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College Readiness - Part 1: Developing Metacognitive Skills

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

One of the biggest differences between high school and college is the amount of time students are required to work independently. In college, a great deal of learning takes place outside of class through independent and unguided study and practice. This can be particularly challenging for students with learning differences who are accustomed to receiving daily guidance and support by school staff and parents. In high school, students with LD are often told when to do their homework, what to study and what tools and strategies to use. In college, these same students are required, without guidance, to decide when to study, what to study, how to study. To be able to meet this new challenge, students need to develop a new set of skills.

Metacognition is the ability to think about one’s own thinking and to make smart choices when studying independently. Students with strong metacognition have self-awareness, understanding of the task, and knowledge of a variety of strategies. These students are aware of their learning strengths and weaknesses, they understand what they need to know and they know what the professor’s expectations are. These students know which tools and strategies are best suited for their individual learning profile and for the specific learning task. Finally, students with strong metacognition always think and plan carefully before starting a learning task.

Helping students improve their metacognitive skills should begin as early as possible. But to do this, parents and others who support these students will need to find a balance between providing the assistance that students need to succeed academically and helping them develop the ability to think on their own. Of course parents shouldn’t stop helping their children altogether. But by simply stepping back a bit, and allowing the students to think before starting a learning task, parents can help their children start to build some of the skills necessary to succeed in college.

Here are some tips for helping students develop and strengthen their metacognitive skills:

  • Help Students Develop Self-Awareness - The most essential part of being a metacognitive learner is to understand one’s own learning. Help students develop that understanding by including them in IEP meetings and discussions with teachers, talking to them about their diagnoses and giving them the opportunity to ask questions about their disability. Talk to them about what works and doesn’t work for them in class, what types of learning tasks they prefer and which ones they find difficult. Also point out and continually remind them of their learning strengths and talents. Students should be as aware of their strengths as well as their challenges.

  • Encourage Students to Keep a “Learning Journal” - Another way to help students develop self-awareness is to encourage them to record their learning experiences. Keeping a journal and writing some quick observations once or twice a week about their learning experiences can be an effective tool. Students should take note of their successes and positive learning experiences as well as their challenges. Encourage them to share and discuss these observations regularly.

  • Lead From Behind - When you are helping students with their schoolwork, don’t tell them what to do. Ask them instead, “What’s your plan?”, “What do you need to know for the test?”, “How are you going to learn this?”. Based on their answers, you can determine how much guidance they need. Of course you can help them modify their plan to fit the task, but the student should be given the chance to think about their learning and be the primary driver of the process.

  • Help Students Set Study Goals - Before starting a learning task, encourage the student to set a study goal. Ask the student how long they plan to study, what they want to accomplish by the end of that time and what material and tools they will need. Then write it down and keep the study goal visible.

  • Take One Step Back Before Moving Forward - When helping the student with a learning task (homework assignment, studying for a test, writing an essay or working on a project), always start by reviewing the previous material. For example, look at the last few math problems from the previous homework assignment before starting on the new one, look at questions on a previous test before studying for the next one, look at where they left off before continuing to work on the essay or project. Help the students see the connections and think about what they are learning.

  • Present a Variety of Learning Strategies and Tools - Flash cards are not the only tool available to students with LD. Introduce as many learning strategies and tools as possible for different learning situations. (Ask the teachers for ideas on different study strategies. Websites like,,, and are all great resources as well). Allow the students to choose and experiment with new ways of studying, memorizing and learning. Include digital and electronic tools as well as traditional tools such as flash cards and graphic organizers. Remember that what worked best for you as a student won’t necessarily work for them.

  • Use Think-Alouds - Model what good metacognition looks like. As you help students with their work, explain your own thinking process. Share what you are thinking and why you are choosing to do what you do at every stage of the process.

  • Teach Students It’s OK to Ask for Help - Knowing that they need help, how to ask for it and where to get it is an important metacognitive skill. There will be lots of support in college; the disability resource office, the tutoring and writing center, the professors, and more. But it will be up to the student to reach out to those resources. Start teaching the student early to recognize when they need help, how to contact the teachers or other school staff, and how to ask for the help they need. Early in the school year, work together with the student to create a list of names and the contact information of people that can help in different subject areas. Teach the student how to write an appropriate email to teachers and tutors. Help the student formulate the specific questions they want to ask.

Further Reading El-Hindi, A. E. (2005). Enhancing metacognitive awareness of college learners. Reading Horizons, 36, 214-230.

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

Hacker, D. J. (1998). Metacognition in educational theory and practice. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Savia, C. (2008). Self-efficacy, metacognition, and performance. North American Journal of Psychology, 10, 165-172.

Trainin, G., & Swanson, H. L. (2005). Cognition, metacognition, and achievement of college students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 261-272.

Wong, L.(2012). Essential study skills. Boston, Wadsworth Cengage Learning

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