Strategies for encouraging metacognition

Course designers may incorporate activities like pre-assessments, journals, reflections, and explicit instructions relating to metacognition (such as through a course orientation) to encourage students to think about their thinking. However, there are important ways to continue to encourage metacognitive engagement with course content throughout the term. Kimberly Tanner (2012) identifies a number of broad strategies for encouraging student metacognition, three of which are worth highlighting especially in the context of online course facilitation:

  • Giving students license to identify confusions
  • Modelling metacognition
  • Explicitly teaching metacognitive strategies (Tanner, 2012)

Identifying confusions

There are always elements of a learning process that we find more difficult than others, and learners can easily get hung up on these difficult points, especially if they need to master them before continuing to other key elements of a course.

As an online facilitator, it is helpful to consider how you might guide students to reflect on and share those topics or content elements in your course that are most confusing and difficult to master. You can begin by assessing your own course for areas that you expect might be difficult, or that you know students have struggled with in the past. These areas of confusion may be inherent to the material in some cases, but they also might arise owing to problems in course design (over which you may or may not have control) in that certain topics are not explained as well as they could be in the original course content.

Strategy for Clarifying Confusion

Take the opportunity to clarify concepts that students are struggling with by writing out (or drawing) an alternative way of explaining or describing a concept. If the concept itself is best shown rather than described, consider creating your own demo video, like the one below.

Demonstration to clarify concepts

Check and reflect

If you are able, call up or bring out the syllabus for the online course you are facilitating (or will be soon). Look over the content areas that you will be covering in the course. Write down some topics or concepts that you think students are most likely to struggle with. Are there any additional resources or different ways of approaching these concepts that might help to clarify or circumvent confusion for students? If you think of some, make some notes and add a reminder for yourself in your Facilitator Checklist.

In addition to identifying likely areas of confusion yourself, it is also important to find out which portions of the course content your students are finding most difficult. Begin by cultivating a culture in which students feel comfortable sharing and asking questions (Tanner, 2012). This requires that you create opportunities for students to share and solicit their feedback.  

Strategies: Encouraging metacognition through student mistakes and confusion

Provide opportunities to learn from mistakes

After grading or reviewing assessment results (e.g., quizzes, problem sets, writing assignments), identify if there were any concepts or skills students seemed to struggle with (e.g., didn’t execute well or completely missed on an assignment or got incorrect on a quiz).

  • Class-level feedback: Return to the content and assignment instructions to identify how you might clarify the concept further or explain the process required to do well on the assessment (e.g., process of creating an outline, drafting, revising, etc.). You might also identify common mistakes made on an assignment or problem set (without identifying students) and demonstrate how to avoid these errors or improve. Share this with students by making a post-assessment announcement or a discussion thread in a dedicated discussion forum. This strategy helps students gain insight into their mistakes and helps build their metacognitive awareness by revealing where confusion lies. It can also be a way to provide students with formative feedback, when time does not allow for individualized feedback on each assessment.
  • Individual student feedback: If time allows, you may want to reach out to individuals who did particularly poorly on an assessment (or multiple assessments). This is especially important early in the term, when students quickly learn whether anyone is watching or cares. You can ask how they feel about an assessment and where they feel they are struggling. You might inquire about what strategies they are using to learn the material or approach the assessments. Then, clarify concepts through email or a virtual meeting, or identify if there is an issue with their study strategies.

Solicit student feedback to build metacognitive monitoring

Inviting students to provide feedback about concepts that they find confusing encourages students to practise the metacognitive skill of monitoring. There are many ways to solicit this kind of feedback from students. If you ask students to monitor when they feel confused and give you feedback, it is important that you use this information to clarify confusion for students in some way (e.g., through discussion forum or announcements, as above).

  • End-of-module polls or surveys. You can ask students to report on the clearest and most confusing concept they came across for each module. Summarize these class data weekly and provide clarification on confusing points in announcements or the discussion forum. This information could also be used to help you select topics for short online video tutorials. If you offer video tutorials synchronously, make sure you post the topics covered to generate student interest, and record and post the video for those who cannot attend the synchronous session.
  • Question and Answer Forum: Encourage students to post their questions in a Q & A forum where instructors, TAs, and even other students can answer content-related questions. 

As confusions arise, be sure to focus on the core support strategies involved in good student-facilitator interaction. Help your students stay optimistic about learning the difficult material, offer further explanations and clarification, and suggest some study strategies (perhaps drawn from the cognitively active strategies above) that might help students to get over the hump. When students are aware of what confuses them and feel supported in the process of getting clarity, deep engagement with course content becomes much more likely.

Modelling metacognition

How do you approach the process of learning and solving problems in your own field? Whether you are an instructor, TA, or other facilitator, you have achieved a high level of success in your area of study or expertise, which means you have learned to learn your subject matter effectively.

