Metacognition: A Tool for Overcoming Discrimination

Disparities in American education across all levels can be traced to our nation’s history of racial discrimination and injustice. This inequity is rooted in a long history of discriminatory housing practices and outright racism that have helped segregate communities and differentiate education—and career—opportunities for students. Despite legal rulings declaring these practices illegal and laws aimed at enforcing housing equality, cities like St. Louis remain segregated, with Black citizens largely confined to regions of the city with lower rates of homeownership and lower property values. Because the public school districts rely heavily on local real estate taxes for funding, public K−12 schools in these communities tend to be underfunded and underperforming, and many Black students are denied the academic experiences necessary to prepare them for success in college.

The consequences are clear. In St. Louis, Blacks are half as likely as Whites to have a bachelor’s degree (19 percent versus 37 percent), and consequently, the median household income for a Black family is roughly half that of a White family ($36,676 versus $66,815). Black unemployment is also roughly three times higher (11.5 percent versus 3.7 percent), and Blacks are almost three times as likely (23.1 percent versus 7.9 percent) as Whites to live in poverty (NAACP 2018). By rendering individuals impoverished and denying them the financial means to revitalize their community and schools or to relocate, their children continue to be denied access to quality education.

Open-Access Schools Broaden Participation in STEM

Open-access colleges and universities have become leaders in educating students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and are helping to break the vicious cycle of limited educational access and poverty by opening higher education to students with low ACT or SAT scores. Despite lacking the resources of many larger institutions of higher education, open-access institutions are experiencing rapid growth and have made strong contributions to the increasing numbers of degrees being granted nationally. However, while open-access institutions have found success in recruiting often-overlooked students, they face various challenges in retaining and graduating students who matriculate from public school systems impacted by inequitable funding and policy.

In committing to provide higher education opportunities to all students, open-access colleges and universities must also accept the important responsibility of ensuring that students’ investments in their education are rewarded. Students dedicate years of their lives and substantial amounts of money to their education, and the cost of not succeeding includes student debt, lost time in the workforce, and a reduced opportunity or career progression.

This article discusses how one open-access institution, Harris-Stowe State University (HSSU), fulfills its open-access mandate and core historical mission. HSSU is a historically Black university located in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2011, HSSU began to offer degrees in biology and mathematics. STEM programs have rapidly expanded at HSSU, and it now has more than four hundred students who are STEM majors. At HSSU, we have committed to exploring new approaches aimed at providing quality experiences for underserved students. Specifically, this article discusses efforts to incorporate metacognition into STEM course curricula and student support.

Rethinking How We Support All Students

Inequality in educational funding and structure has far-reaching effects on college preparation. Institutions with high Black student enrollment offer fewer rigorous STEM courses such as physics, chemistry, and calculus as compared with schools with lower Black enrollment; Black students have less access than their White peers to accelerated coursework and gifted programs; and Black students are more likely than their White counterparts to have inexperienced or uncertified teachers (US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2016). Schools that do not adequately address course content would be expected to also have gaps in other skills students acquire such as how to approach instructors after class, study skills, planning, and self-reflection. These missing skills then become additional barriers to equity that reinforce social stratification paradigms, as some undergraduates arrive on campus with access to unwritten rules of college and some do not.

Traditional approaches grounded in deficit models, including placement into remedial coursework, have been seen as a solution to the issue of academically underserved students. However, these approaches have not proven successful in helping students to attain college degrees and may disproportionately harm Black students. Black students are the most likely group to be placed into remedial courses (Adams et al. 2012), owing in large part to the discriminatory educational practices embedded in K−12 funding and education. Further, these students entering remedial coursework are unlikely to ever pass a credit-bearing class in the subject (Edgecombe 2011). These classes are costly to the students in terms of money and time since they do not count for college credit but must be paid for and completed before advancing in a degree program. Placement into these classes can also reinforce racist stereotypes such as “Black people do not belong in college,” causing severe damage to the students’ self-conception and their will to persist in college.

