What is it?
Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ approaches) aim to help learners think about their own learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching students specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give students a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.
How effective is it?
Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with students making an average of eight months’ additional progress. The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older students.
These strategies are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion.
The potential impact of these approaches is very high, but can be difficult to achieve as they require students to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed. There is no simple method or trick for this. It is possible to support students’ work too much, so that they do not learn to monitor and manage their own learning but come to rely on the prompts and support from the teacher. “Scaffolding” provides a useful metaphor: a teacher would provide support when first introducing a student to a concept, then reduce the support to ensure that the student continues to manage their learning autonomously.
A number of Australian studies have noted a positive correlation between meta-cognitive skills, and academic outcomes. However, the few studies that have evaluated interventions that sought to improve meta-cognitive skills have provided mixed results.
Australasian-based research on the topic suggests that students can benefit from exercising self-regulated learning (SRL) skills. In order for students to learn to effectively and autonomously apply these skills, Australian studies suggest that constant guidance, prompting and feedback from teachers is important. When implemented at a whole-school level, the approach is likely to require a supportive school environment, regular evaluation of practices, and processes to ensure teacher accountability.
A 2014 study of three schools in South Australia found that students’ meta-cognitive skills did not improve substantially as students progressed through secondary school. The authors highlighted the need to provide students with explicit instruction to develop meta-cognitive skills.
How secure is the evidence?
A number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have consistently found similar levels of impact for strategies related to meta-cognition and self-regulation. Most studies have looked at the impact on English or mathematics, though there is some evidence from other subject areas like science, suggesting that the approach is likely to be widely applicable.
What are the costs?
Overall, costs are estimated as low. Many studies report the benefits of professional development or an inquiry approach for teachers where teachers actively evaluate strategies as they learn to use them. A course of sustained professional development or collaborative professional inquiry is estimated at $4,500 per year (including some release from classroom teaching) or about $180 per student.
What should I consider?
Teaching approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning have very high potential, but require careful implementation.
Have you taught students explicit strategies on how to plan, monitor and evaluate specific aspects of their learning? Have you given them opportunities to use them with support and then independently?
Teaching how to plan: Have you asked students to identify the different ways that they could plan (general strategies) and then how best to approach a particular task (specific technique)?
Teaching how to monitor: Have you asked students to consider where the task might go wrong? Have you asked the students to identify the key steps for keeping the task on track?
Teaching how to evaluate: Have you asked students to consider how they would improve their approach to the task if they completed it again?