If you begin to see an area of substantial confusion in your online course, with many students appearing to struggle with the same material, consider taking some time to share a friendly description of how you personally might think through the content or solve the problem at hand. Or share how you may have struggled with but were able to learn this particular content yourself. Adding a personal touch to a content problem can help foster more positive emotional engagement with the content in question on the part of students and also provides practical advice for overcoming the hurdle students are facing. This modelling approach can be applied to any of the strategies listed in Strategies: Encouraging metacognition through mistakes or confusion, above.

Teaching metacognitive strategies

If your course contains an orientation or other introductory materials that address metacognitive considerations, be sure to signal to your students the importance of working through this kind of material (even if it does not seem immediately relevant to the subject they are studying). For courses without scripted orientations, be ready to help students both as individuals and as a group to think about how they are organizing, reviewing, and studying various course materials. 

Strategies for building student metacognition through self-reflection and feedback

Self-reflection on approach to content

Consider presenting your students with questions that help them identify their approach to course content, such as those shared earlier in this unit.

Engage students in sharing strategies

Keep a running list of successful strategies that you or other students have used to master certain types of content or practises that help students learn online. Some examples can be found in the online article 21 Study Tips for Online Classes Success. Share with your students in an announcement, discussion forum, or via email.

Provide formative feedback

Take time to give quality feedback on any required learning journals or other reflection activities. If none are required and time allows, you can create an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and provide guidance by inviting them to create a learning reflection informally and providing (ungraded) feedback.

Case Study

Illustration of student on computer with question marks around head

Imagine that you are instructing a first-year math course online. The midterm is coming up, which is worth a large percentage of the final grade. In the past, a high proportion of students have failed the midterm and you would like the student outcomes on this midterm to be better.

One of your students, Lucas, has reached out to you by email, indicating that he failed the midterm practice quiz, which provided feedback on student answers to their problem sets. He tells you, “Everything so far is so confusing. I read the course content three times and I still failed the practice quiz. I don’t know what else to do — I’m going to fail the midterm now, too!”

Which of the below might you consider to help Lucas and the rest of your students engage the course content more successfully?

Supplementary resource

Strategies for boosting student motivation

In the previous section, we discussed the impact of instructor enthusiasm, perceived value of content, and transparency on student engagement when interacting with content. Here, we explore some practical strategies for cultivating motivation in relation to these three considerations.

Strategies for building enthusiasm

Sharing your enthusiasm with online students is important for maintaining student motivation and enthusiasm. To share your enthusiasm online, however, requires somewhat more intentionality than doing so face-to-face. This is especially true if you are facilitating a course where the content has already been developed and will be static throughout the term. Whereas you might add some passion to a classroom lecture with a simple change in vocal tone, adding your enthusiasm to a fixed text or multimedia resource in an online course requires the use of peripheral tools like announcements, discussions, and interpersonal communications, each of which are discussed in more detail in Unit 3. Student-Facilitator Interaction.

Strategies for building student enthusiasm and interest

Several good examples of how online facilitators have used short videos to interact with their students and build student-content interaction and engagement are shown below. As you watch these videos, note the different approaches, instructional styles, and ways student interest in course content may be enhanced.

Using polls/surveys to increase personal relevance

The following video is a great example of facilitator interaction that can enhance behavioural engagement. In this example, created for a module on Leisure and Work, the facilitator uses short weekly videos to help keep students on track (with gentle reminders about assessments). Here, the facilitator has first used a survey to ask students some questions related to the upcoming week's content. She has then created a video to share the results with the class and comment on their significance. This facilitator notes that the “questions aren’t necessarily scholarly, but more a way to get [students] thinking about next week's ideas.” Notice how the facilitator relates the students’ response back to content in the module.

Using novelty to generate student interest

In the next video example, the online course facilitator takes the opportunity to generate student interest in his German Culture course by talking about a German brand of tissue. By piquing interest through what first appears to be an unexpected diversion, the instructor is able to increase student engagement in advance of introducing the key concept of rapid societal change, which students will encounter and work through in the coming module.

Using relatable examples and personal experiences to generate attention and interest

In the following two videos, the facilitator uses relatable examples to make the personal relevance of the research students will learn about in her psychology course on Interpersonal Relationships clearer.

Relating personal experiences to content

Check and reflect


Imagine that this week your online class content will be focused on your own primary area of interest or expertise — the stuff you really love most about your work. Now try to craft an announcement (or script a video announcement) for the class that expresses your special love for this subject and some of the reasons why it is so important to the course overall. What types of language and messaging do you think will be most effective to help your students feel the same excitement you do about this subject matter? Is there a personal anecdote, visual image, news article, or short video clip that would help to capture and spread your enthusiasm? You might refer back to Unit 3. Student-facilitator interactions, were there are some examples of some welcome announcements. Add this to your Facilitator Checklist. If you are a TA who has some good ideas of how to support student-content engagement, add this to your list of questions you'll ask the instructor at the outset of the course.

