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Have you stopped to wonder why we’re more likely to make a plan for organizing a social gathering than we are for passing a test? For some students, just the act of attending class and listening to the instructor’s lecture counts as sufficient exam preparation. But just because you’ve heard the information doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Learning is an active process, and honing a skill called “metacognition” can help you create the best possible opportunity to become a successful student.

What is metacognition?

To put it simply, metacognition is “thinking about the way we think.” Most of us use metacognition each day to evaluate our thoughts and feelings without even realizing it. When applied to learning, metacognition can help you not only process what you’re learning, but how you’re learning. 

“I’ve worked in education almost my entire professional life. I’ve worked one-on-one and in groups with every age of student and in every kind of learning environment. And the pattern is clear: too rarely do student learners know how to learn,” said Peter Giebel, an Editor on Peterson’s Content Team. 

We asked Giebel to explain how metacognition can help students bridge the gaps in their learning and improve their academic performance.

Metacognition for beginners

“Imagine you’re training for a marathon. Your ultimate goal is to run 23.6 miles. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to put on your running shoes, step out your front door, and take off at a dead sprint. You’ll make a plan. You’ll set up a training schedule. You’ll run for different periods of time and in different conditions. Eventually you’ll give that marathon-length route a try. Perhaps you’ll fail, perhaps not. But you’ll take that trial run as an opportunity to evaluate what’s working in your training regimen and what’s not. Then you’ll modify it to suit your needs. In essence, that’s metacognition,” explained Giebel.

Students rarely pause to evaluate if the routine they’ve developed to learn or study is effective. Using metacognition can help you assess what you’re learning, if you’re retaining the information, and create strategies to improve your understanding of a topic.

“Metacognition is a form of personal awareness. When you’re metacognitive, you know who you are as a learner and then make strategic choices about how to learn and study with that knowledge in mind. That breaks down to three basic steps: plan, monitor, and evaluate your learning.”

Identifying metacognitive strategies 

“I’ve seen students benefit from metacognitive practices when preparing for the ACT and SAT, when writing papers, developing projects, when preparing for tests and quizzes. The learning situation is practically irrelevant because metacognition goes beyond topics to focus on techniques.”

As Giebel mentioned, students should be actively engaged in learning the content in order to understand and retain the information. He recommends asking yourself the following questions during the planning, monitoring, and evaluation stages.

“Metacognition creates the opportunities for learning to happen. To jumpstart that process, you can try asking some of the essential questions during the different stages of metacognition:

Before learning, take time to plan:

  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What do I need to know for my test?
  • What strategies will I use while I’m learning?
  • How much time do I have?
  • What should I do first?

While learning, pause to monitor:

  • Am I on track with my plan?
  • What’s important to remember?
  • What do I understand and what’s still confusing for me? 
  • What strategies have worked thus far and what hasn’t?
  • What else could I do to improve my understanding?

After learning, reflect and evaluate your process:

  • How well did I meet my objectives?
  • What did I learn?
  • What worked well and what didn’t?
  • What can I do differently next time?
  • Can I apply what I learned to other topics?

You still have to decide how rigorously you decide to answer those questions. You also have to be willing to act once you’ve come to a conclusion (‘I need to reread, find some examples, draw a diagram, read this other article, create flashcards, consult my teacher, etc.’). If you can follow through with what you discover through metacognition you’re doing something that can radically transform how you approach learning.”

Peterson’s test prep materials will challenge you to acknowledge some of the questions listed above. Make sure you work through each stage to deepen your understanding of the material. 

Strategies for success

We asked Giebel to provide us with a few examples of how to implement learning strategies using the stages outlined above.

“Any metacognitive strategy will vary based on the scale of the learning objective. If you’re reading a book, you can activate what you know before starting a chapter, pause every time you get a new heading or an event occurs, and review at the end of the chapter for what you learned and what you should pay attention to next time.”

Giebel then explained how to plan, monitor, and evaluate your learning during exam preparation.

“If you’re preparing for a test, you’re thinking about what materials you have access to, what topics you should start with, and what strategies you’ll use to remember and understand information. You can then evaluate the strategies each day to see what was helpful and what wasn’t.” 

Finally, Giebel shared how to apply a metacognitive strategy to a writing assignment.

“For essays, plan how you’ll use your time, what resources to use, monitor pre-writing techniques and more, and evaluate how successfully you used the writing process.” 

Study tips

Practicing metacognition helps you discover your level of preparedness for an exam. Giebel shared with us how even a small addition of metacognitive thinking can help you study.

“Keep in mind that a little metacognition goes a long way. While you’re studying, try two simple questions: 

  1. Am I retrieving information?
  2. Am I creating anything? 

Remember, retrieval means that you self-quiz. And the act of making something new (a new set of notes, a picture, an example question) engages multiple different levels of thinking which has the neural effect of creating more complex pathways in your brain. More complex pathways means greater understanding.”

Need help studying for an exam like the GRE or PRAXIS? Check out Peterson’s test prep subscriptions, which include detailed answers for every question.