How can I help students become more expert learners, so they engage in active learning?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised July 5, 2017
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

Chapter 2: Metacognition and Mastery. This expert recommendation is part of a series on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms.

Students may approach coursework from a fairly mechanistic stance: If the instructor gives me information, I will memorize it, and get a good grade. This approach to learning doesn’t lend itself well to an active classroom, which requires students to wrestle with difficult ideas in order to lead to deeper conceptual learning. This chapter focuses on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms by teaching students reflect on their learning and develop productive mindsets towards learning.

The goals of this project is to identify and disseminate strategies that instructors use to engage students in active learning classrooms. This project arose from the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University). Many thanks to University of Colorado reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman. This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contact Stephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

Click here to access the entire set of Expert Recommendations on productive student engagement. You may also download a zip file of all recommendations and activities (26 MB), a PDF of these articles, and a PDF summary of our recommended strategies.

How do attitudes towards learning affect student engagement?

Students’ approaches to learning, and their ability to reflect on their learning, can affect both (1) their willingness to engage in active learning, and (2) their ability to be successful (e.g., learn effectively and get a good grade) in active learning classrooms (Ertmer and Newby, 1996). Thus, students’ ability to think about their own learning (called “metacognition”) is critical to the success of an active learning classroom. Let’s spend a little time unpacking why this is the case. 

Student beliefs about learning affect their approach to coursework.

Students have ideas and beliefs about what it means to learn a subject (“epistemology”), which can help or hinder their learning. A student who believes that she learns best by listening to a clear explanation may not readily engage in active learning strategies, thinking that this time is wasted and inefficient (Yadav, Lundeberg, Subedi and Bunting, 2001; Lake 2001). Similarly, a student who believes that physics is a collection of facts and equations (rather than a coherent set of concepts) may tune out during a conceptual question, not realizing that the point is to help him better understand the meaning behind equations. Some instructors explicitly embed epistemological discussions into their courses (see for example Brewe et al., 2009 and Redish and Hammer, 2009), such as discussing the assumptions that go into creating a physical model, seeking coherence in physical ideas, and how these ideas form the foundation of science. A clear focus on epistemology may help students develop productive attitudes towards learning (Brewe et al., 2013; Ding and Mollohan, 2015): Indeed, one of the few types of interactive instruction to result in positive shifts in attitudes towards learning physics (Modeling; Brewe et al., 2009) has a clear focus on epistemology.

Students with a goal of content “mastery” are more likely to engage and persist.

Students’ goals for learning content affect their engagement (their “goal orientation”). Are students trying deeply understand the material (“mastery” orientation)? Or are they focused only on getting a good grade in the class (“performance” orientation)? Those with a performance orientation are more likely to focus on getting the right answers and earning a grade, defer to the instructor’s authority, turn away from challenges and effort, and are less likely to engage in alternative instruction. Those with a mastery orientation are more open to challenges, tend to see learning as a process, see effort as necessary for learning, value the shared expertise in the room, and persist in the face of setbacks (Ertmer, Newby and MacDougal, 1996; Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, 2013; Dweck 2007; Good, Rattan and Dweck, 2012; Anderman and Dawson, 2010; Dweck and Leggett, 1988; Ames 1992; Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck, 2007). See below for an outline of the difference between mastery and performance goal orientations (which is closely related to “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets towards learning; see Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, 2013). Note that teams (not just individual students) can also show mastery or performance goal orientations (Linder et al., 2010)!

Students (or teams) with mastery vs. performance goals

(adapted from Moreno, 2009)

Students with performance goals….

Students with mastery goals….