Metacognition: A Tool to Promote Equity in Education

Upon matriculating into college, students often face novel academic challenges that require them to explore new study methods and learning approaches, assess the personal effectiveness of these approaches, and learn how to apply and adapt the approaches accordingly. The ability to be aware of and analyze one’s thoughts and learning processes is referred to as metacognition. This skill can be honed, and interventions to encourage students to engage in metacognitive behaviors have been linked to improved academic performance in higher education settings (Young and Fry 2008).

Developing metacognitive skills can prove particularly helpful for academically underserved students pursuing rigorous STEM degrees. Each year, some incoming first-year HSSU students report that they were never challenged in their high school studies and indicate they do not understand what it means to study or truly engage an academic topic. Thus, students may confuse recognizing vocabulary with a deep understanding of the subject material. Additionally, many first-year students lack robust study skills and have not identified which learning methods are most successful for them personally. Reflection on and self-assessment of these skills and methods can help students overcome educational disadvantages they may have faced previously. Further, by building awareness of study and learning skills and facilitating their development, faculty can enhance STEM educational experiences and broaden participation.

Developing Metacognitive Skills in Introductory Biology

To help students achieve substantial metacognitive growth, we have committed to restructuring our introductory biology course for majors. In alignment with previous studies (Stanton et al. 2015), HSSU STEM faculty employ metacognition as a classroom tool to assist students in self-reflection and monitoring the success of various study strategies and learning approaches. We have built reflection assignments into students’ coursework after their first and second tests to prompt behavior that promotes metacognition. These assignments investigate aspects of student test preparation, such as (1) how much time students dedicate to preparing, (2) how far in advance students begin preparing, and (3) what general plans students use to prepare for the test. We also ask students to reflect on why their specific plans were or were not successful in preparing them for the test (see fig. 1). Lastly, we provide students resources on various study strategies and guide the development of new plans to prepare for the subsequent assessments. This approach can provide the ability to assess our students’ metacognitive abilities and provide useful information that will enhance our design of future strategies and environments that support students.

Figure 1. Sample Post-Test Reflection Assignments

After Exam One

  1. (A) Exam one was on X date. I began seriously studying for exam one on ___. (day of the week, date)
    (B) I estimate that I probably spent ____hours studying for exam one.
    (C) My studying was (check one):
    ___distributed across several days
    ___done in one evening or in a 24- to 48-hour period
  2. (A) I studied for exam one by (describe your approaches, techniques, strategies):
    (B) Now that I have seen the grade I earned on exam one, these are the study strategies that I feel worked well for me, and I plan on using them again for exam two:
    (C) Now that I have seen the grade I earned on exam one, these are the study strategies that I feel did not work well for me, and I don’t plan on using them again for exam two:
  3. Was the exam what you expected? If not how was it different?
  4. (A) A compiled list of strategies used by students who have been successful in biology courses is attached. Please review this list. After reading this document, I might try the following new study strategy for exam two:
    (B) The reason I think this may be helpful is:
    (C) Besides what you already wrote, what else do you plan to do differently for exam two now that you have the experience of taking exam one?

After Exam Two

  1. Did you put more time into studying for exam two than you did for exam one?
    ___yes___ no
  2. In the space below, please explain how you were able to put more time into studying for exam two or why you were not able to put more time into studying for exam two.
  3. Did you follow the study plan you outlined for exam two?
    ___ yes___ no
  4. In the space below, please explain how you were able to follow your study plan or why you were not able to follow your study plan for exam two.
  5. Now that you have taken two introductory biology exams, which study strategies will you continue using to prepare for exam three, because they worked well on exam two?
  6. I feel these study strategies are effective because _______________________________

Our experiences have taught us that two conditions must be satisfied to create an environment that fosters metacognitive growth: (1) the material being learned must be perceived as important to know and (2) the material must be sufficiently challenging. To satisfy the first condition, we have dedicated portions of our class period to connecting the course material to issues the students feel are relevant and important to them. Contributing to their communities can be a powerful motivator for some Black scientists (Gibbs and Griffin 2013) and is a component of culturally responsive teaching, so we should work to emphasize the link between understanding basic biology and the ability to contribute in this regard. To satisfy the second condition, we use the Universal Design for Learning approach—a teaching method aimed at meeting the needs of every student in a classroom—where students have multiple ways to acquire and demonstrate knowledge. For instance, we have written challenging tests that contain mostly short-answer questions instead of multiple-choice questions. This approach has been shown to enhance higher-level thinking skills (Stanger-Hall 2012) and can also reduce culturally or linguistically embedded instructor bias in multiple-choice answers, allowing students to pick up on key words and freely demonstrate their knowledge. Additionally, we have increased the number of active learning exercises used in the classroom, which have been demonstrated to help all students thrive in introductory biology courses (Haak et al. 2011).

