How to get students thinking about their own learning

by Nina Parrish

When students begin to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning, they develop self-regulation and can set more ambitious goals.

As a special education teacher and K–12 tutor, I found that students were often told what to learn but were rarely taught how to learn, which had the potential to leave them stuck, anxious, and disengaged. My desire to teach students strategies they could use to develop their own agency and independence led me to write my book, The Independent Learner.

Metacognition refers to a student’s knowledge of their own thought process. A metacognitive thinking process allows students to self-regulate and direct their thoughts, behaviors, and actions toward their goals. As early as kindergarten, teachers can instruct students in how to build their metacognitive skills through a process of planning, monitoring, and evaluating their learning. Once students reach third grade, they can begin to use these strategies with increased choice and independence.


When students begin working without a plan, they become easily confused and overwhelmed by the task. They may give up, get distracted, or become off-task very easily. Taking time to plan can help students avoid these issues. Planning can include previewing the task, setting goals, deciding how to approach the task, and connecting to previously learned information. The following strategies help students to plan.

Building prior knowledge: Teachers can help students build prior knowledge by connecting new information to what students already know. This might look like having students brainstorm in groups to answer a question, watch a short introductory video clip or demonstration, or look at and discuss pictures or objects related to the topic that will be studied. A strong foundation of background knowledge can help students to accurately make predictions and prioritize information during the lesson.

Goal setting: Having students set goals and track progress is linked to a 32 percent increase in achievement. Teachers can help students to set short-term goals related to the skill they are learning as well as the student’s long-term personal goals and values.

Planning the process: We have all had the experience of setting goals, only to lose the motivation and follow-through necessary to make them a reality. Teachers can help students think about the changes they need to make in their daily behavior and habits in order to get from where they are now to where they want to be. Students can make a plan or checklist and use this to monitor their daily progress or the baby steps toward their goal.


Students who are having trouble monitoring don’t know when to seek help or may be overly dependent on the teacher to make sure they are doing their work correctly. They may lack a sense of self-efficacy or the belief that their efforts affect their actions or fail to change their approach when it is not working. When a student is monitoring their learning, they are assessing their level of understanding and trying to determine whether the strategy they have selected is working. The following strategies help students monitor.

Metacognitive talk: When students are learning a new skill, the teacher can model thinking aloud to make the thought process visible for students. This helps them to develop the complex thinking skills necessary for that subject area. The teacher can encourage students to use discussion to construct knowledge instead of just participating to display what they know. Strategies like think-pair-share or visually explaining the steps of their thinking help students to understand that there are many ways to approach a particular problem or task.

Analyze, prioritize, summarize: Students can be taught various methods of summarizing information and isolating key facts, details, and keywords. One method that students enjoy is a one-pager.

Diversify: When approaching a new learning task, it is important for students to know many ways to solve a problem or approach the skill. Strategies that mix verbal and visual information make learning more memorable. When students are familiar with many strategies, they have the tools necessary to exercise their own agency in selecting what works best for them.


If students are not evaluating their learning, they often do not understand how to use strategies in other contexts or for future problem-solving. They may know that they got something wrong but are not able to tell you why or what they should do differently next time to avoid that same issue. To evaluate their learning, students consider whether the strategy they chose worked and what they would change for next time. The following strategies help students to evaluate.

Assess: Testing should be used during learning, not just once learning is complete. Students can create their own practice tests or test questions, or teachers can use pre- and post-tests with clickers to find out what students know, help students to prioritize important information, and assess learning during the lesson.

Seek feedback: In the classroom, the teacher acts as a coach to students, providing information about learning goals and progress. Successful feedback should not shame students or focus on personal qualities but instead should answer these questions:

  • What am I working toward?
  • What progress have I made so far?
  • Where do I go from here?

Reflect and revise: After assessment, self-assessment, or feedback, students reflect on whether the strategy they are using is working. Then they decide what changes they need to make. Students may also consider areas where they need to seek out help. When they revise, students consider what did not go so well and fix it. They should be able to explain their mistake or what did not work and then select a strategy to correct their work. As you might notice, this starts the metacognition cycle back at the planning stage.

The only way to make learning truly relevant to each student is to teach the tools and strategies they will need to take a more active role in their learning. Incorporating metacognitive skills and self-regulated learning strategies has helped my students to become more independent, engaged, and capable of exercising their own agency.

Originally published 5th May 2022 ©; George Lucas Educational Foundation