Assessing Students’ Metacognition & Self-regulated Learning

Metacognition refers to one’s awareness of and ability to regulate one’s own thinking (Flavell, 1979). Effective metacognitive awareness is like an internal monitor that notices when a person’s attention wanes, when they have or have not mastered a concept adequately, when their thinking is faulty, or when there are gaps in understanding.  Metacognition is the basis for self-regulated learning, which enables students to plan, apply strategies, monitor, evaluate, and adjust their learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010).

Students differ widely with respect to their metacognitive knowledge. Researchers have identified common erroneous assumptions and beliefs that undermine student learning (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013; Kornell & Finn, 2016). Some examples:

  • The best way to learn is through repetition and re-exposure to the material. This belief is the basis for adopting ineffective learning strategies such as re-reading and rote memorization (Morehead, Rhodes, & DeLozier, 2015).
  • Each student has a unique learning style by which they learn best (Howard-Jones, 2014). There is no evidence to support this belief (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2009).
  • Learning should be easy; something is wrong with students or instruction if learning is difficult (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013).

Students also exhibit inaccurate judgments of learning (JOLs). If they can easily produce answers to questions when they are studying, they are likely to conclude they know the subject, and stop studying. They fail to recognize they may not be able to produce the answers on a future test (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013; Kornell & Finn, 2016). In general, low achieving students overestimate their academic performance while high achieving students underestimate theirs (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger & Kruger, 2003).

Assessing students’ metacognition related to academic learning. Assessment of metacognition involves asking students to predict and reflect on their learning. The goal of assessment is to reveal students’ thinking about how they will and/or did try to learn and work on academic tasks.

  • Use of course resources. Students use a list of all the course learning resources and then explain which ones they will use and how they will use them to prepare for an upcoming exam.
  • Create a study schedule. Students create a study schedule that describes what, how and when they will study for an upcoming exam.
  • Assignment checklist. Students use a checklist that identifies all the requisite steps involved in accomplishing a major assignment or class project. They elaborate on what they will need to do for each step, and indicate when they will work on each one.
  • How to study for a specific task. Describe an academic task, assignment, or exam. Ask students to describe how and when they would work on it. Use prompts intended to elicit specific strategies and decisions about how to learn and accomplish the task, e.g., “In studying for this exam how would you decide when to start and how often to study?” “How do you decide the best way to learn the material for that exam?” “The exam involves being able to explain major concepts and use the concepts to solve problems. How would you study for this type of exam?”
  • Ask students to explain the criteria they use to determine what they have learned when they study for a test, or give students a list of criteria and ask them to indicate which ones they use.
  • After an exam, ask students to estimate their performance, e.g., predict their exam score, identify concepts they did not know, assess the strengths and weaknesses of their answers or written work.

For more information and recommendations about how to promote better metacognition in students see Metacognition and Self-Regulation.


Ambrose, S. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, M. & Norman, M. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners. In How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188-216). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013) Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64: 417-444.

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83-87.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824.

Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2016). Self-regulated learning: An overview of theory and data. In J. Dunlosky & S. K. Tauber (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of metamemory (pp. 325-340). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Lovett, M. C. (2013). Making exams worth more than the grade. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18-48). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2015). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies, Memory, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2014.1001992

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x


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