Reflect on the Learning Process

Reflecting on the learning process is also known as metacognition. Metacognition can be defined as thinking about thinking. It is the awareness of the learning process itself.

Key Takeaways from Educational Research:

Metacognition involves several steps: planning, monitoring, reflecting, and adjusting (see What is Metacognition?)

Teaching students learning strategies helps improve student’s learning (see Metacognition improves student learning).

Transparency in teaching goals and establishing a supportive learning environment help students learn (see Thinking about ones teaching)

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is the awareness about ones learning. This includes being conscious and intentional with your use of a strategy to solve a problem, being aware of what you know – and maybe more importantly – what you don’t know, and being able to reflect on your performance so you can adjust your strategy in the future.

Metacognition can be broken down into a series of steps that repeat to form a cyclic process as we learn. Below is a table listing the metacognitive steps, their definition, and questions a learner can ask themselves as they are working through problem, learning new material, or progressing through a course.

Metacognitive Step

Explanation (with questions to ask yourself as you learn)


Chose a strategy to approach a learning task

  • What is the goal?
  • What should I do to accomplish this goal?
  • What do I already know?


Evaluate your progress as you work, focus on aspects that are difficult

  • What am I doing?
  • Why am I doing it?
  • How is it helping me?
  • What is confusing or difficult for me to understand?


Determine which aspects of your plan worked and which aspects did not work

  • How did I do?
  • What worked well and what didn’t work?
  • How does what I have just learned fit into my broader understanding of this topic?


Determine ways to modify your strategy to improve it for the next time you use it

  • What can I do better next time?
  • How can I resolve any confusions or questions I still have?

For further reading check out these sources:

Teaching students to drive their brains A book by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. Chapter One further explains Metacognition and how it relates to teachnig. 

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning A more detailed explanation of metacognition and how it can relate to student motivation  

Metacognition improves student learning

Metacognition is an internal dialogue – a series of questions student’s ask themselves as they monitor their progress towards a learning goal. However, teaching metacognition should be done out-loud. There are several different general approaches to teaching metacognition (1) modeling - in this approach the teacher works through a problem while demonstrating their approach to solve the problem and thinking out loud (2) coaching/scaffolding - the teacher leads students through a series of questions as they work through a problem (3) reflection - the teacher allows students independent time to think through a problem or to think back on how they approached the problem. 

As an example, a study in the early 1900s demonstrated how learning a procedure rather than just learning facts helps children learn. Two groups of students learned how to throw darts at a target underwater. One group simply practiced, while the second group both practiced and received a lesson on the principles of light refraction. Both groups did equally well when tasked to hit the underwater target. However, after the target was moved in the water, the students that both received a lesson and practiced out-competed their practice-only classmates. The reason being that they understood how refraction of light affected their aim and were able to adjust in the new setting (Judd, 1908). Many additional studies since this time have demonstrated the power of learning process in addition to facts to improve student outcomes.

For further reading check out these sources:

Hendrickson and Schroeder (1941) A revisit to Judd's 1908 underwater target practice, again demonstrating the power of metacognition

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching An expanded list of metacognition activities to be used in the classroom 

Thinking about ones teaching

Instructors should also be aware of their own teaching strategies to help improve student learning (think of it as meta-metacognition). This begins by having clearly stated, measurable, and quantifiable learning objectives and learning goals to provide students a set of guide posts to check their progress towards understanding course material.

Students can also be taught that intellectual skills and abilities are not pre-determined, but rather are developed and improved with time through hard work and practiced effective learning strategies (termed a growth-mindset). This shift to positivity and collective improvement for all increases student performance, especially for underprivileged and/or minority groups that may experience stereotype threat (when a person’s belief in a negative stereotype for a group in which they identify causes them to underperform).

It is also important for instructors to emphasize that all learning involves some struggle. When instructors highlight that learning is difficult for all students, they can dispel the student belief that they are not smart enough to ‘belong’ in a classroom, in favor of a belief that they are part of the classroom community (termed social belonging or a belonging mindset). This type of environment can help students overcome imposter syndrome (the feeling that a student does not have the qualifications to be in a class and that they are a fake amongst their more qualified classmates).

In order to foster both a growth-mindset and a belonging mindset, student’s must be able to monitor their progress towards achieving the stated learning goals. This works if instructors provide low-stakes frequent feedback. Feedback should be informative, instructive, and helpful so that students can monitor their progress as they approach a learning task.


For further reading on learning goals and objectives:

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard An explanation of learning goals and learnign objectives with guidelines on how to create them

Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative A wealth of resources on how to design learning goals in the classroom 

DePaul Teaching Commons An example of how to implement low-stakes assesments  

For further reading on mindsets:

Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS)  Research from the classroom demonstrating that a growth mindset improves student learning 

Mindset Kit A PERTS program that provides resources for teachers to bring a growth mindet into their classroom 

Standford Teaching Center A review of empirically validated strategies to reduce stereotype threat 

The Mindset Scholar Network A reivew of varoius 'mindsets', including a belonging mindset

What types of activities work well with this learning goal?

Reflecting on the Learning Process can be worked into a variety of activity types! Here are just a few examples:


Quick Write: Reflections are an easy way to have students turn internally and think about their learning process. A quick write provides students a few minutes to jot-down their thoughts at the beginning of class (How did the student prepare for class? What are their expectations or predictions for the day?) or at the end of the activity (What did students learn? What mistakes were made and how can they be handled next time?)


Game/Simulation: Games/simulations require strategy. By having multiple rounds of a game/simulation the instructor can encourage students to think about how they are approaching the game/simulation and to try a variety of strategies.


There are also ways to focus on Reflection on the Learning Process in unexpected activity types.


Concept Map: Concept maps are a way to relate information. By comparing how different students relate information, an instructor can have a broader discussion about the way students think and approach particular topics. This is a good chance to evaluate the variety of different strategies that exist for a particular framework.