Promoting Metacognition to Improve Studying, Learning Skills, and Mastery of Microbiology

Dr. Theresa Westbay, Associate Professor of Biology, St. John Fisher College

I’ve been involved in teaching BIOL 214 – Microbiology, a course that is required of all biology majors at Fisher, for the last twenty years.  The majority of our students intend to pursue careers in the health professions and microbiology is a subject in which many are genuinely interested.  I work hard to make course content accessible and to create learning environments that engage students.  In spite of all of this, I’ve seen many conscientious students struggle in my classes over the years. Recognizing that as an educator of undergraduates I want my students to both master content and to develop as learners, I’ve expanded my instructional focus in recent years to include helping students cultivate learning skills.

Metacognition, involving the analysis of one’s own thinking and learning processes, is a quality exhibited by successful learners.  Since there is evidence in the literature that metacognition can be taught and learned, I’m working on deliberately incorporating the teaching of metacognitive skills into the BIOL 214 course and then critically evaluating the impact of these instructional changes on student studying and learning and mastery of course content.  Building on the principal that writing is linked to thinking and can be a tool for refining thought, in the fall 2013 semester I introduced structured self-reflective activities in the form of exam wrappers.  The exam wrappers consist of two parts. Before each exam students answer survey questions documenting how they prepared.  After receiving their graded exams, students are guided through an analysis of missed questions and then reflect in writing regarding the reasons for their incorrect answers, what improvements they need to make in order to avoid those pitfalls in the future, and the specific actions they will take in preparing for the next exam.

My hope in undertaking this action research project was that my students would become more reflective and self-directed learners, that their mastery of course content would improve, and I would gain insights regarding how to effectively promote metacognition in my students.  My experience throughout the fall 2013 semester was energizing.  Students did become more self-reflective as evidenced by their written analysis of their preparation and performance on exams and by the vocabulary they adopted to talk about their learning. (Yes, that’s right, my students talked – not about their grades – but about their learning!)  After the first exam, 70% of students reported changing their preparation for exams.  The nature of these changes included students creating their own study materials and increased time spent studying.  Student performance on exams was comparable to the previous semester (which did not include formal self-reflective writing activities) up until the comprehensive final exam when the number of students earning grades of B- or above increased significantly.

The bottom-line is, I think I’m onto something that is effective in empowering students and helping them acquire the confidence and skills to be successful in challenging science classes. I am excited to be continuing this work in the current semester.  Visit my full report on Promoting Metacognition to Improve Studying, Learning Skills, and Mastery of Microbiology to learn more about the evidence I collected in fall 2013 and future directions for this action research project.


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