When you are set with a new learning task, where do you tend to begin? Do you dive right in and start trying to learn or memorize information, concepts, and processes? Or do you take a moment to think about the best way to learn the material, reflecting on specific strategies that might be well-suited to the task?

If your instinct is first to think about your own learning, you already have some experience with metacognition and its application to learning.

is the reflective process by which we think about the way we are thinking, especially when it comes to learning something new.

Metacognition has been an important concept in educational theory for several decades (Flavell, 1976). Here is a brief summary from Vanderbilt University:

Illustration of student thinking about thinking

Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one's thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one's understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one's thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner....

Metacognitive practices help students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test-takers, group members, etc. A key element is recognizing the limit of one's knowledge or ability and then figuring out how to expand that knowledge or extend the ability.

(Chick, 2020)

Metacognitive reflection is beneficial for all learners at every level, and it influences how we approach and interact with course content and assessments. Metacognition is the ability to take a step back and identify gaps in our understanding and what is and isn’t working in our approach to learning. This awareness helps us focus or re-focus our energy on content or skill development that requires more of our attention, improving our cognitive engagement with a topic. Metacognition also helps us develop learning strategies for ourselves that are cognitively active, as opposed to those that are cognitively passive (and thus typically less effective for learning).


Katherine Stanger-Hall (2012) offers the following examples of cognitively active versus cognitively passive learning behaviours:

Table 4.1: Cognitively passive vs. cognitively active learning behaviours
Cognitively passive learning behavioursCognitively active learning behaviours

I previewed the reading before class

I asked myself: "How does this work?" and "Why does it work this way?"

I came to class

I drew my own flowcharts and diagrams

I read the assigned text

I broke down complex processes step-by-step

I reviewed my class notes

I wrote my own study questions

I rewrote my notes

I reorganized the class information

I made index cards

I compared and contrasted

I highlighted the text

I fit all the facts into a bigger picture

I looked up information

I tried to figure out the answer before looking it up

I asked a classmate or tutor to explain the material to me

I closed my notes and tested how much I remembered


I asked myself: "How are individual steps connected?" and "Why are they connected?"


I drew and labeled diagrams from memory and figured out missing pieces


I asked myself: "How does this impact my life?"

Check and reflect

Take a moment to think about your process as you have worked through this resource to learn about online course facilitation (if this is the first section of this resource that you have gone through, you can reflect on another recent learning experience of your choice). How would you answer the following questions about your learning experience?

  • What content in this resource has seemed most familiar to you so far, or what did you already know about the topic of facilitating online courses?
  • What content has been the most surprising or least familiar to you so far?
  • What topic has been most confusing to you or most difficult to master?
  • What strategies have you been using to learn this material? List at least three.
  • Have these strategies been effective to this point?
  • Are there any other strategies that you might want to employ to help you learn this material more easily?

Asking yourself these questions requires that you reflect thoughtfully on your own process of thinking and learning — in other words, answering these questions requires that you employ metacognition. This metacognition allows you to consider ways that you might improve that process and thus learn more efficiently and effectively.

Person with thought bubble of 'Prior knowledge' with four boxes, sharing box with another person.

As a post-secondary educator, you likely have developed strong metacognitive skills and strategies for engaging with content and the learning process, particularly in your discipline, which your students may be working on or struggling to develop. Whether learning how to learn was a struggle or came about more seamlessly for you, for many learners it is a skill that takes time and effort to build and often requires explicit guidance. It is important to remember that, as someone who achieved this status of teaching in higher education, you may not be representative of the typical post-secondary student. You may have a wealth of valuable learning strategies and ways of engaging with content that are intuitive to you and, if shared with your students, could really change how they interact with content in your course and how they learn, particularly in an online learning context.

Though metacognitive skills are important for students in any learning environment, building these skills is especially crucial for online students. Online learners are more autonomous than their in-class counterparts and have more freedom and flexibility to encounter learning materials when and how they want to. Thus, there is a greater responsibility to navigate course content independantly and to think carefully about how they are engaging with the material.


