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How Fifteen Minutes of Reflection Could Turn a C+ Into a B

Researchers find that when students think strategically about how they intend to learn, they improve.

Students who take a few moments to reflect on how they approach learning could see a score bump of one third of a letter grade, turning a C+ into a B, according to a new study published in Psychological Science. When undergraduates took a beat to strategize about how they planned to use available resources to study—a technique known as metacognition—Stanford University researchers found that the students achieved higher grades overall. The college students also reported unexpected psychological benefits, including better attitudes about the exam in general.

“Our intervention promoted students’ performance by fostering greater self-reflection about how best to approach their learning in class, which directed more effective resource use while studying,” the authors write.

The researchers studied an ethnically diverse group of more than 100 undergraduate students at a public Midwestern university who were enrolled in an introductory statistics class. Prior to one of their statistics exams, the study participants were randomly assigned one of two online interventions. The control group received a simple study reminder. The experimental group received an in-depth exercise meant to orient students to the full range of resources available to them, and were prompted to explain how they would use these resources to prepare for the exam.

Undergraduates who took part in these metacognition exercises outperformed students in the control group by an average of one third of a letter grade—the equivalent of earning a B instead of a C+. The findings bolster the notion championed by the Child Mind Institute, among others, that metacognition can improve classroom performance. The theory behind these claims is that children who think about the way they think can overcome emotional blockades like fear or doubt. For students who have all of the resources to succeed but do not, metacognition exercises could help.

That said, the researchers note in the conclusion of their study that no amount of metacognitive strategic planning will help if learning resources are not made available in the first place. “In learning environments with scarce resources, it may be more pertinent to ensure that a basic repertoire of resources is available for learners to use, even before confronting the problem of how effectively they are making use of what is available,” they write.