Memorising facts isn't enough. But metacognition can change students' approach to learning


I am a big believer in using researched and proven learning strategies to improve retention of classroom material. I have applied strategies in my high school advanced placement psychology classes and have seen notable improvements in test scores, study habits and students' understanding of their learning.

Improvement in test scores is important for many reasons, and it ultimately describes an overall level of understanding. While I am thrilled to see my mean test score increase and standard deviation shrink a bit, that is not what I'm most excited about. I am far happier with the student growth in respect to their study habits and metacognition about their learning.

I instruct highly intelligent young people, but most of my students do not enter my room as great learners. They are merely great memorisers. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is much more difficult to memorise your way through university.

One learning strategy I believe to be particularly effective is retrieval practice. The idea is to attempt to retrieve information from your memory a bit after it's been presented to you (the Learning Scientists provide a great overview of the strategy here). This can take place minutes, hours, or days later, and can be in various forms: multiple-choice or matching questions, essays and so on. I have written before on the topic of retrieval practice and its impact on my classroom. Today, I want to focus on how I promote metacognition through the use of retrieval practice in my classroom.

Usually the day after a lesson, I use these steps to practice retrieval of the information:

  • Provide questions or a prompt. Since I am preparing my students for an exam in May, I usually provide exam-style questions (no more than seven or so).

  • Get students to answer using only their brains. Their habit is to either ask those around them for help or to look at their notes/the internet for assistance. Now they are forced to retrieve material and practice answering test questions, which can help to reduce test anxiety. A lot of students shy away from this step because it can be difficult and can highlights flaws in their learning, but I tell my students it's definitely better to struggle with the material now than on the test. If the test is the first time a student is presented with material in a way that utilises the use of retrieval practice, we've all failed.
  • Evaluate answers. Get students to consider how many answers they are confident with. How many are simply guesses? I want them to understand that if they just guessed and answered correctly, they still don't know the answer, they just got lucky. Sometimes I'll have my students delineate, by using a different colour pen on their paper to mark answers they are confident with and those they are not. This helps them to visualise their understanding.
  • Compare and contrast answers. Next I ask students to have a conversation with their neighbour and debate any discrepancies. At this point, if they can thoughtfully discuss their answers, they probably have a decent grasp of the information.
  • Grade papers. After grading, I want my students to think about the following questions: Does my grade reflect my knowledge? Am I happy with my grade? If no, what strategies can I utilise to successfully retain the material?

At this point, many students incorrectly believe that their understanding of material is complete, for better or worse. They think either "Oh well, I just don't know this" or "I scored well, I must know this". I attempt to impress upon my students that use of other strategies, like spaced practice and dual coding, will further aid to improve and solidify retention of the material.

If they feel the grade does reflect their knowledge, I ask students to reflect on what work they put in to remember this material. If their successful score is not due to guessing or luck, the strategies they used have worked.

This metacognition and reflection on study habits and strategies is so important. One of the goals I have for the students in my class is for these learning strategies become their norm for studying. It's not something extra, it is what they do to practice and learn. Without the reflection element of retrieval practice and other learning strategies, it is hard for high school students to examine their growth.

Walking students through these steps may seem laborious as the practice is first introduced, but I find it necessary. Attempting to convince teenagers their study habits – usually simple memorisation – will more than likely not be successful at college is quite difficult. They need to see results from their added efforts. Using these five steps, I have witnessed students' grades improve and study habits change for the better. As a teacher, I'm not sure it gets any better than that. 

This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on The Effortful Educator blog 

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