Instructional Continuity

The Role of Metacognition During Times of Disrupted Learning

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The pandemic has, once again, disrupted teaching plans and learning arrangements as we embark on a new semester. Recent work has focused on the ways in which instructors can be flexible with their course designs or show more care and grace to students, but how can we assist students with being champions of their own learning during times of disruption?

This is where metacognition, defined by Saundra McGuire (2015, p. 16) as the ability of “students to monitor, plan, and control their mental processing,” comes into play. Metacognition involves conscious and deliberate thinking about the “how” and “why” of learning. For students, this entails being conscious of study patterns and habits, practicing knowledge retention and retrieval, and taking action as problem-solvers in the learning process. All are important if students need to miss class or ask for alternative assignment options due to being ill, caring for sick ones, or attending to other personal responsibilities.

The problem is that students often do not come to our courses with effective metacognitive skills in their learning toolbox. This is especially the case, now, after two years of emergency, then remote, then dual-mode teaching. Students are stressed and anxious about re-engaging with classroom instruction, full course loads, and their campus communities. They need to be reminded of expectations and strategies for being active learners in the classroom. They need help with re-learning how to participate in classroom discussions. Many don’t know how to talk to each other or develop relationships with their peers.

Teaching students metacognitive strategies doesn’t have to be a drain on your time or resources. It can take the form of quick surveys or practice exercises to see where students are before introducing a topic or assignment. You could ask students to document their learning experience and progress through an “exit-ticket” paper they submit at the end of a class or in a journal they submit at different points in the semester. You can help them focus their attention by crowd-sourcing notes or co-constructing study guides with them. You can help them develop relationships with their peers by creating opportunities for peer review or providing structured group work.

While it’s hard to plan for teaching during times of disruption, we can teach our students the importance of monitoring, evaluating, and acting on their learning as a critical tool for their current and future success, transferable to any course or career setting they find themselves in.

Please contact the Reinert Center to schedule a consultation to talk further about your teaching plans or needs for Spring 2022.


McGuire, S.Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.