Metacognition and Student Performance in Advanced Physiology, Systems Physiology, and Neurophysiology

Dr. Adam Rich, Associate Professor of Biology, The College at Brockport

The CCTE Fellows Program for K-20 educators appealed to me because I was interested in meeting and working with a group of professionals that have a common goal of student success and are interested in sharing what works best in their own practice and in studying the effects of different teaching methods on student learning.  I am a college professor and have taught for 10 years.  I teach several courses in the Department of Biology, including Anatomy and Physiology (A&P), Systems Physiology, and Neurophysiology.  The A&P course is high enrollment with over 300 students.  The student population is heterogeneous in their future goals and in the preparation for the course.  The course is required for Pre Nursing, Health Science, and Kinesiology students and is an elective for Biology majors.  Some students are well prepared and highly motivated.  I spend 30% of my time doing physiology research and have long wanted to contribute to the educational fields in a similar way that I contribute to physiology.  My major goals for the past several years is to identify the best places to spend my energy, and to know what is most important for the largest fraction of the student body (when it comes to learning).  I am very sensitive to the possibility that my own interpretation of student learning might be wrong, and therefore I look for evidence in the literature to support my viewpoint that things ‘work’, or that they don’t.  I also read to find new ideas, and for evidence that contradicts my own practice.  I like papers that collect data and use it to support their thesis, and I try to use this approach in my own work.

The CCTE required an action research project and I teamed up with two other college faculty, Amanda Lipko Speed and Theresa Westbay, to examine metacognition and student learning.  The major idea was to learn if increasing student awareness of  their study habits correlated with exam performance.  This is not a new idea at all and is well described in How Learning Works: Seven Research based Principles for Smart teaching (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman, 2010).  The strategy is to have students review and analyze their results on an exam, reflect on how they prepared for the exam, and to use that information to guide preparation for future exams.  We used Exam Wrappers, a form that is described in many places.  Two online sources are a blog by Maryellen Weimer at The Teaching Professor ( and another blog by Andrew Wolf at (

I was attracted to this project because students often ask, what is the best way to study for your class?, and I study for your class so much but it never seems to help.  I am always surprised that these students rarely reflect on how they study, and they rarely look at missed exam questions and analyze why they missed those questions.    I usually answer students with what comes to mind at the moment, study more, work with the material, talk to friends about the material, read the textbook, and look over your exams and try to understand why you missed questions.  The exam wrapper offered a method to explicitly direct students to an activity that could help them now and in the future.

We wrote questions for the wrapper, talked about how we could successfully implement the wrappers in our courses, and wrote an IRB so that we could do the study.  The project was made more interesting by the fact that I teach a large enrollment course with mostly sophomore and junior level students,  Dr Lipko Speed taught mostly freshman, and Dr Westbay taught sophomores.  Each of us teaches science courses (anatomy and physiology, psychology, and microbiology).  Briefly, after an exam students were given the correct answers and an exam wrapper form to fill out.  They were guided to directly exam missed questions, document their preparation for the exam, their predicted outcome, and finally their actually outcome.  Then they were asked to develop a new strategy for the next exam. This procedure was implemented for several exams.

The first thing we learned was the enormous difficulty in timing, and having students do the wrappers during class time, in close proximity to exam time.  It was very challenging to implement.  Students did seem receptive to the project overall.  We did not see a significant change in student performance on exams after the wrappers.  There were two simple ways to interpret the outcome.  First, metacognition and exam wrappers do not help students to improve their performance during exams.  We accept this conclusion.  It might be that by the time students are in college their behavior is firmly set, and that changes in study behavior are very hard to develop.  This idea led to our second interpretation, that most likely there is more to metacognition and using exam wrappers then we learn from this simple experiment.  Certainly it is possible that there was an effect and that we missed it because we did not do the correct ‘tests’ to show the effect.  For example, one semester is probably much too short to show a change in test performance.  We all thought it would be more interesting to follow students for several semesters to learn if metacognition and the awareness and reflection on the connection between preparations and outcomes would significantly enhance student learning over the long run.  We also thought that exam wrappers could be an excellent tool to teach new students, freshman, how to analyze their own performance in a realistic way, and to teach them how to change their own actions to improve future learning in college.  The study continues because we did not have enough time to analyze all of the data.  Each of us plans to do more analysis of existing data, and to teach metacognition to future students.  Due to the effort involved we may not use exam wrappers consistently.

Overall this was a really good experience.  I enjoyed meeting regularly with others who were interested in teaching and learning.  Action research, and the usefulness of constant reflection was an important part of this CCTE learning community that I plan to continue.  For my full report, please see Metacognition and Student Performance in Advanced Physiology, Systems Physiology, and Neurophysiology.


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