See intelligence as innate (“fixed”)

See intelligence as malleable (“growth”)

Avoid challenges

Seek out challenges

Are motivated by easy tasks

Are unmotivated by easy tasks

Are more extrinsically motivated

Are more intrinsically motivated

Seek flattering feedback on their performance

Seek feedback on their learning

Attribute success and failure to ability

Attribute success and failure to effort

Are less likely to regulate their learning

Are more likely to regulate their learning

See errors as a sign of failure

See errors as an opportunity to learn

Are satisfied if they get a good grade or outcompete other students

Are satisfied if they try hard and make progress

Goal orientation is particularly important for underrepresented students.

For example, women in the natural sciences often feel they are putting in more effort than the men in the course, and that they lack natural talent for the subject and thus do not belong in the discipline (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, 2013). Black students, stereotypically, have not been well represented in the sciences, and so often encounter “stereotype threat” – the expectation that they will not do well due to their race. In both of these situations, focusing on the more productive “growth” mindset towards learning (e.g., that effort is a normal part of learning) has been shown to mitigate stereotype threat and increase a sense of belonging (Aronson et al., 2002; Good et al., 2003; Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, 2013).

Students learn better when they are able to monitor and plan their own learning.

“Self-regulation”, or the ability to monitor and plan your own learning, and adjust accordingly, is a key ingredient in learning (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000; Moreno, 2009). For example, a student might review questions to self-evaluate their progress; if he does not do well, then he goes back and reviews again (Moreno, 2009). Students with high levels of self-regulation have been found to maintain positive responses to interactive class techniques over time, but those with lower self-regulation lose their motivation and confidence by the end of the semester as pressures from other courses mounted (Ertmer, Newby and MacDougal, 1996). You might enhance students’ ability to self-regulate by providing many opportunities for them to reflect on their own learning (“metacognition”) – such as writing down what they are confused about after a lecture -- so that they can see whether they are mastering the material or not.

Instructors can affect student ideas about learning.

Luckily, students’ goals for learning are very malleable and context-dependent, which means that you can influence how students frame their goals for your course (Pintrich, 2003). First, you might want to reflect, what are your own ideas about learning? Your own implicit ideas can have a big impact on how you teach (Good, Rattan and Dweck, 2012). Do you implicitly have performance goals for your students – and yourself -- and a "fixed" mindset about intelligence? Think about the messages that you send students. Do you show your students that you want to be corrected during class, that you own up to your own errors, and learn from them? Or do you present yourself as a flawless lecturer who cannot be questioned? Do you praise students for their effort, or their grades? Consider intentionally framing your classroom for mastery: You can emphasize that learning science takes effort and that anyone can improve if they work hard (Dweck 2007; Good, Rattan and Dweck 2012; Anderman and Dawson, 2010). You can create opportunities for students to reflect on the process of their own learning so they become more self-directed learning (Elby 2001; Redish and Hammer, 2009; Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000). Helping students reflect on their own learning, or “think about thinking” is termed “metacognition.” Metacognition is a learned skill that is unfortunately not directly addressed in many college courses.

Strategies for helping students become more expert learners

Below we provide strategies for promoting student metacognition, productive ideas about learning science, and effective goals for learning. By using a few of these strategies, you can make ample progress towards helping students understand and experience the benefit of active learning. Many of these strategies will be most effective if used heavily in the first month of the course, particularly within assessments. For example, you might assess students’ beliefs about learning early in the semester and then embed reflection questions into homework and clicker questions throughout the semester. After the first exam, provide them with an opportunity to reflect on their performance with an Exam Self-Reflection and discuss Bloom’s Taxonomy. Pull out a few of these strategies throughout the semester, especially as students become stressed and fatigued later in the semester and may revert to old habits.

Help students think about their approach to learning

One way to help students reflect upon and realize the benefit of active learning is to help students think about their own ideas about teaching and learning, and how your teaching approaches align with those internal beliefs. Students benefit from reflecting on their personal learning strategies, empowering them to make adjustments for the future. This can be done by modeling reflective behavior, and then prompting students to engage in it. This cognitive support can be directly written into activities and gradually "faded out" as students become habituated to this approach. In a one-semester course, however, routine practice may be needed during the entire course to start seeing shifts in their ability to reflect on their learning. Below are some example approaches.

