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Metacognitive Training May Improve General Chemistry Student’s Study Strategies

Title: I realized what I was doing was not working: the influence of explicit teaching of metacognition on students’ study strategies in a general chemistry I course†

Authors: Caroline Z. Muteti, Carolina Zarraga, Brooke I. Jacob, Tuli M. Mwarumba, Dorothy B. Nkhata, Mwarumba Mwavita, Smita Mohanty and Jacinta M. Mutambuki

First author’s institution: Oklahoma State University

Journal: Chemical Education Research and Practice


General Chemistry, which is often taken by freshman university students, is known to be a difficult class. Many students fail and ultimately change their majors. Research has shown that students who are active and engaged in their studying and focus on applying the material as they learn tend to fail less often and earn higher grades on average than students who only read and reread their textbooks and notes and focus on rote memorization of the material.

Recently researchers from Oklahoma State University wanted to determine if explicitly teaching students to monitor their own thinking and study strategies (metacognition) would lead to students choosing more successful study strategies and ultimately doing better in the course.

The researchers taught 270 general chemistry students a 50 minute lesson on the second day of a general chemistry course focused on how people learn, how that applies to chemistry, and strategies for monitoring their learning. Students were then asked as homework to list their study strategies prior to the lessons and any new strategies and how they might use them going forward. Students were reminded of this lesson several weeks before each exam in the course.

259 students filled out a survey listing their study strategies prior to the training. Students largely used relatively passive strategies focused on rote memorization, which the researchers classified as “lower-order study strategies.” These included strategies like reading and rereading the textbook or notes, using flashcards, or cramming shortly before the exam. Fewer students reported “higher-order study strategies like working practice problems, studying with others, self-testing, or planning study time in advance. Students reported that they were likely to try these higher order strategies after learning about them in the metacognition lesson, however researchers did not attempt to measure whether students actually followed through on employing the higher order strategies (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Students reported more effective study strategies after being taught about how to best learn in the General Chemistry class.. Researchers did not attempt to determine whether students actually followed through on employing the effective study strategies they identified.

At the end of the semester, students were asked to fill out a brief one question open response survey asking them how the metacognition lesson effected their studying over the course of the semester, which 115 students filled out. Students frequently mentioned having more knowledge about effective ways to study, being better at finding their own knowledge gaps, using appropriate learning strategies, and setting goals and planning a study strategy prior for the class.

Figure 2: At the end of the course researchers asked students what study strategies they had used and classified student responses into either metacognitive knowledge, or knowledge about effective ways to learn, or metacognitive recognition, or descriptions of habits students had developed throughout the term. Subcategories for each type of response are listed here.

Of the students who filled out the end of semester survey, 66% said the metacognition lesson helped them study better for the class while the remainder said it had no effect. The students who said it had a positive effect were more likely to earn a grade of at least C for the course, although only by a small amount.

Figure 3: Students who said the intervention positively influenced them earned better grades, on average, then students who said it had no effect.

The researchers note that it is challenging to determine whether students who felt they benefited from the metacognition lesson performed better in the class as a result of that intervention or whether more skilled students were both more likely to incorporate strategies suggested in the intervention as well as more likely to do well in the class to begin with. They suggest future studies may benefit from quantitatively measuring what study strategies students report actually using over the course or the semester as well as testing different follow-up metacognitive interventions, particularly around exam times, to help reinforce effective strategies for students.

In practice, these results indicate that there may be a benefit to explicitly explaining to students how to study in science classes towards the beginning of the semester. Students often come in with ideas about effective studying that will not assist them in meeting the learning goals of the class. However, the effects were small and it isn’t clear how reliably students follow up and employ the effective techniques they learn. Ongoing support and instruction as the semester goes on may help students develop good study habits throughout challenging introductory science courses.

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