The second essential factor that underlies high-quality student-content engagement is motivation. You will not be surprised to hear that motivation has an enormous impact on a given student’s success in a course.

There does not seem to be a specific set of distance learning skills that every student should use; it is more important that a student should be well motivated to learn and have reasonable confidence in their study skills, whatever they are.

(Simpson, 2012)

While course designers and facilitators do not have complete control over student motivation, there are some essential things you can do in your online course to help foster as much motivation as possible. The most important key to helping your students stay motivated is to build a sense of community in your course through high-quality student-facilitator and student-student interaction, which we cover in other units. Research shows that students who feel connected to a supportive class community are more able to sustain their motivation to learn (Alderman, 2008). With respect to student-content interaction more specifically, three things are especially worth focusing on for online facilitators: enthusiasm, value of information, and transparency. We will introduce these concepts briefly here, before discussing some strategies for implementing them in the next section.


Laptop with heart in it

You became interested in your area of study for a reason. Something about it likely filled you with a passion and desire to know more. In a classroom, tutorial, or lab setting, you probably share your enthusiasm for your subject without thinking much about it, through subtle things like vocal tone, body language, special emphasis, and other rather automatic signals or cues. The spilling over of your love for your subject or discipline is doing your students good. Research shows that teacher enthusiasm has a substantial positive impact on student motivation (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik; Keller, Hoy, Goetz, & Frenzel; 2006, 2016) and benefits behavioural, cognitive, and emotional engagement (Zhang, 2014).

The value and relevance of information

Students are most motivated to learn when they find the content they are dealing with valuable and see how it is relevant to themselves and their own goals. When content seems useful and valuable to students, both emotional engagement and cognitive engagement improve as students experience a greater sense of emotional satisfaction and find it easier to connect new information to what they already know.

Students are likely to perceive value in course content when it is clearly applicable to a current or future job or career, when it is clearly connected to other learning materials and assessments, and when it is relevant to their lives or the world more broadly. As we have already noted, attention and memory (cognitive engagement) and interest (emotional engagement) are enhanced when learners perceive information as meaningful and/or relevant in these ways.


Often, the simplest way to improve student motivation and thus enhance engagement with content is simply to explain why your course is designed the way that it is, why it uses the tools that it uses, and how the assessments enable students to demonstrate their learning. This kind of transparency can help students persist and remain engaged through difficulty and challenge — a key component of emotional engagement. Faced with a variety of sometimes complex software, hardware, assessments, and activities, online students can be at risk of experiencing frustration when things do not work right or when their investment of time and effort seems incongruous with the learning value of a given exercise. Research has shown that simply explaining why certain things are happening in an online course improves student satisfaction and success (Kumar, Martin, Budhrani, & Ritzhaupt, 2019).


Alderman, M. (2008). Motivation for achievement: possibilities for teaching and learning. London: Routledge.

Blumenfeld, P. C., Kempler, T. M., & Krajcik, J. S. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. In The Cambridge hanbook of learning sciences (pp. 475-488).

Chick, N. (2020, February 12). Metacognition. Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:

Flavell, J. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. R. (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231-235). Hillsdale: Earlbaum.

Keller, M. M., Hoy, A. W., Goetz, T., & Frenzel, A. C. (2016). Teacher enthusiasm: Reviewing and redefining a complex construct. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 743-769.

Kumar, S., Martin, F., Budhrani, K., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Elements of award-winning courses. Online Learning, 23(4), 160-180.

Simpson, O. (2012). Supporting students for success in online and distance education (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Stanger-Hall, K. (2012). Multiple-choice exams: An obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11, 294-306.

Zhang, Q. (2014). Assessing the effects of instructor enthusiasm on classrom engagement, learning goal orientation, and academic self-efficacy. Communication Teacher, 28(1), 44-56.