Illustration of brain lifting books

Studying much? You might be using the classic moves. You know—rewriting all your notes into a newer, bigger note; highlighting as the new underlining; and my personal favourite, cramming everything into your brain in any way possible. Sometimes those moves work just fine. But what if you’re looking for more than “just fine”? And what if you could get there with a little less stress and a little more purpose?

Researchers at Stanford University in California discovered that using some simple tricks made a big difference in how students performed. The research is based on a classic learning theory that seems pretty obvious when you break it down. It’s called metacognition, and it involves something we could all benefit from: thinking about how we think.

Intrigued? Let’s take a closer look at how metacognition can get you to a better spot with your study habits. Once you’ve got the basics down, we’ll show you how to use it with real-life tips that’ll help you reap the brain-boosting benefits. Bonus points if you drop the word “metacognition” with your friends when talking about your new secret to study success.

What to know about how to think

Metacognition is commonly described as thinking about thinking. OK, but what does that actually mean? It’s taking the time to consider how you think and why the process of reflecting on your thinking can give you some key insights into what you’re learning and what you’re missing. It means thinking through the methods, tools, and resources available to you and deciding which ones can best get you where you want to go.

“Essentially, being metacognitive involves knowing how you think and learn, and being aware of and controlling the learning processes like planning, monitoring, and evaluating your process towards your learning goals,” says Dr. Gregory Thomas, Professor of Science Education at the University of Alberta, who focuses on metacognition.

Still with us? Think about it like this: Textbooks, tutors, academic advisors, past exam questions, and homework assignments are all resources that you can use to study—but what’s the purpose of each of them? How can they help you? And which ones will help the most? Now you’re thinking like someone who thinks about their thinking.

“Students need to know what it means to understand their course material and develop processes that enhance that understanding,” says Dr. Thomas. “This requires deliberate, conscious, and regular reflection on the material to be both learned and understood.” But as our homework grows and our time to get it done shrinks, we’re not always great at coming up with these processes. And why does doing so help in the first place?

Why thinking things through can get you better results

Girl studying at computer with book and post it notes

This is where it gets interesting. Researchers at Stanford University wondered if applying some of the principles of metacognition—setting goals, thinking about resources, and crafting a plan—would make a difference in students’ test results. They split students into two groups and reminded both about an upcoming exam.

One group just got a reminder. The other received a reminder and were also asked questions about how they wanted to do on the exam and how they were going to prep. The students received questions about their study resources—which ones they would choose, how they would use them, and why they felt these resources would be helpful—essentially having them create a study plan. The students who thought through their study plan, or used metacognition, did better on their exams than those who didn’t map out a plan, according to the 2017 study in Psychological Science. They also reported feeling less stressed during the prep process.

“Learners should take the time to explicitly think through why they want to use each resource for learning,” says Dr. Patricia Chen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford and one of the authors of the study. Bottom line: It’s about thinking carefully about your resources—how to choose them and how you’ll use them.

How to put it into practice

The best part about this research, and about metacognition in general, is that it’s simple—you can do it yourself by making a plan and setting some goals. And who knows? You may even see the same boost in results. Here’s how to go about it:

Step 1: Think about (and list out) your options before you study

This means ditching your autopilot plan and taking some time to make one that works. Start by jotting down the resources you have access to: books, notes, PowerPoints or class presentations, audio recordings, essay prompts, past quizzes or exams, the syllabus, tutors, classmates, online forums, review sessions, immediate access to the entirety of your professor’s brain, etc. Then list out how those resources could help you craft your plan.

Resource
Exam or quiz questions from earlier in the semester

How it can help
Your professor probably has a particular way of creating test questions, so if you’re looking at an exam from earlier in the semester, it’s likely the upcoming one will follow a similar format or ask questions in a similar way. Use that to your advantage. Practise your responses to the question type and exam format. Just be sure your prof is OK with you using past assessments for study, and steer clear of using materials from past semesters or sections of the class.

Expert approved
If exams are scheduled, trying to get hold of past exams and analyzing the sorts of questions that are being asked can be helpful. “You need to think about understanding course material. Exams often become a lot easier if one knows the course material well,” Dr. Thomas says.

Step 2: Make your plan

Now that you know which resources will work best, it’s time to make it work for you. And that involves making a specific plan. Participants in the Stanford study were asked to do just that—plan when, where, and how they would use the study resources they identified. We know that worked for them. It can work for you too.

