bonwell and Wilson, 1991​

“As we see it, active learning provides opportunities for students to talk and listen, read, write, and reflect as they approach course content through problem-solving exercises, informal small groups, simulations, case studies, role playing, and other activities – all of which require students to apply what they are learning.”​

- Meyers and Jones, 1993​

“…getting information and ideas as well as experiences and reflection….[T]his new conceptualization of active learning [is] one that makes all three modes of learning an integral part of a more complete set of learning activities.”​

- Fink, 2013 ​

According to Bonwell and Wilson (1991), active learning is anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing; in other words - application and reflection.  Meyers and Jones (1993) also cite application as a critical component of active learning. L. Dee Fink,  in his classic book Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, combines the elements of obtaining information, using the information as part of engaged experiences, and reflecting on the learning and experiences. That is, Fink suggests looking at active learning holistically as the intersection among information, experiences, and reflection. 

Chart of Finks holistic view of active learning with three connected circles representing experiences, information & ideas, and reflection

What is Metacognition?

Lin (2001) suggests that metacognition is the ability to “understand and monitor one’s own thoughts and the assumptions and implications of one’s activities." Or, as Rickey and Stacy (2000) puts it, metacognition involves "thinking about one’s thinking."  Generally, learning scientists agree that metacognition is a form of self-regulated learning, which "refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner"​ (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, 2013​).  Nilson (2013) summarizes numerous studies that indicate that students who engage in metacognitive exercises improve their exam performance, written or designed products, and problem-solving ability. Moreover, metacognition helps students improve their sense of self-efficacy and independent agency, which in turn increases their motivation to learn (Ambrose, et al. 2010).


Applying Active Learning in the Classroom

Using Fink's model above as a guide, instructors can design courses with more active learning by planning student engagement in these three areas:

  1. Information and Ideas: How are students engaging the course content? 
  2. Experiences: What are students "doing" or "observing" to bring content to life and make it "part of themselves"? 
  3. Reflecting: How are students being asked to determine, for themselves, the meaning and significance of their learning experiences? 

Active Learning Strategies to use in the Classroom 

Information and Ideas

Examples of more indirect student engagement with content include listening to lectures in class or video lectures in asynchronous courses and reading texts. To help students engage in-person or video lectures more effectively, break them into smaller “chunks” and provide opportunities for students to interact with the content, for instance short "think-pair-share" exercises, written reflections on paper or Canvas discussion board, or short quizzes in Panopto or Canvas quizzes. Also consider posting "thought questions" before a lecture or video as a way to get students thinking about an important idea, concept, or issue that you will feature.  For readings, consider providing students with guided questions they can answer as they read or ask students to submit questions they have about readings or indicate what they find most interesting or confusing. Such submissions can be used as prompts for discussion in class or on discussion boards, or as points you can address in future lectures or videos.

Examples of more direct student engagement with content include having students gather information from primary sources, generate content through work in authentic contexts (e.g. interviews or participant-observation), or participate in reflective dialogue or project work with peers. For instance, students can use to search for information on a given topic and prepare a short summary to present in class or as part of a group discussion board. Another idea suggested by Jose Bowen is to ask students to do a basic Google search for a given topic or idea, choose the first article or video on it they might find, then prepare a short overview to share in small groups in class or on Canvas. Groups can then select what they think is most accurate and least accurate about the information they've obtained and share these with the whole class. As part of the class debrief, the instructor can offer clarifications, background information, etc., and use such an exercise to reinforce the importance of having good methods for gathering accurate information, using critical thinking to assess its quality, and engaging in collective dialogue to work through information and ideas. Using this basic information retrieval exercise as a starting point, the class can then move deeper into learning and practicing more rigorous inquiry processes and methods. 


There are many ways to engage students in rich learning experiences. In both in-person classrooms and online courses, students can engage with each other in debates, role playing, simulations, group activities, case studies, etc. They can also engage with others outside the university class setting through community-engaged work, place-based or situational observations, and other projects. A variety of ideas to consider can be found in TEP's Student Engagement Techniques handout, as well as UO Online's Creating a Community of Inquiry in Online Classes resource.


As noted above, metacognition helps improve student learning. There are many ways students can reflect on their learning experiences and engagement with class content, which can as simple as asking them to think about what they found most interesting, surprising, significant or useful about an experience and also what additional questions, curiosities, or confusions they might have. Instructors can also have students reflect on how a particular learning experience may have changed their perspective and why, or have students apply what they are learning to other situations or future endeavors.  Below are more ideas for how to include metacognitive activities in a course, and additional ideas can be found in the Student Success Toolkit and in TEP's Metacognitive Teaching and Learning Activities handout. 


