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Developing Student Metacognitive Skills in Virtual Learning Environments

  • 5 MIN READ

How a research team at University College Dublin developed an evidence-based learning design framework to aid metacognitive skill development in higher education students.


A veterinarian, a social scientist, a biologist and a sports psychologist walk into a lecture hall. What do they have in common?

A passion for helping their students learn, and a dedication to excellence in their teaching practice.

That was just the case when four researchers from the University College Dublin came together in 2019 to begin a Fellowship project to re-evaluate usage of the Virtual Learning Environment from a teaching and learning perspective and reimagine its role to support collaborative, active learning.

Virtual Learning Environments in Research

Virtual learning environments are increasingly forming a core strategic dimension within higher education, however, effectively harnessing these technologies to enhance student learning is a major challenge that requires careful consideration and planning.  Recent systematic reviews have highlighted poor understanding of the use of technology in learning and a lack of clear theoretical underpinning of many of the approaches used.  There is often a tendency just to replicate standard approaches with technology added and to hang onto transmissive teaching styles.  We need to explore how to use these tools beyond their capacity as a document repository, and more importantly how to use them for transformative approaches, moving from the traditional modes of teacher led instruction, to student centered, human growth mindset focused learning programs.  This was exactly what interested the Teaching Fellows as they approached their project.

The rapidity with which the world is changing necessitates us rethinking how we require our graduates to interact with information. Knowledge is advancing exponentially and readily available at the click of a mouse.  Artificial intelligence and automation are profoundly and progressively altering the landscape of the future of work. Then, added to this, a global pandemic and an energy crisis have brought disruption and change to a whole new level.  This requires new approaches and ongoing efforts on the part of educators.  We need to help learners to adopt a mental model of growth, recognizing the necessity for them to embrace ongoing up-skilling and re-skilling to succeed in their future work and personal lives and empowering them with the skill set to do so.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” ― Toffler

The Research Team

This is where metacognitive skills come in! Teaching Fellows Emma, Crystal, Carmel and James, recognized that to be successful in this rapidly changing digital society, their students require a selection of core competencies, or so-called “21st century skills,” including the ability to question, problem solve, critically appraise and apply information and crucially the ability to adapt and learn efficiently.  Metacognitive skills underpin the whole process of learning to question, reflect, and grow from prior learning experience and challenges.  Emma, Crystal, Carmel and James thought that if they could grow these metacognitive skills in their students, they could empower them through the development of self-awareness in their learning and an overall ability to strategize, self-assess, self-regulate and trouble-shoot as they learn, unlearn and relearn.

The goal of their study: To develop a practical, effective learning strategy implementation framework that could be used across all disciplines to support the use of blended learning in ways that support metacognitive skill development.

What is Metacognition?

In simple terms, metacognition is thinking about thinking. It involves two key components:

1) Knowledge of cognition which consists of a recognition of approaches and strategies.

2) Regulation of cognition, that is the skills that help control learning.

A Learning Design Framework to Support Metacognitive Skill Development

The research team developed an evidence-based learning design framework, the Metacognition Design Framework, as a way of guiding blended learning approaches to aid metacognitive skill development in higher education students.  This framework guides the use of technology informed by clear pedagogical principles and is broadly applicable across a wide range of subject areas. 

Learning Together Through a Community of Practice 

In 2021, the research team from University College Dublin completed a pilot launch of a self-paced, free course in the Brightspace Learning Center offering educators an opportunity to learn how to implement this metacognitive teaching and learning framework within their own learning programs. This launch was linked to a seminar run as part of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning Seminar series 2021/22. This learning resource made available to people attending this seminar for a limited time.  

Just Launched

Now, the team at UCD are launching the final, refined version of this course accessible to all for free when you login to the Brightspace Community.

  • A Free Self-Paced Course in the Brightspace Learning Center:
    • Connect with Metacognition Champions from University College Dublin and others like youParticipate in a series of short, scaffolded discussions with a community of educators as you share about and explore new teaching practices
    • Create your own learning design to guide metacognitive teaching and learning regardless of your discipline

Realigning Education for the Future

A metacognitive approach forms a critical piece in this redesign of education. It places students at the center of the learning process and supports learning that is reflective, self-aware and embedded.

Feedback & Questions

We invite you to share, connect and learn through the Brightspace Community!

About the UCD fellows team:

Emma O’Neill is a Veterinarian and Associate Professor in Small Animal Medicine within the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a UCD Fellow in Teaching & Academic Development and member of UCD’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Her teaching-related research interests focus on skills-based learning including metacognitive learning in Higher Education, reflective practice, and evidence-based practice. She also has an interest in the use of technology to enhance student engagement and effective learning.

Dr Carmel Hensey is Associate Professor in the School Biomolecular & Biomedical Science, a UCD Fellow in Teaching & Academic Development and member of UCD’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Her teaching-related research interests focus on the support of metacognitive skill development and use of the VLE to promote student engagement.

Dr Crystal Fulton is Associate Professor in the School of Information and Communication Studies, a UCD Fellow in Teaching & Academic Development and member of UCD’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Her work focuses on metacognitive learning in HE, digital literacies, competences, and digital resilience leading to social inclusion and increased digital citizenship.

Dr James Matthews is a chartered psychologist and associate professor at the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. He is a UCD Fellow in Teaching & Academic Development and member of UCD’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. His teaching related research interests focus on how to develop theory informed, technology-based interventions to enhance student learning.