How Spelman College Will Use Metacognitive Awareness to Improve Academic Performance

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Metacognitive awareness (“thinking about thinking”) is a crucial skill to help students persist and succeed, and here’s how Spelman College hopes to help them master that skill.


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

This was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” is a crucial skill to help students persist and succeed, but a Spelman College psychology professor noticed that her junior and senior students hadn’t yet mastered that skill. In response, assistant professor of psychology Jimmeka Guillory started using metacognitive instruction in her class and immediately noticed a difference. Students demonstrated improvement in their awareness and academic performance, and importantly, more students started coming to seek help during her office hours.

Now Guillory and Francesina Jackson, director of college’s Center for Academic Planning and Success, plan to expand their approach with a $2.7 million First in the World grant to track the impact of metacognitive instruction on the academic performance of 2,200 first-year students. The project may hold crucial lessons for other institutions. We talked recently with Guillory and Jackson to learn more about the metacognition techniques they will use and how the project will unfold.

Teaching Students to “Think About Thinking”

Guillory and Jackson’s goal is to help students develop skills and habits vital to persisting in college by teaching them techniques that foster a greater awareness of their own thinking and learning. Metacognitive training involves planning, monitoring and evaluation, Guillory explains, and the project will incorporate several metacognitive strategies, including:

  • Reciprocal Teaching, an approach that improves reading comprehension. While reading, students practice four strategies: generating questions, summarizing, attempting to clarify word meanings or confusing text, and predicting what might happen next.
  • Self-Regulated Strategic Development improves writing. It guides students to master the higher-level cognitive processes involved in writing to develop autonomous, reflective, self-regulated use of writing strategies, and to form constructive attitudes about themselves as writers.
  • In Reading Logs, students write about their experience while reading, both inside and outside the classroom. The approach encourages student reflection, promotes autonomous learning, improves self-confidence, improves reading comprehension, and provides the instructor with information about how students are using metacognitive skills.

Improved self-awareness improves students’ ability to monitor what they know and what they need to learn.

Crucially, Guillory and Jackson’s project will focus on metacognitive instruction in the first year, so that incoming students will be able to learn these skills and apply them throughout the four years of their undergraduate work and beyond. The project calls for randomly assigning students to sections of a required First-Year Experience course where they will be trained in metacognitive strategies. Students will be monitored to assess the impact of the strategies on their learning in that course and throughout their college experience.

Additionally, the project will include:

  • Trained peer tutors – so that when students seek support at the tutoring center, they will receive support that is informed by the metacognitive strategies they’re learning in their First-Year Experience classrooms.
  • Each cohort will respond to a writing prompt at the end of their sophomore year; in the writing assignment, they will offer incoming freshmen students three strategies for succeeding academically. This will help assess progress made in the first two years.

Spelman’s project will focus specifically on reading and writing, Jackson notes, but the techniques are applicable in any discipline.

The Biggest Challenge

According to Jackson, the biggest challenge is that students, particularly high-achieving students, can be reluctant to seek out support services due to possible stigma. Peer tutors from the eight tutoring centers on campus already visit classrooms each semester, and faculty also encourage students to visit the center. Spelman will develop and employ additional incentives to encourage students in both the Fall 2016 control and intervention cohorts to seek out peer tutors.

Why You Should Watch This Project

Many components of this project, such as the inclusion of peer tutors, are low-cost, potentially high-impact practices that can easily be replicated at other institutions. Guillory adds that metacognition makes other engaged learning strategies, such as flipped classrooms, more effective. Together, these high-impact practices can improve persistence and degree completion — and can have an impact long after graduation.

“Metacognition has long-term implications that becoming more self-aware is critical as one continues in a particular career.”
Francesina Jackson, Spelman College

Spelman College will disseminate its findings through two regional conferences: one scheduled for Summer 2018, and the other scheduled for Summer 2020. It will be exciting to find out what they learn as they implement metacognitive instruction.

Do you have a story to share about undergraduate learning strategies at your institution? If so, please email Daniel Fusch, our director of publications and research, at We would love to learn more!