There are several validated assessments about student beliefs about learning (such as the Chemistry Self-Concept Inventory or the Maryland Physics Expectations Survey). You might give one of these assessments early in the course for participation-only credit (e.g., on the first homework), and ask students to reflect on their responses. Giving the same assessment again at the end of the course will let you assess if the course had any impact. For example, ask students to reflect on the first day of class, and again after the first exam, “What is the most effective study strategy? The least effective?”

In order for students to effectively reflect on their learning, they need to know what it is they’re supposed to learn and the best ways to learn it. Set clear learning goals for student work and communicate them. Describe the rationale for the activities you’re assigning (see our Slides explaining active learning (PPT), or clicker questions-how people learn (PPT)).

During whole-class activities, and small group work, you can model self-reflection by thinking out loud through problem solving. Take time to discuss the rationale behind a problem solution, instead of just giving the answer, including why other answers or strategies are not correct. Prompt students to think about their own thinking. You can help groups identify where they are stuck, and help students formulate their questions about the material (rather than explaining answers; Moreno, 2009). For example, ask students some questions in the first or last few minutes of class, such as “Write down anything you already know about _____,” or “One of the things that I would like to learn more about is ____,” or “What is one thing you are struggling with most in this content?” You can do this as a one-minute paper which is collected by the instructor. In larger classes, you might send students a link to an online form which they can even complete during class on their phones or computers, allowing easier sorting of responses. You can also use one-minute papers for students to reflect on the group process after a group activity.

Ask students to reflect on their progress on exams or homework, or complete a short checklist on their work (see Self-Assessment Worksheets for example checklists). Consider asking students to share a “weekly insight” about the course (the course content or their learning). Midway through the semester, ask students to complete a brief survey about what they can do to improve their learning (see Stop Go Change activity.) You can use homework questions (see Metacognitive Homework), or clicker questions (see Clicker Questions – metacognition (PPT)) that ask student to reflect on their learning. After the first exam, ask students to complete an Exam Self-Reflection where they reflect on how they prepared for the exam, their performance, and how they might change their strategies to prepare for the next exam. You can also give students an extra-credit assignment, where they can earn points by answering questions they got incorrect on the exam.

If a significant learning goal for your classroom is that students develop as expert learners through a process of developing self-awareness about their own learning, then integrate this idea directly within the course content. Provide lessons on learning, include self-reflection as a component in all course aspects, and highlight ideas of thinking and learning in the lecture. For example, you might give a mini lecture on Bloom’s Taxonomy, along with an activity where students discuss how to best learn at higher levels (see Bloom’s Taxonomy activity). You might periodically ask students to complete a self-reflection rubric (see Self-Assessment Worksheets) where they assess their learning skills (such as persistence, organization, and resourcefulness), and discuss what they plan to improve. See Redish and Hammer (2009) for an explicit approach to epistemology within a physics curriculum (particularly in the supplementary appendix). Lastly, give students course credit for completing these metacognitive activities, as this places value on self-awareness as part of the goals of the course.

Give students feedback so they can adjust their learning approach

The use of frequent assessment for purposes of feedback to students (i.e., “formative assessment”) is valuable both for setting clear expectations for student learning, and for guiding students to continually gauge their progress towards mastery, without significant risk to their course grade (Ellis, 2013). Frequent assessment can also help mitigate the common problem of student over-confidence in their ability (Karatjas, 2013), and help students adjust their approach through the course. These assessments do not need to contribute to the formal grade; having them be completed for participation credit can help avoid the demotivating aspect of grades (Schinske and Tanner, 2014).

The first homework or mini-quiz can be used to give student feedback on their learning, counting for a smaller portion of their grade. Clicker questions, one-minute papers, group work, quick in-class sketches, and other classroom assessment techniques (CATs) also give students valuable feedback. To avoid spending excessive time grading such assessments, see this handout about effective assessments.