The key to sharing your enthusiasm online is in making a point of doing so. Text-based communication can draw us into more formal ways of speaking. There is nothing wrong with formality in many if not most situations when teaching online. However, see if you can break out once in a while to share a little bit of your love for the content you are studying together. Seeing your passion will help students engage more deeply with the subject themselves.

Strategies for value signaling

A good online course should include value signaling, highlighting the value of its content regularly, signaling the potential applications for new information to learners as they go, and ideally scaffolding information so that it is clear how each new piece of content relates to those before and after it. Even in a well-designed course, however, it is important to continue sharing with your students the reasons for which they are learning various processes and pieces of information. 

Strategies for value signalling

What matters to your students?

In signaling the value of content, it is important to get to know your online students as well as possible. If you are able to include formal or informal surveys or discussions that ask students to share their reasons for taking your course, and their specific goals for future work or further study, this can help you to be more specific about the importance of various topics. Making a chart or record of your students and their goals can be useful in this context. This information can guide what and how you highlight connections and value in the course through your interactions with students.

Seeing the connections through the content

Value signaling also benefits from attention to other concepts within the course, relating various pieces of information to things that have already been learned (or will soon come up) so that students can see the broad connections within the course itself. Drawing out these kinds of relationships in the course is known as scaffolding and is especially important during course design, but can also be helpful when communicating with students throughout the term. Pointing out how concepts are related in the first few weeks of the term can help to model this kind of scaffolding and emphasize the connections that we hope students will make as they continue to move through the material.

Helping students recognize important information

Students may, at times, miss some key concepts because they simply miss their relevance. Sometimes that is because relevance has not been well-signaled in the content, or students do not recognize or look for that signaling. One very important way that online courses signal relevance is through a list of intended learning outcomes or objectives and sometimes a list of key terms or concepts. In a well-designed online course, these outcomes are aligned with student assessments. Directing students to these lists to help guide their approach to content and preparation for assessments can be a very easy and helpful way to orient students towards relevance.

Case Study

Illustration of student at computer

Late one evening, you receive an email from Bernadette, who is taking your course as a required component of her degree. She is not doing very well in the course so far, and she shares that the content has not been exactly what she expected going in. She’s getting frustrated and is thinking about dropping the course.


How might you respond to Bernadette's concerns?

Strategies to help with transparency

While instructions for most activities will be written during the design phase for a course, adding more information about the purpose of activities during term can further strengthen student motivation. 

Strategies that provide transparency 

Explain the why, not just the how

Students who know why they are doing an activity (beyond just getting a grade), and where they can get help, are much more likely to complete it successfully. You can explain this to students in individual consultations or you may choose to start each week/module with an announcement where you introduce the module/topic and highlight why the topic matters and/or the methods or tools used in that module are used.

Grading transparency

If your course does not provide clear grading breakdowns or rubrics (detailed scoring guice) for students, you might consider creating some of these (or discussing this with the instructor if you are a TA), which will not only help your grading efficiency and consistency, but will help students understand and meet expectations. This can save a lot of time in providing customized feedback or one-on-one meetings with students to explain where they missed the mark.

Signaling learning outcomes and alignment

Directing students to course-level and unit- or module-level learning outcomes that are aligned with assessments can help students see transparency built right into the course. If your course lacks learning outcomes, you might wish to compose them yourself based on the content and the assessments in the course, posting these ahead of time for students in a single document, or weekly.

Check and reflect

Sit down with your course syllabus, including the schedule and assessments you will be facilitating. Now do the following:

  • Look carefully through the course materials to identify all of the activities that your students are being asked to engage in from major formal assessments, to forum discussions, to course projects. Include content activities like reading textbooks and reading or watching lecture materials. Write down these activities in a list.
  • Identify the various technological tools that students will use to complete those activities (everything from your LMS itself, to YouTube, to a word processor, to complex video recording software, and anything else they will need to use). Record these next to the activities on your list.
  • Look through the learning outcomes or objectives for the course, as well as for any individual modules, units, and assessments. Try to identify how each individual activity is meant to contribute to these desired outcomes.
Now, create a draft announcement for one of the activities that you have identified. In your announcement, remind students of the upcoming activity, its requirements, and its due date. Then add two or three encouraging sentences explaining the purpose of the activity in the course. Finally, add a comment indicating how students can get help if they are having trouble with any of the tools they will be using to complete the assignment.


Sull, E. C. (2012, March 8). Personality matters when teaching online. Retrieved from

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11, 113-120.