Skip to body

Testing Services

Getting Students Thinking About Thinking

April 1, 2015

One of the more frustrating things to contend with as a teacher is a student who makes the same mistakes over and over again. No amount of carefully thought-out comments in the margins of that student’s papers seem to make any difference; the extra help you offer after class doesn't help, either.

It's a sad fact: Some students just seem resistant to our teaching. But while it may be a pipe dream to think we can reach all of them, there are steps we can take to help students get over these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. One of the purposes of these columns is to offer ideas on how to overcome common challenges that pop up in undergraduate teaching. Of course there's only so much we can do. At a certain point, students have to have the skills to learn from their mistakes. That's where metacognition comes in.

Metacognition is essentially "thinking about thinking." It's the processes through which we analyze, monitor, and regulate our thinking and learning practices, with an eye to bettering those practices. There's now more than 30 years of research into the value of metacognition in the classroom, and that research has led to a whole host of conclusions. But it's fair to say that, broadly speaking, better metacognition equals better learning.

Without training, many students don't think about the best way to study for an exam, write an essay, or take notes in class. Students who do poorly on a test will, more often than not, prepare for the next test in exactly the same way as before. So it's worth thinking about ways to encourage metacognitive thinking in your students, so that the burden of teaching them how to improve throughout the semester doesn't fall solely on you.

One good strategy, generally attributed to Marsha Lovett, a teaching professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, is called "exam wrappers." It begins when students get back their first graded test of the semester, although this tactic easily could be adapted to any assignment, including an essay. Along with their graded exam, the students receive an exam wrapper -- a brief questionnaire designed to get students to review their performance. They go over their exams, and then answer the questions on the exam wrapper. The questions are all metacognitive in nature: How did you prepare for this exam? Where did you make errors on the test? What could you do differently next time?

Students fill out the questionnaire and then return it to you. That way, you can go over their answers and assess how they're doing. You might find information that helps you adjust your teaching going forward. You then return the exam wrappers to the students as they begin to prepare for the next test or assignment. The idea is that students can then think about their comments and alter their approach—if necessary—for the next exam. Exam wrappers help tests become formative teaching tools that pay off as the semester goes on.

Similarly, think about starting the semester with a questionnaire about study and learning habits. Ask students how they usually study for exams, whether they take notes by hand or on a laptop, how much (or how little) they know about the course's subject matter. At various points in the semester you can revisit the questionnaires with the class, both to review the students' previous answers and to see how those answers have changed as the course has progressed. By encouraging students to reflect upon their progress, you'll be reminding them that they are both responsible for that progress and able to alter their trajectory.

Another idea comes from Tamara Rosier, a former academic who now leads the consultancy Acorn Leadership. Called "knowledge ratings," this approach asks students to pay attention to how much or how little they know about a particular topic during class. Begin by asking students to rate their knowledge of the topic on a scale from 0 to 3, where 0 means no knowledge of the subject and 3 means very knowledgeable. Tell them that the goal is to get everyone up to a 3 before the end of that class period.

Halfway through the class period, take a timeout and ask students to reassess their knowledge ratings. Have they improved? Then ask students to write down the questions they still have about the topic. What gaps in their knowledge are keeping them from getting to a 3? If you have the time, it's a good practice to ask students to voice these questions aloud, so you can focus your teaching in the second half of the class period on what students still don't understand. Repeat the exercise at the end of class, explaining that they should aim to get themselves to a 3 before beginning that evening's homework or reading.

What exam wrappers and knowledge ratings do is force students to think about their own learning practices. The goal here is to make students' behavior visible to themselves, with an eye toward gaining better control over that behavior.

Too often, we assume that students know enough about themselves that our comments and suggestions will be enough to provoke positive change. But self-awareness and self-reflection (not to mention good study habits) are not skills all students possess. Promoting those skills in class can make our lives as teachers a lot easier. We could all benefit from a little more thinking about how to get students thinking about student thinking.

David Gooblar

David Gooblar is a lecturer in the rhetoric department at the University of Iowa. He writes about teaching for Vitae and runs the teaching website

Take the Next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.