Try it like this
Make a chart that lists out the resources you’re using along with all the dirty details—when, where, how, and why. “Set aside time for all courses, keep close track of deadlines, and have reminders for such,” Dr. Thomas says.

Resource

Exam questions from earlier in the semester

Why this can work

Familiarize myself with the potential exam format and way prof asks questions

How I’m going to use it

  • Identify patterns in types of questions
  • Identify stuff I know from past exams and stuff I still need to work on
  • Think like a prof: How would new material be put into similar exam format or question type? Make a sample exam and test myself, or grab a classmate and create some sample questions for each other; test them out, see how we do, keep working at it

When and where

  • Monday 4–6 p.m.: Campus café
  • Wednesday 10–11 a.m.: Remote corner of the library

Expert approved

“Planning is crucial because it helps learners translate their strategies into action,” Dr. Chen says.

Step 3: Set and get those goals

Cup of coffee with napkin saying "Create your future"

It comes back to goal setting. Knowing what you’re looking to get out of your studying can help you get there. Think beyond pure performance here; what’s the long-term goal of knowing the material? A foot in the door at your first post-grad job? Feeling confident in applying your newfound knowledge? Grad school goals? Keep those in mind too. Write them down, add them to your chart, Sharpie them on your forehead—whatever makes them stick.

Student tested
“Setting goals is important to give myself a target to drive my studying and strengthen my outcome. When I have a goal in mind, my studying, motivation, and performance are all increased.”
—Drew R., second-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick

Expert approved
“Goal setting helps learners clarify exactly what they want to achieve and focuses them on their goal as they plan out their studying,” Dr. Chen says. Just make sure they’re realistic. “Goals provide horizons for students to move towards, and can therefore be motivating, as long as they’re realistic,” says Dr. Thomas. “Goals should be broken down into manageable and reviewable steps, and these steps need to be reflected in the individual’s daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly plans.”

Step 4: Know that you can

Yup, we’re asking you to have a little faith in yourself, and not just because you’re awesome (you definitely are), but because it actually affects how well you do.

Research backed
Self-efficacy, or simply believing that you’re capable of planning and carrying out the tasks necessary for your performance, was the greatest predictor of students’ achievement and performance, according to a large review of research (Perspectives on Medical Education, 2012).

Try it like this

Unicorn stickerAs you’re working through your study plan, keep track of what you’re getting done. Hit your study session goal for the day? That’s a win. Mastered material you didn’t quite get last time? That counts too. Come up with a system for tracking them. We like unicorn stickers, but checking things off your to-do list will do in a pinch.

Those small successes are part of your bigger goals, and the more you see yourself moving in the right direction, the more likely you are to believe that you can keep going. The wins you rack up in the process are still there cheering for you when you slip up. So remind yourself of them early and often.

Steps 5 through infinity

Identifying resources, making plans, setting goals, and knowing you can reach them is an awesome plan of attack, but don’t be too hard on yourself if some of the steps are a struggle. You might have to do some finagling to figure out what works best for you. “The important thing is to be realistic with expectations, and remember that everyone’s context for learning and success is different; we all have different lives,” says Dr. Thomas. “You don’t improve if you don’t do things differently; improvement implies change. Sometimes we need to look at the other things we’re successful at in life, understand why we’re successful in those endeavours, and try to transfer the same habits and processes to our university studies.”

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..you will apply to everyday life?

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Article sources

Patricia Chen, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, California.

Gregory Thomas, BEd, MEdSt, PhD, Professor, Science Education, University of Alberta.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Study smart. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2011/11/study-smart.aspx

Anderson, J. (2017, May 9). A Stanford researcher’s 15-minute study hack lifts B+ students into the As. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/978273/a-stanford-professors-15-minute-study-hack-improves-test-grades-by-a-third-of-a-grade/

Artino, A. R. (2012). Academic self-efficacy: From educational theory to instructional practice. Perspectives on Medical Education, 1(2), 76–85. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540350/

Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28(6), 774–785. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797617696456

Dartmouth College. (2001). Memory is learning that persists. Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/academic-skills/sites/students_academic_skills.prod/files/students_academic_skills/wysiwyg/retain_information.pdf.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366894/