A Metacognitive Tutoring Model: Linking Thinking, Learning and Performance in a Peer Tutoring Program — Part II


Metacognitive Peer Tutoring Process

Part one of A Metacognitive Tutoring Model, provided an overview of the program.  This article starts our exploration of key elements of metacognitive tutoring with locating and clarifying problems in student learning. Think about the last time you had a problem with your vehicle. If you’re like most of us, your car stopped making the noise or handling errantly when you got to the auto repair shop. So you were left with the embarrassing task of trying to explain your experience to the mechanic. In this distressed state, you had to come up with the precise onomatopoeic sounds that described your experience. Your description may have sounded like this:  I was driving down the highway and hit a bump, and then I heard something that sounded like a knock or a thud, and my car was like tuckaTHUCKtuckaTHUCKtucka. I then saw smoke, and the car wouldn’t drive the same way. Everything got stiff. I freaked out and pulled over! When I got out of the car, I saw steam and fluid coming from the engine, and the car was making a noise like bllgh bllgggh bllllgggghh.

The mechanic asked you some vehicle history questions and examined your car. Soon (hopefully) the technician reappeared with a part from your car that you had never seen. He informed you that the problem was actually caused by a different problem that he estimated had been damaging your car for a couple of months. This is often the case with students who experience learning difficulties. But students’ problems are worse than mechanical crises because there are no onomatopoeic words or sounds to describe the trouble. Students rarely are able to fully articulate their problems. Consequently, a major task of metacognitive tutoring is locating the source of students’ actual problems.

A Word About Student Motivation

Before moving forth with advice about diagnosing students’ learning problems, I want to refer once again to car woes and make a few statements about motivation. A faulty engine, unlike an unsuccessful student, isn’t hampered by emotions, such as a lack of desire to be repaired. As humans, on the other hand, we are often controlled by our emotions. Maybe we feel motivated to discover and correct our learning shortcomings, or maybe we do not. During nearly all of my speaking events, a chorus of educators declares that their students would be fine if only they were motivated. As a result, one of the first questions tutors must answer is whether the students they are helping appear motivated. During training we discuss ways to make estimates about students’ level of commitment. The image below displays the checkbox question.


92% (479 out of 522 sessions) of the time tutors checked that their students did indeed seem motivated. This is impressive considering that students tend to judge peers more harshly than educators. The question of motivation is addressed first because unmotivated students receive a different, more behavioral approach. I have long believed that the apathy that so many educators encounter is related to, but not rooted in, a lack of motivation. Student apathy is most often a by-product of an overwhelming sense of powerlessness resulting from their inability to solve their academic problems. The latest edition of the Handbook of Metacognition in Education opens with research highlighting the critical role that metacognition plays in developing students’ sense of agency. (Agency refers to students’ capacity to operate independently, and the degree to which students believe they control their learning, rather than their learning being controlled by events outside of their governance. As shown in the introductory article, feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information to be learned was the most common problem students expressed to tutors. This topic will be thoroughly addressed in a forthcoming article.)


Locating and Clarifying Problems

With the question of motivation somewhat addressed for now, locating and clarifying the problem can commence. The problem matrix question image featured below is the first step in pinpointing students’ problems. In addition to the matrix answer choices above, our tutors’ notes include a Problem, Intervention, Outcome (PIO) format. This is the part of the documentation report where tutors explain the problem in more detail, describe the intervention(s) used, and report the outcomes of the session. This is where the problem’s location may change as issues become clearer. For example, consider the session sequence below:

  1. A tutor named Sarah checked the boxes indicating that her tutee “attempted to memorize material only” and that the “student is overwhelmed by the volume of information he/she is required to learn.”
  2. As Sarah worked with the student, she provided more insight into the student’s problem. After a later session, Sarah reported the following:

She is working really hard, but linking some of the smaller concepts is difficult for her. For example, what exactly BUN and creatinine represent the function of and why this function might dwindle in diabetes. She also attempts to memorize things instead of truly understanding them. She shows a desire to understand them, but then acts like she just doesn’t have the time (underline added).

Sarah’s brief note contains much useful information that is illustrative on several levels:

  • Behaviorally: She conveys that the student is really committed.
  • Content-wise: She distinguishes between the type of content the student is grasping and the type she is not. She even provides an example.
  • Cognitively: She mentions that the student seems disinterested in moving beyond memorization.

Traditional tutoring sessions often stop there, and strategies are implemented to address one or more of those levels. However, Sarah didn’t stop there. The concluding sentence of her report (underlined) is perhaps the most telling and the most important. Therefore, metacognitively, I am left wondering, what is the discrepancy between the student’s perceived desire to understand and her unwillingness to invest the time needed to learn the material sufficiently? Overall, metacognitively, I interpreted Sarah’s notes as follows:

The student I am tutoring is really working hard, but her hard work is not generating success. I can tell that the student has some degree of knowledge, but she lacks knowledge of the “right” things. Furthermore, she seems to value the cognitive activity of memorization over more productive cognitive skills. Finally, the student does not apportion her time well for the task at hand.

My response to Sarah:

It seems that this student does not fully understand the expected learning outcomes and what is required to meet them. This may explain the discrepancies among her seemingly obvious desire to learn, her lack of knowledge about or skill at using additional cognitive skills, and the apparent disconnect between the task and time apportionment.

A few suggestions for Sarah:

  • Use the 80/20, 20/80 Rule training material to help the student gain a more accurate idea of her responsibility as an independent learner. This topic is covered in Why Good Students Do “Bad” In College.
  • Use the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram and the Outcome Variation Knowledge Development System materials to help the student practice deep thinking. Scaffold this with her initially, and then gradually move her toward working independently.
  • Use the Learning Sufficiency Diagram to help the student become attuned to the memory-based metrics that are currently guiding her thinking. Then help her navigate to the kinds of deeper metrics that are needed for the course. The goal is for her to detect and correct less sufficient metrics and ultimately to set and monitor appropriate metrics.

Sarah did a good job of transferring the elements of explaining the problem that she learned during training sessions to her work with students. Next, Sarah will move to the intervention phase, during which she will seek opportunities to integrate metacognitive tools and strategies with the course content to improve the student’s knowledge base and her metacognitive functioning. Metacognitive tutors operate from the following if-then assumption: if students think well, they learn well and perform well (in that order).  When the student begins linking these components of learning, he/she moves a long way toward becoming an independent, self-directed learner. Sarah’s tutee won’t have to rely on inaccurate statements to describe her experience for too long. In addition to the metacognitive skills she will gain, she also will develop a metacognitive vocabulary to more completely communicate her academic experience. The next article will feature additional examples of problem location and clarification.

Click here to view the previous article in the series.


  1. Kerrie Kephart

    Please notify me by email of new blog posts in this series on the metacognitive tutoring model.


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