In a group exam, students complete the exam individually, and then again as a group, which contributes to their scores. This has the benefit of leveraging student motivation post-exam, giving them immediate feedback on their understanding, and using assessment strategies that align with an interactive approach which focuses on improvement. See Group Exams for detail.

Self- and peer- assessment provides valuable practice in metacognition. For example, a simple rubric can ask students to rate their work, and perhaps compare that rating to that of a teacher or peers. You might give students examples of good and bad academic work, and then ask them to grade the examples based on a rubric. This can provide valuable practice for self-assessment, as well as helping students understand what the professor is looking for in an assignment. See Self-Assessment Worksheets for a simple self-assessment checklist and sample peer assessments. The online Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) can be used to prompt students to reflect about their progress on your learning goals.

Help students see learning as a process, which requires effort

This final aspect of supporting students to become expert learners focuses on supporting their “mastery” orientation towards learning (see introduction). These strategies all focus on helping students overcome obstacles to see that they can succeed with effort and practice, rather than natural talent. If students see learning as requiring effortful practice, then the benefit of active learning strategies becomes clearer.

Celebrate the hard work that goes into learning science, and that students can improve if they work hard (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, 2013). Frame challenge as fun and useful, easy tasks as boring and not as helpful for learning (Dweck, 2010). As Slezak (2014) suggests, “I tell each class now that the queasy feeling they have in their stomachs is what learning is all about.”

Give students copies of quiz, exam, or homework solutions, ask them to make corrections, and discuss how they will use this information to improve in the future. Students turn this corrected work in as a required assignment. This method improves students’ metacognition and relieves some of their exam stress (Henderson and Harper, 2009; detail here). Alternatively, you may assign a “re-engineering” assignment, requiring the student to re-write the original question to make their chosen answer correct. You can also use a “mastery” approach to homework in general, by providing the solution with the assignment, grading on effort, emphasizing explanations on homework (and test questions), and reflecting on results (see Elby, 2001 for detail and Metacognitive Homework). As a policy, you can replace poor homework or quiz grades if a student later demonstrates mastery of the concepts, or replace the first exam score with the relevant score on the final exam, if the student demonstrates later mastery.

While it may be tempting to praise students as a way to help them gain confidence, providing challenging tasks, having high standards, and encouraging students to meet them is more likely to promote a “growth” mindset towards learning (Dweck, 2007). Praise students for their efforts, rather than for being right. If students receive praise easily, they may take this as a cue that you don’t think they are capable of performing at a higher level (Dweck, 2007). After the first weeks of the class, reserve your praise. And when you do use praise, be specific. Ask rigorous questions, and generally work to cue students that you believe they can perform at a high level (Boekaerts, 2010).

Avoid comparisons to other students, including grading on a curve, and focus on students’ individual effort and success instead (Pintrich, 2003). Celebrate their progress, focusing on the “aha” moments, and pointing them out to the class as a whole (Slezak, 2014). Emphasize the purpose of active learning tasks as learning exercises, not means to achieving a final grade (Boekaerts, 2010). For example, with an upcoming assignment, "I just want to see you striving to perform better. Everything is a step in the right direction; you all have already improved tremendously" (Kerssen-Griep, 2001). “You gave it a good try, but it didn’t work, do you have any idea why? Or, “Could you think of another way to do this next time?” (Boekaerts, 2010).

Summary and Action Items

Students may approach coursework from a fairly mechanistic stance: If the instructor gives me information, I will memorize it, and get a good grade. This approach to learning doesn’t lend itself well to an active classroom, which requires students to wrestle with difficult ideas in order to lead to deeper conceptual learning. Help students engage productively in active learning classrooms by teaching students reflect on their learning and develop productive mindsets towards learning.

