(Meta)Cognitive Strategies with Students to Increase Learning

November 18, 2021

As we approach RRR Week and Final Exams, it’s a good time to remember that some students may benefit from specific cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies for how to learn your course content. You can introduce students to general cognitive learning strategies, actions and frameworks to encode new information, and share metacognitive learning strategies, activities to guide them in thinking about their learning process. Most students are likely familiar with the structurally cognitive strategies such as concept maps, but may not be familiar with others relevant to your course. Studies have shown that by sharing learning strategies specific to your subject matter, in particular addressing bottlenecks in your discipline—the critical concepts that students generally are unable to master (Pace & Middendorf, 2004)—it improves student success. Additionally, it gives you an opportunity to personalize the learning experience by sharing what you and your GSIs used to successfully learn the content when you were students and acknowledge students’ background knowledge and lived experience by asking for their input on the topic. Tying learner strategies to your instruction will also make it more inclusive by addressing any chasms that may exist in students’ prior knowledge of and experience with research-based study skills.

Below are two lists of cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies. The lists are written for students and you can share them to maximize students' short- and long-term learning through self-regulation.   

Cognitive Learning Strategies

Cognitive strategies help us learn, think, and remember by providing actions and frameworks to organize new information. Here are some examples of strategies you can try.

  • Concept mapping: This is a spatial cognitive strategy that utilizes visual arrangements to chunk information into meaningful units. When you create a concept map for something, you're learning. This activity takes the new information learned and places it into an organized structure. Concept maps encode information both verbally and visually (Ormrod, 2012); this is referred to as dual coding within the brain’s memory. There are different formats of concept maps based on the type of information: (West, et al., 1991)
    • spider maps for different categories (typologies),
    • chain map for linear processes,
    • hierarchy map for complex topics and the interrelationships of the system, subsystem, and parts.
  • Overlearning: This strategy requires you to learn something to the point of mastery, and then continue to study it through rehearsals (practice) even though you no longer need to improve. This aids your accuracy in recalling the information from short- and long-term memory (Turner, 2017).
  • Metaphors, similes, and analogies: These figures of speech aren't just for English classes—you can use them strategically in the context of any subject to make connections to something you already know in order to encode information verbally and visually (West, et al., 1991).
  • Frames: This is a way to organize information into a matrix. There are two types of frames, Type I and II (Reigeluth & Stein, 1983). Type I is a chart of the main topics and their features. Type II is a rule-bound matrix for which you must apply logic or inference to complete it. Frames help you figure out what's important (and might be on a test). According to Reigeluth and Stein, this helps you analyze information and improves recall because you're providing a structure to the information, which builds on your brain's existing schema (understanding).

Metacognitive Learning Strategies

Metacognition is a way for you to self-monitor your learning and expand on it to increase short and long-term memory. Here are some examples you can try.

  • Mediation: Reflect on how you can make the materials meaningful to you. If something is meaningful, it increases the likelihood that you will remember it because you are paying special attention to it (Bruning, et al., 2011).
  • Organization: Cognitive psychologists believe the act of organizing material forms a mental representation that you can reference later on during recall. Ambrose et al. (2010) recommend that the information be organized in the way it is to be retrieved and used (e.g., linear, hierarchy, or interconnected).
  • Imagery: Visualize it! “...The brain constructs a visual representation of the world” (Ward, 2010, p. 103). Bruning et al (2011) recommend imagery as a way to encode information.
  • Elaboration: Learn a little bit more about the topic you are studying beyond what is discussed in class. For example, you might try describing the history of the topic. When you elaborate, it provides deeper learning of the topic (Bruning et al., 2011).
  • Maintenance Rehearsal: This refers to ongoing review. For example, review words in a flashcard deck twice a week all semester long. According to Ericsson (1996) and Bruning et al (2011), distributed (i.e., ongoing) practice is more effective than massed practice (i.e., cramming). On how to practice, Roediger and Karpicke (2006) found that students in the treatment group of study-test-test-test outperformed other students that focused less on testing (i.e., study-study-study-test and only studying).
  • Elaborative Rehearsal: This is when you go beyond what the textbook or lecture is saying about a topic and relate the information to your previous knowledge. This increases the likelihood of incorporating new information into your existing knowledge (Bransford, et al., 2000 & Bruning, et al., 2011).
  • Mnemonics: This is a learning short-cut to remember different pieces of information. For example, use 1st-level letters to form acrostic or quirky phrases to learn technical terms. West et al (1991) classified it as “high tonnage,” which means you can string together a large number of items with this strategy. Tullis and Qui (2021) found that you deepen your learning by creating your own mnemonics.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Bransford, J. D., Brown A. L., & Cocking R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition

Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., & Norby, M. M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Pearson.

Ericsson, K. A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts, science, sports, and games (pp. 1-50). Erlbaum.

Ormrod, J. E. (2012). Human learning. Pearson.

Pace, D, & Middendorf, J. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98, 1-12.

Reigeluth, C. M., & Stein, F. S. (1983). The elaboration theory of instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.) Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status (pp.335-379 ). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Roediger, H. L. III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x

Tullis, J. G., & Qiu, J. (2021). Generating mnemonics boosts recall of chemistry information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000350

Turner, V. S. (2017). The power of overlearning. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-overlearning/

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. Psychology Press.

West, C. K., Farmer, J. A., & Wolff, P. M. (1991). Instructional design: Implications from cognitive science. Prentice Hall.

Guest Author

Sandra Rogers is an Instructional Designer with Digitial Learning Services and holds a doctorate in instructional design and development from the University of South Alabama