Metacognition can improve belief in your own abilities – and that’s key to keeping girls in STEM subjects

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of your own thinking and the strategies that you use to learn effectively. Unfortunately, many students often do not have this awareness and so struggle to recognise and correct any specific difficulties they encounter.

Self-efficacy – the belief in your own abilities and skills to accomplish a goal – is closely related to metacognition. Self-efficacy is important because it can motivate a student into putting in more effort to their learning, which ultimately means they achieve a better outcome.

An image showing cogwheels in a woman's head

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Thinking more broadly, there is a link between students with high self-efficacy in science and those that choose to continue to study STEM subjects or follow a STEM career path. Self-efficacy is particularly important for under-represented groups in STEM; it has been identified as one reason why girls choose not to continue to study these subjects.

A study by US researchers investigated whether, by teaching metacognitive strategies, college students could improve their self-efficacy and thereby improve their grade outcomes.

The six key learning strategies

In this study, the researchers introduced metacognitive strategies over a series of additional lessons using the open-access resources developed by the Learning Scientists. One group of students learned about metacognition and another group served as the control for the study.

The six key strategies were covered: spaced practice, retrieval practice, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples and dual coding. Importantly, the students practised these strategies in the context of their current chemistry learning.

Self-efficacy was measured at the beginning and the end of a semester by using an established tool, the College Chemistry Self-Efficacy Scale. At the beginning of the semester, the self-efficacy of girls was lower than that of the boys, which aligns with previous studies.

The study showed that the students’ self-efficacy was positively affected by learning about metacognitive strategies. Interestingly, the metacognitive training reduced the differences in self-efficacy ratings between boys and girls. The researchers also found that the improved self-efficacy scores positively correlated with students’ grade outcomes.

Teaching tips

The approach to metacognitive skills development taken in this research could provide a reasonably straightforward way to increase students’ self-efficacy and hopefully their grades. Such development could also increase retention in STEM disciplines, especially for girls, which would be particularly welcome. There are a couple of things to consider if you would like to implement this approach in your classes:

  • All the resources used to introduce metacognitive strategies are available free from the Learning Scientists. The introduction of these strategies was a self-guided activity, so could be set as a homework task for students. All that is needed from you is to provide the students with opportunities to practise and use these strategies.
  • Although the resources available from the Learning Scientists allow students to learn about the strategies themselves, it is probably best for you to model explicitly how to use them in a chemistry context.
  • Provide students with regular opportunities to practise their metacognitive strategies, so that they begin to use them automatically.
  • For students who already know how to use metacognitive approaches, further instruction in these skills may actually be counterproductive by demotivating them. So, you could screen for metacognitive skills and then differentiate the activities, but the self-guided approach described here will help facilitate this.

Education in Chemistry recently published useful articles with downloadable classroom activities around developing metacognitive skills: Thinking about thinking promotes problem solving and Show students how to direct their own learning.