General approaches

Specific strategies

Help students think about their approach to learning

Students benefit from reflecting on their own ideas about teaching and learning, and how your teaching approaches align with their internal beliefs. Engagement in this reflection will empower them to make adjustments in their approach to learning in the future.

  • Probe student beliefs about learning.
  • Be explicit about your learning goals and teaching strategies.
  • Model self-reflection in class.
  • Have students self-reflect on their exams and homework.
  • Embed epistemology directly into the course.
Give students feedback so they can adjust their learning approach

The use of frequent assessment for purposes of feedback to students (i.e., “formative assessment”) is valuable both for setting clear expectations for student learning, and for guiding students to continually gauge their progress towards mastery, without significant risk to their course grade.

  • Provide frequent, low-stakes assessments of learning.
  • Use group or two-stage exams.
  • Give students opportunities to assess their work (or that of their peers).
Help students see learning as a process, which requires effort

Support students’ “mastery” orientation towards learning (see introduction) by helping them to see that they can succeed with effort and practice, rather than natural talent. If students see learning as requiring effortful practice, then the benefit of active learning strategies becomes clearer.

  • Communicate that it’s normal for learning to take effort.
  • Give students opportunity to revise and resubmit work.
  • Have high standards and don’t hastily encourage students.
  • Focus your feedback on learning and growth.

Further reading on this topic

Reading list

  1. Ding L and Mollohan, K.N., How college level instruction can impact student epistemological beliefs, J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 44(4), 19 (2015).
  2. Elby, Helping students learn how to learn, Am. J. Phys. 69, S54 (2001).
  3. Ertmer P.A., Newby, T. J. and MacDougal, M., Students' responses and approaches to case-based instruction: The role of reflective self-regulation, Am. Educ. Res. J. 33, 719 (1996).
  4. Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C., “Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Student Learning”, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3-31, (2004).
  5. Good, Rattan and Dweck, Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women's representation in mathematics, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102 (4) (2012).
  6. F. Redish and D. Hammer, Reinventing college physics for biologists: Explicating an Epistemological Curriculum, Am. J. Phys. 77. 629-642 (2009).

Keywords to search in the literature

Epistemology, self-efficacy, persistence, mindset, mastery, performance, achievement, self-regulation, metacognition, goal orientation

References

  1. Aronson, J., Fried, C.B., Good, C., Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 38(2), 113-125 (March 2002).
  2. Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., Dweck, C., Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition, Child Development. 78(1), 246-263 (Jan.-Feb. 2007).
  3. Boekaerts, M., The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, H. 91-111 (2010).
  4. Dweck, C. S., Even geniuses work hard, Educational Leadership. 68(1), 16-20 (2010).
  5. Dweck, C.S., Mindset: The new psychology of success, Ballantine Books. (2007).
  6. Dweck, C.S., Leggett, E. L., A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality, Psych. Review. 95 (2), 256 (1988).
  7. Elby, Helping students learn how to learn, Am. J. Phys. 69, S54 (2001).
  8. Ertmer P.A., Newby, T. J. and MacDougal, M., Students' responses and approaches to case-based instruction: The role of reflective self-regulation, Am. Educ. Res. J. 33, 719 (1996).
  9. Good, C., Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645-662 (2003).
  10. Good, Rattan and Dweck, Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women's representation in mathematics, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102 (4) (2012).
  11. Linder, B., Somerville, M., Eris, Ö., & Tatar, N., Work in progress—Taking one for the team: Goal orientation and gender-correlated task division, IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. pp. F4H-1 (Oct. 2010).
  12. Slezak S., Flipping a class: The learning by doing method, American Chemical Society 2014 Spring Conference on Computers in Chemical Education. 92(9) pp.1564-1565 (2014).
  13. Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges, When trying hard isn't natural: Women's Belonging with and Motivation for Male-dominated STEM fields as a function of effort expenditure concerns, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 39 (2), 131-143 (2013).

Image courtesy of PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder