Teaching Students How to Learn: Metacognition is the Key

Pete Watkins, Associate Director, TLC

As I listened to Dr. Saundra McGuire’s keynote presentation on metacognition at Temple’s 15th Annual Faculty Conference on Teaching Excellence, a troubling thought occurred to me.  I made it through two decades of schooling as well as nearly a decade of teaching at the college level without ever hearing the word metacognition.  No one ever taught me to read actively or to monitor my own thinking.  Why do we keep this stuff a secret?  Teachers and students need to know “how to learn”.  Fortunately, McGuire has made it her “revolutionary mission to make all students expert learners.”

What is metacognition and why should I care about it?

In McGuire’s keynote address she explained, metacognition is the ability to:

  • think about your own thinking
  • be consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver
  • monitor, plan, and control your mental processing (e.g. “Am I understanding this material, or just memorizing it?”)
  • accurately judge your level of learning
  • know what you know and what you don’t know

McGuire points out that many of us who are college professors probably learned good metacognitive skills on our own.  But we should not assume that our students know how to learn.  

Active reading is a good example of a metacognitive strategy that we can teach our students.  We presume that college students can read. However, McGuire points out that active reading using strategies such as SQ5R is different from the way that most college students read and we should invest the time to teach students to read actively.   

McGuire also believes in teaching students about Bloom’s Taxonomy.  As a faculty developer, I have introduced Bloom’s Taxonomy to many teachers, but it never occurred to me to introduce it to students.  McGuire asserts that when students learn about Bloom’s Taxonomy “they begin to have learning goals instead of GPA goals.

McGuire is the former director of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University.  Her Center taught students a five-step Study Cycle that empowers them to be good learners.  The five steps are:

  1. Preview-before class skim new materials and note the big ideas
  2. Attend class-take notes and ask questions
  3. Review-after class, review notes and write down questions or gaps
  4. Study-schedule study sessions several times per week and use active strategies
  5. Assess/Check-Is my strategy working?  Do I understand the material? 

McGuire challenged us all as teachers to better serve our students while also acknowledging that students share responsibility for their learning.  And she delivered her message with her characteristic wit and warmth, which was greatly appreciated on a day when the temperature outside was in the teens.  Her book Teach Students How to Learn is a must read for people who teach college and want to empower their students to be good learners.  


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What strategies have you found effective in teaching students how to learn?

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