An Institutional Commitment to STEM Student Success

HSSU has long been committed to pursuing student-centered approaches aimed at making all of our students, and particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, grow as independent thinkers and problem solvers. We offer a variety of resources outside the classroom to assist students in their development, and many of these resources also foster metacognitive growth. For example, we provide a study skills workshop where students can acquire and develop critical skills necessary for metacognition. Tutors are also encouraged to reinforce our message of growth through knowledge, planning, and assessment of learning approaches. Questions such as “What is your plan for doing well in this course?” or “Why do you think that plan did not work well?” can provide crucial prompts that cause students to reflect and begin this growth-oriented process. Tutors can also contribute to the development of strong study plans if students are unable to do so by themselves.

HSSU is also committed to empowering faculty to develop metacognitive skills so they can better serve students. Faculty must be aware of their own educational practices and pedagogies to actively create an equitable learning environment that builds students’ skills and content knowledge. Building awareness of socio-emotional factors that impact education and incorporating concepts such as culturally relevant curricula and pedagogies and Universal Design for Learning practices promote inclusive learning and represent a starting point for building a culture of reflection among faculty. The HSSU Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences uses a STEM education research journal club to reflect on culturally relevant curricula, discussions on building classroom community, impediments to learning that our students face, student motivation, and pedagogy (including creating active learning environments).

Developing STEM Skills That Will Last A Lifetime

At HSSU, our goal is to develop metacognitive skills in our students that can contribute to many different aspects of success as a STEM professional. Introduction to biology is not just content, it is about setting the foundation for a biology degree and career with the potential for a cascading effect on educational outcomes. If students can master the material, learning approaches, and study skills in an introductory course, they will have a better foundation from which to approach all their other courses, leading to sustained academic success. Their metacognitive skills can likely be transferred to their career planning and interaction with peers, and metacognitive interventions have a lasting effect on students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (de Boer et al. 2018).

However, even that does not describe the full potential impact of fostering metacognitive growth. Students in STEM often must navigate an increasingly competitive system of internships, faculty-mentored research experiences, and other activities meant to enhance their competitiveness for STEM graduate programs and jobs. While improved course grades increase student access to such opportunities, content knowledge alone may not be sufficient to guarantee their success in these endeavors. Academically underserved Black students, in particular, may also need to persist through an onslaught of macro- and microaggressions in unwelcoming STEM environments. Building metacognitive reflection into planning and decision-making will aid students in identifying and interpreting the unwritten rules of higher education. Further, recognition, reflection, and planning are also stepping-stones to advocating for changing systems that are not working.

Racism is a complex issue that stems from centuries of targeted subjugation and oppression and thus will not be easily remedied. As educators, we can design approaches to content and classroom environments to promote students’ metacognitive skills and enhance students’ ability to recognize, navigate, and remove these obstacles. Our students will become the leaders of tomorrow, and it is our responsibility to ensure they have the best opportunities to carry us all forward to a better future.


This work was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Historically Black Colleges and Universities-Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP).



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Stanton, Julie Dangremond, Xyanthe N. Neider, Isaura J. Gallegos, and Nicole C. Clark. 2015. “Differences in Metacognitive Regulation in Introductory Biology Students: When Prompts Are Not Enough.” CBE—Life Sciences Education 14 (2): ar15.

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Scott Horrell, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Mathematics and Natural Sciences; Jana Marcette, Assistant Professor, Mathematics and Natural Sciences; Sudarsan Kant, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Behavioral and Social Sciences—all of Harris-Stowe State University


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