Toward Metacognitive Equity

by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie N. McGuire

One hot, humid afternoon in late summer of 1966, I walked into the first class of my Honors General Chemistry course at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was 16 years old at the time, having entered college after skipping my senior year of high school. Because I had taken physics my junior year and was scheduled to take chemistry as a senior, I’d had no exposure to the subject before enrolling in the college honors course. Although I knew that all of my classmates had taken at least one year of high school chemistry I felt confident that I was prepared for the task at hand and could outperform most of them. I was ready to learn and excel.

Why? What had prepared me to excel in this advanced course despite the apparent barrier of not having had any prior experience with the subject? We can never know exactly the combination of factors that causes a seemingly unprepared student to be successful, but in my case, I have some good guesses. My family was full of educators, including my paternal grandmother, Effie Jane Gordon Yancy, and my father Robert E. Yancy, Jr. a high school general science and agriculture teacher who would relate fascinating accounts of scientific phenomena to me and my three siblings. My mother, an elementary school teacher, read to us every evening and told us fairy tales and other stories she’d learned, many from her own childhood. She engaged us in these activities from the time we were toddlers. Our family life was full of questioning and discussions, and I absorbed thinking and learning strategies without realizing it.

When we in the academic community talk about educational equity, we call attention to the urgent task of closing the achievement gap between students of higher and lower socioeconomic status, between majority and minoritized students, and between well-resourced and under resourced schools. I have recently begun using a parallel term, metacognitive equity, to describe our need to close the gap between students who have acquired effective thinking and learning strategies and those who have not. Often, whether or not a student possesses those strategies—rather than any lack of innate ability or talent—makes the difference between academic success and discouraging failure.

The good news is that metacognitive learning strategies can be taught (McGuire, 2015, 2018). Although I arrived at Southern University with a collection of strategies that enabled me to graduate magna cum laude, after spending an exchange year at Berkeley and summers at Columbia and Harvard, those strategies were not sufficient when I entered Cornell as a graduate student in chemistry. A combination of discouragement and disinterest led me to chemical education, where my passion lay. But thirty years later, while serving as director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success, I learned the strategies that would have enabled me to excel as a graduate student in Cornell’s chemistry department. At LSU, a talented learning coach named Sarah Baird taught me about metacognition, and I began to marvel at its impact not only on college students but also on my own thinking and learning. Over the last twenty years, I have seen countless students transform their academic performance by using simple metacognitive learning strategies that show them how to learn. Two of the most popular ones I share with students are 1) how to get the most out of their reading assignments and 2) how to effectively use homework as a tool for learning. If metacognitive strategies could be delivered to all students on a national scale starting in elementary school—if all students could be taught how to learn—then we as a nation could achieve metacognitive equity.

Why aren’t we there already? There are several reasons. First, not enough people know that it’s possible to teach students how to learn. The idea of intelligence as fixed is still too widespread. Most people have personal experience with comparing themselves to other students while they were in school and may have labeled themselves as “good at reading but bad at math,” for example. To close the metacognitive equity gap, we need to keep shouting from the rooftops that simple learning strategies can be transformative, and we also need to give ample attention to our youngest students. According to Reardon et al. (2012), “students from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students.” To make the most transformative changes, metacognitive learning strategies should be introduced into students’ lives as early as possible. My colleagues Rosianna Gray from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Marian Castille, an elementary teacher in East Baton Rouge Parish, have taught metacognition to students as young as third grade.

A second cause of the metacognitive equity gap is stratifying elementary or middle school students into different learning levels without first teaching them learning strategies. Over time, this stratification widens the metacognitive equity gap because, too often, only students at higher learning levels are required to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills. To make matters worse, students who attend under resourced schools may not even have access to courses like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Indeed, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (2012) collected data indicating that students from under resourced schools are more likely to be less academically challenged.

I saw firsthand how sorting students into different learning levels can influence academic development when our younger daughter entered high school after our family relocated. As a 9th grader she was placed in a mid-level math class but was moved to the honors class within a few weeks. The two classes had the same name and used the same textbook, so I was quite surprised to discover that they were as different as day and night. Homework for the mid-level class consisted exclusively of problems very similar to the worked examples presented in the chapter, whereas the honors students were expected to solve the most difficult problems offered by the textbook. The development of our daughter’s thinking skills would have taken a very different journey if she had remained in the mid-level class.

High-stakes testing is another reason that too many of our students do not acquire the higher-order critical thinking skills necessary for success in college. I have heard from K-12 public school teachers that they are required to stop teaching new content weeks before the end of a term in order to begin test preparation. These teachers feel that they have less freedom overall to give high-performing students extra work or encourage them to engage deeply in critical thinking. Their counterparts in private schools, not burdened with testing requirements, have much more flexibility, so the already existing gap in resources widens to include metacognitive inequity.

One additional effect of metacognitive inequity is that students from under resourced schools are largely unaware of the more advanced thinking and learning skills that students in other schools employ. When these students get much better grades than most of their peers, it is logical for them to mistakenly believe that they are prepared to compete at the highest levels at elite institutions. Moreover, as Putnam (2015) argues, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have less access to mentors (Sebenius, 2016). In addition to the insider knowledge and influence that mentorship provides, I argue that two of the biggest contributions mentors make to students are that they 1) model metacognitive thinking skills and 2) encourage students to persist through challenges. Minoritized students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds often miss out on this avenue for absorbing metacognitive thinking habits and receiving encouragement to keep going after setbacks.

