Learning How to Learn

Five metacognition methods for becoming a more effective learner.


I am sure we have all heard the phrase, "study smarter, not harder," but what does it really mean? We strive to study as effectively as possible in the limited time we have prior to exams, but sometimes we are so busy it is hard to reflect on what study strategies have been successful and which ones have led us to tears.   

During the first year of my education degree, I was introduced to the topic of metacognition. Metacognition is defined as the process of thinking about how you think and learn. In education, we learn the value of introducing metacognitive practise to our students as a means of developing effective study strategies. Learning metacognitive strategies for my students allowed me to reflect on my own thinking and learning processes. Being more aware of my learning has helped me study more effectively and it has drastically increased my grades.  

As I continue my journey of becoming a more effective learner, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of the world of metacognitive strategies. So far, the following five methods have helped me better understand my learning process and might help you, too:

1. Journaling 

Journaling has been the most effective method for me to develop a reflective practise to enhance my learning. For many years I would come out of a lecture and automatically assume I understood the content. I never took the time to truly reflect on what I had learned and how much I had absorbed. I would later go into quizzes or exams and be surprised that I did not understand a certain concept or method. 

I think it is typical for students to passively review notes after a lecture to evaluate their understanding. However, journaling and answering critical thinking questions can help you decipher what parts of a lecture you understand and which concepts you need to spend more time on. When I review a lecture or concept I ask myself questions like: what was the main purpose of this lecture? What concepts are new? What parts of the lecture did I not understand? The act of writing these answers down in a journal helped me be honest with myself about what I understood.

Journaling also works well for exam preparation for documenting concepts that you may need to review in more detail and to track your daily progress to avoid last minute cramming the day before the exam. 

2. Understand the Purpose of the Course

As much as I wish I could do every reading or practise problem that a professor suggests, I know this is not possible. Sometimes it is hard to decipher what is most important for you to learn and where to spend your time. At the beginning of the semester I review the syllabus and create a calendar including all the dates for assignments, midterms and exams. Next, I break it down to a weekly schedule, documenting the required readings or practise problems and what I need to prepare for each class. At this point I can usually cross out readings or practise problems that I do not have time for and may not serve a direct role in my understanding or goals in the course. This is not to say that extra readings or practise problems are not useful, but if time is limited you have to make smart decisions on where you are going to spend your time. 

3. Figure out how you learn

I only realized during the pandemic that I get very little out of traditional lectures, especially in math-based courses. I need to practise problems myself to understand calculation-based concepts. I took a math course online which had five-minute lecture videos with practise problems. This method was so useful for me that I realized the value of taking the time to reflect on what I learned during a lecture. 

Everyone learns differently, but active learning is more effective than passively sitting in a lecture. Try to figure out how you can make the most of a lecture by engaging in active learning, such as writing your own notes as opposed to copying the professors directly or using the break time to quickly jot down key concepts you learned. 

4. Review previous test and assignments

There is nothing better than learning from your mistakes. I know it can sometimes be hard to review a midterm or essay when you get a poor mark because you just want to move on to the next assignment or quiz. But you can take away so much from your previous mistakes and make sure that you do not make them again on the next assessment. 

Whenever I review an assessment, I make sure to document my mistakes to help me study for the final exam. A lot of mistakes that I have made on assessments involve not reading a question properly or rushing through the exam. By reviewing the assessment, I can make sure that I do not make the same mistakes on the final exam and focus on slowing down and reading the questions fully. Without reviewing my mistakes on assessments, I never would have discovered the pattern of easily corrected reading errors.   

5. Reach out for support

There are so many supports at U of A that can help you become more reflective on your learning. For example, I really struggle to critique my own writing. With the support of the writing resources at U of A, I learned strategies to edit and improve my writing skills. 

Another great resource is your instructors and teaching assistants. They are there to help you and would be happy to discuss an essay or problem you are struggling with. I think in the past I have been afraid to approach some of my instructors and to admit that I do not understand something. However, now I realize that this is a super effective way to better understand what your instructor is looking for on assessments. During the pandemic, it has become even easier to attend virtual office hours or to schedule a quick Zoom chat. 

Find strategies that work for you. The important part is to reflect on your learning process to study smarter, not harder!


About Rebecca

Rebecca is in her second and final year of the Bachelor of Education After-Degree program. She aspires to teach secondary science, but loves teaching all subjects. She holds a Chemical Engineering Degree from the University of Toronto and still has nightmares about advanced thermodynamics. Rebecca also loves hiking, camping and anything outdoors. She spends most weekends getting outdoors with her fluffy dog friend Ginny.