Using Metacognition to Boost Student Learning

Using the idea of self-regulated learning noted above - namely, that it involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating one's learning process - instructors can include metacognitive moments in their courses by aligning them to learning objectives, demonstrating how "experts" think about their thinking, and providing students with opportunities to practice constructive self-reflection.


Metacognitive Strategies to use in the Classroom

Promote metacognitive learning objectives

Consider including at least one explicit course learning objective focused on metacognition. A few samples include the following:

  • Assess the way you learn and study and make changes based on what works in theory and for you.
  • Describe your thinking process for how to choose which concepts and methods to use when considering a problem or issue.
  • Explain which social identity categories are most operative in shaping your views, assumptions, and interactions with others in given contexts.
Demonstrate metacognition as part of "expert" thinking and learning

Students tend to encounter expert thinking in its most polished, scholarly forms, such as the published peer-reviewed paper or slick textbook, the public release of a carefully produced video or presentation, or the polished lecture perfected over several years. Such texts or performances can demonstrate strong rigor and set very high standards, which are important, but they also tend to obscure the process of their production, such as the many false starts, wrong turns, changes of course, multiple revisions, frustrations or wonders, and so on.  As a result, students may not come to understand or appreciate the work involved in thinking and learning that becomes "expert" or achieves the level of rigor an instructor might expect. 

Instructors can "pull back the curtain," so to speak, and reveal the process of expert inquiry by including deliberate moments of metacognition or "thinking in action." An example of this is the "think aloud," in which an instructor models how they first encounter a new text, problem or issue - literally speaking aloud their initial impressions, the basic questions they ask themselves to get inquiry started, the immediate associations or connections they make, the preliminary speculations or hypotheses they have, and so on. Such demonstrations can be powerful "aha" moments for students and provide them with important clues for how to engage in their own inquiry and learning process. Instructors can also have students practice think alouds together in pairs or groups, creating explicit moments for simply trying out ideas or approaches with no expectation that they are "right" or must be "correct."  The whole class can debrief think aloud exercises, with the instructor and students sharing how and why they chose certain starting places or strategies, what they might do differently or more extensively next time, what they found easy or challenging, and so on.

Include explicit metacognitive learning activities

Generally speaking, metacognitive activities can be organized into three main categories: short, frequent activities; a scaffolded series or regularly repeated activity; or a "big picture," whole course reflection.

An example of a short, frequent metacognitive activity is a "wrapper," in which students engage in self-reflection prior to and after different classroom activities. For instance, before starting an assignment or taking an exam, students can be asked how well they think they can describe an important concept or solve a specific kind of problem or answer a specific kind of question and why.  After students then complete the assignment or exam, see their actual results, and receive feedback , they can be asked to the same reflection questions, albeit looking back at their actual work.  Then they can compare their prior perceptions/assumptions with their actual performance and identify what was accurate or inaccurate, what worked or didn't work, what they should do again or do differently to prepare for next time, etc. In this way, the assignment or exam (or any other kind of activity) is "wrapped" with self-reflection so that students are thinking not just about content or results but also about their learning process.

An example of a scaffolded series of metacognitive activities is a learning log, in which students, after completing an assignment or activity, take time to reflect on what they found interesting about the assignment/activity, what they found challenging, what strategies they used to complete it, and what other strategies they might choose next time.  Maintaining a log of interests, challenges, and strategies over time can help students identify effective patterns to maintain or enhance, or ineffective patterns that need changed or replaced.  Minute papers at the end of class or regular surveys are other examples of scaffolded series that regularly engage students in metacognitive work.

An example of a course-level, "big picture" metacognitive activity is a "Dear New Student Letter,"  in which students reflect on what they have learned about how to succeed in the class - including what they did that was effective or wish they had done differently - and then write this up as advice to future students in the class. An another example is a reflection essay in which students describe what they found most interesting or surprising about the class and why; what was most challenging, why, and how they addressed this challenge; and what is at least one thing they learned in the class they plan to apply or engage further in the future.  See other ideas from TEP and UO Faculty for creating powerful endings involving reflection

Additional examples of metacognitive, reflective activities can be found in the Student Success Toolkit and in TEP's Metacognitive Teaching and Learning Activities handout.