All of these things together—the initial underinvestment in making sure our youngest students have learning strategies; the widening of the metacognitive equity gap throughout K-12 education due to less effective teaching, less mentoring, and lack of opportunity for higher-level learning; and the invisibility of the gap to under resourced students—account for the existence of metacognitive inequity.

Fortunately, we already have the tools to address the problem. Metacognitive skills can be taught at any and every stage of a student’s education. Even the youngest students can be asked questions that encourage critical thinking, questions like “What do you think this story is going to be about based on its title?” Considering the “whys, hows, and what ifs” can easily be deliberately modeled for elementary school children. In my 30-year speaking career, I have heard from many K-12 teachers and students successfully teaching and using metacognition in elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms. But even if students sit down in their first college class without sufficient learning strategies, we can still equip them to excel. During my own 50-year teaching career, I have facilitated countless sessions with undergraduate, graduate, and professional students whose academic performance was improved by using metacognitive learning strategies.

There is also a growing body of literature investigating the impact of teaching metacognitive strategies, sometimes in conjunction with other pedagogical practices. Examples include Cook et al. (2013), Kaldor and Swanson (2018, 2019), Swanson et al. (2021), Muteti et al. (2021), Mutambuki et al. (2020), Benko et al. (2019), and Lawson et al. (2021). A university student who used metacognition to improve academic performance recently published an account of her experience. (Chen, 2020). Certainly, the role of metacognition in learning has been of interest since at least the 1970s when Flavell (1976) coined the term. There are plenty of additional examples in the literature, such as Rickey and Stacey (2000), which presciently argue for the widespread application of metacognition.

Teaching people metacognitive learning strategies is possible at any age. I look forward to a future in which the metacognitive equity gap has been closed and every student is routinely exposed to thinking and learning strategies that inspire a deep love of independent learning. I envision a time when the idea that some students are smart and some are not has been completely replaced by the idea that some students have metacognitive learning strategies while others do not; and all faculty—preschool through graduate and professional school—will actively teach the necessary skills so that all students are operating on a level playing field.

Benko, M. H., Vogelsang, K.M., Johnson, K.C., & Babij, A. R. (2019). Strategies to prevent cognitive overload: A team-based approach to improving student success and persistence in a gateway introductory chemistry course. In S. Kradtap Hartwell & T. Gupta (Eds.), American Chemical Society Symposium Series: Vol. 1330. Enhancing Retention in Introductory Chemistry Courses: Teaching Practices and Assessments (pp. 187–200). ACS Publications.

Chen. S. (2020). Book Review: Teach yourself how to learn. Journal of Food Science Education 19, 120– 121.

Cook, E., Kennedy, E., & McGuire, S. Y. (2013). Effect of teaching metacognitive learning strategies on performance in General Chemistry courses. Journal of Chemical Education, 90, 961–7.

Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231-236). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kaldor, E. & Swanson, H. J. (2018, November 15). A Campus-wide strategy to develop metacognition in gateway science courses. Presentation at the 2018 POD Network Conference, Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Portland, Oregon.

Kaldor, E. & Swanson, H. (2019). How can you elevate metacognition on your campus? Try the Ace- Your-Course Challenge. Forum for Teaching & Learning, 28(2), 5-7.

Lawson, C. A., McGuire, S., Hodges, R., Gray, R., McGuire, S. Y., Killingbeck, M., & Segovia, J. Recipe for Success: Teaching Students Metacognitive and Self-Regulatory Learning Strategies. The Teaching and Learning Review 26(2), 149-178.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015a). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing.

McGuire, S. Y. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. Stylus Publishing.

Muteti, C. Z., Zarraga, C., Jacob, B. I., Mwarumba, T. M., Nkhata D.B., Mwavita M., Mohanty, S., & Mutambuki, J. M. (2021). 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. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 22, 122–135.

Mutambuki J. M., Mwavita, M., Muteti, C. Z., Jacob, B. I., and Mohanty, S. (2020) Metacognition and active learning combination reveals better performance on cognitively demanding general chemistry concepts than active learning alone. Journal of Chemical Education 97(7), 1832–1840.

Putnam, R. D. (2015). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. Simon & Schuster.

Reardon, S. F., Valentino, R. A., & Shores, K. A. (2012). Patterns of literacy among U.S. students. Future of Children, 22(2), 17–37.

Rickey, D. & Stacy, A. M. (2000). The role of metacognition in learning chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education 77(7), 915–920.

Sebenius, A. (2016, January 13). The importance of high-school mentors. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Swanson, H. J., Ojutiku, A., & Dewsbury, B. M. (2021). The impacts of an academic intervention based in metacognition on academic performance. Manuscript under review.

U.S. Department of Education, Press Office. (2012, March 6). New data from U.S. Department of Education highlights educational inequities around teacher experience, discipline and high school rigor [Press release]. Retrieved from department-education-highlights-educational-inequities-around-teacher-experience-discipline- and-high-school-rigor

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