Policy makers, tech executives, teachers, and parents are forever trying to find new ways to improve kids’ performance at school. Schools design and redesign curricula, teachers embrace and reject new learning technologies, and parents plot ways to get their kids to study more.
One novel solution researchers find helps kids to perform better is to get them to think about how they think—metacognition—and have them strategize how they study.
If this sounds easy, it is not. “All too often, students just jump mindlessly into studying before they have even strategized what to use, without understanding why they are using each resource, and without planning out how they would use the resource to learn effectively,” says Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford with a PhD. “I find this very unfortunate because it undermines their own potential to learn well and perform well.”
But students can be taught to think strategically about thinking and studying, says Chen, the lead author of a new study about the practice, and parents can prompt this type of learning by posing some strategic questions of their own.
In the study Chen led, researchers conducted two field experiments in which some university students were offered a variety of prompts to help them think carefully about how they studied, and how they might study more effectively for an introductory statistics class exam. The other students—the control group—simply received a reminder that their exam was coming up and that they should prepare.
Those who reflected on how they wanted to perform and what they needed to do to perform better outperformed those who did not, by an average of one-third of a letter grade. Those who received the intervention prompts twice did better than those who received it once.
“Our key insight in this research is the importance of being goal-directed and thoughtful about how one chooses and uses resources for learning—or to achieve any other goal for that matter,” Chen said.
There is ample evidence that self-regulation and metacognition are key to learning. But the challenge is how to teach these things in such a way that it sticks. Part of the appeal of Chen’s approach is its simplicity: any student, teacher or even parent could use it.
How the field experiments worked
A week to 10 days before a test, half the class received a 15-minute survey asking them to think about a test they were going to take. They were asked to think about the grade they wanted to get on the exam, and rate how important it was to them that they got that grade, and how likely they thought it was that they would get that grade.
The survey then asked the students to reflect on what kinds of questions the exam might include, and to identify which of 15 available class resources they would use to study, including lecture notes, practice exam questions, textbook readings, instructor office hours, peer discussions, and private tutoring. They were asked to write down why each resource would be useful and how they would use it, effectively mapping out a study plan.
The students in the control group received only a reminder that the exam was coming up in a week and that they should be ready for it.
The authors were careful to note that there were no statistical differences in the students’ performance prior to the exam, nor any significant difference in their high school GPAs or their levels of motivation. There was also no statistical difference in the grades the two groups of students hoped to achieve, ruling out the role of motivation as a driver of performance versus reflection and thinking about thinking. The results held across race, class, and performance level (high- and low-performing students), and gender.
In addition to improving their grades, the students who completed the online survey reported less stress in relation to the exam, compared with their peers, and a greater sense of control over their performance.
According to the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), which performs studies to try and close achievement gaps, metacognition is one of two of the most effective educational interventions it has tested. (Feedback is the other.) Students involved in programs designed to improve how they think about thinking accelerated their learning by an average of eight months’ worth of academic progress. The effect was greatest for low-achieving and older pupils.
In one experiment, 12- and 13-year-olds significantly improved their writing skills by learning to better evaluate the quality of their own work. The students, from 23 primary schools in West Yorkshire, England, were divided into two groups, with half the kids offered guidance on how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own narrative writing. Kids were taught what makes a good piece of writing and how to critique their own work. “Instead of relying on the teacher, they are taught strategies to improve their own writing—that’s the self-regulation,” said Emily Yeomans, senior program manager at the EEF. These kids made an additional nine months’ worth of academic progress in the study.
Much of this research feels intuitive. Setting goals helps us to stick to them. Making a plan for how we reach a goal increases the likelihood of achieving it as well. But educators sometimes struggle to find constructive ways to put these findings into practice, especially when the demands on them change seemingly every year (personalized learning! An iPad for every kid! New assessments!) .
A key benefit to metacognition interventions is that they are not expensive. They are also applicable to everyone: teachers can use them, but so can parents. Chen said her lab had not studied this specifically, but said that parents, who often play the role of academic guides to their children, can encourage kids to think about how they deploy their study resources.
“They can model this strategic thought process by voicing out the way they are thinking through their resource use, or they can pose questions that nudge children to exercise this strategic thinking for themselves.” The specific questions she suggested: “What you are doing doesn’t seem to be working very well. Is there something else you can use that would help you do it better?” or “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?”
As adults, we know we would benefit from more planning: strategizing for that tough conversation, outlining the memo that needs to be written, thinking about the holes in the power point presentation. Whether we do it is another matter. It’s no different for students.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Chen as a Stanford professor. She is a post-doctoral research fellow with a PhD in social psychology.