Our understanding of intelligence, learning, the brain has exploded in the last 30 years. We’ve discovered multiple types of intelligence, neural plasticity and realized that you can teach an old dog new tricks. One of the most important discoveries is that Dewey was right: metacognition or “thinking about your thinking” can improve learning and students with math anxiety who write about it before the exam, perform better than those who just take the exam  (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). Two different studies, one led by Marsha C. Lovett, (2013) and the other by Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013), demonstrate how metacognition and reflection can be used to improve study habits, exam performance, and  ultimately, new, easy and fast techniques to creating more critical thinkers.

From Socrates “self-examination” to William James’ “introspective observation” and Jean Piaget’s “directed thought” self-regulation is the foundation of critical thinking (Silver, 2013). In How We Think (1910), John Dewey describes it as “Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further considerations to which it tends.” (p. 6) For Dewey, our job is to find problems and “forked-road situations.” The critical thinker will be able “to maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry.” (p. 13). This “tolerance for ambiguity” is highly desired by employers and the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once without making up your mind would make an excellent graduation requirement.

Self-regulation, however, begins with self-awareness, noticing and active-monitoring. Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013) and The Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching have demonstrated that
(1) discussing the rational of assignments,
(2) connecting “how people learn” data with activities and
(3) debriefing grades, tests and assignments in class,
significantly improve student learning, increase retention and are especially beneficial to under-represented groups, transfer students and non-traditional students. YES! Read that again!! Simply being more transparent in class (F2F!) about why we assign what we do and connecting it to stated learning goals is especially beneficial to students with less family experience of college.  (Their website, http://www.teachingandlearning.illinois.edu/transparency.html provides much more detail about exactly which techniques were most important in which disciplines and inwhich types of classes.)

At the same time, Marsha C. Lovett, (2013), and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have demonstrated that exam wrappers, provide a quick and easy way to improve student learning, connect learning and thinking habits across disciplines. Exam wrappers are a very short survey (online or a single sheet of paper) given to students with assignment or exam feedback. You can find their excellent examples of their math and science wrappers at www.learningwrappers.org

I like to call these “cognitive wrappers” since the research point I like to remember is that we help students become critical thinkers most, by helping them learn to self-regulate. Ultimately, only the students themselves can decide to adopt a more complex mental model, but we have to provide the situations that generate “optimal conflict” (again Piaget, but also James Mark Baldwin, Heinz Werner and Lawrence Kohlberg) in what Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009) summarize as:

  • “The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is…
  • Perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing…
  • In some sphere of our living that we care about, with…
  • Sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it.” (p. 54)

I find it significant that the neurologists, developmental psychologists, the organizational business gurus, residential life professionals, therapists and educational theorists have all come to the same conclusion. Kegan and Lahey are writing about organizational change, but their formulation seems remarkably like Dee Fink’s version of how we craft significant learning experiences or William Perry writing about Harvard students in 1970.  It is not enough just to care, or just to have high standards, or even just to provide provocative situations for students. Pedagogy and learning design are essential if we want to move students to more advanced models of thought.

Note that metacognition is a complex set of skills including self-awareness (knowing your strengths and weaknesses), understanding learning goals, planning an approach to learning, monitoring, evaluating performance, reflecting and adjusting. Metacognition (like critical thinking) is often discipline specific and is best learned with subject content: generic study skills courses have not proven effective. Repeated exposure to transparently announced and labeled critical thinking in different contexts, however, greatly helps students to create more transferrable thinking skills.

So cognitive wrappers provide an easy way to get your students thinking about how they learn and how they might self-regulate more. I think we might extend this idea in two ways. First, I work in an art school, and preparation for lessons, rehearsals, performances and classes, is just as important and requires just as much self-regulation as preparation for exams. Why not use wrappers for some of these very different activities? Second, while not an explicit part of the Carnegie Mellow exam wrappers, some of their examples provide a rationale for the assignment, and are given to students at the beginning. Here is a model for a four-part wrapper:

Rationale: This is only to help you improve.
Reflection: How did you prepare for this exam?
Comparison: What kinds of mistakes did you make?
Adjustment: How will you prepare differently next time?

Wrappers work best when they are discipline specific, but used simultaneously in different contexts in different classes. How is studying for an art history exam different than practicing for a lesson or doing calculus homework? Students need both to understand that (a) self-regulation is a part of improving each of these activities and (b) the adjustments will be different for each type of learning.

Writing, for example, is activity that really consists of multiple types of work and preparation. So the wrapper for a paper might ask:     What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Reading ___
  2. Reading and taking notes ___
  3. Re-reading ___
  4. Finding online content ___
  5. Thinking ___
  6. Brainstorming or Conceptualizing ___
  7. Sharing Ideas with others ___
  8. Preparing ___
  9. Researching ___
  10. Drafting ___
  11. Editing ___


While the wrapper for a problem set or science might ask: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Reading textbook section(s) for the first time ___
  2. Re-reading textbook section(s) ___
  3. Reading/studying other materials ___
  4. Re-reading and taking notes ___
  5. Finding online content ___
  6. Solving problems for practice ___
  7. Reviewing homework solutions ___
  8. Reviewing your own notes ___
  9. Reviewing concepts and ideas ___
  10. Memorizing formulas ___


The wrapper for a performance class might include: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Listening to performances ___
  2. Finding new repertoire ___
  3. Brainstorming or Conceptualizing ___
  4. Experimenting ___
  5. Sharing Ideas with others ___
  6. Practicing technique ___
  7. Working on new material ___
  8. Analyzing posture ___
  9. Working on problems ___
  10. Playing through pieces ___
  11. Resting ___
  12. Memorizing ___
  13. Playing for fun ___

Wrappers should be brief, easy, flexible and specific to both the discipline and the specific task at hand. The idea is to help students understand that they need to understand their strengths and weakness, assess their own performance, identify strategies that work for them and make adjustment. This self-regulation is important for its own sake, as a performance enhancer, but also as a key element of critical thinking. Yoga for the mind.

There is a single general template with lots of types of questions for you to personalize at http://teachingnaked.com/handouts/

  • Dewey, J. (1910), How We Think, Boston: Heath.
  • Lovett, M. C. (2013), “Make exams worth more than grades: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition” in Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning, Kaplan, M, Silver, N, Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., ed. San Francisco: Sterling, VA: Stylus. www.learningwrappers.org
  • Kegan, R., Lahey, L. L. (2009) Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization 9Harvard Business Review Press)
  • Ramirez, G. & Beilock, L. (2011). “Writing about testing worries boosts exam performances in the classroom. Science, 331 (6014), 211-213.
  • Silver, N. (2013) “Reflective pedagogies and the metacognitive turn in college teaching. In Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning, Kaplan, M, Silver, N, Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., ed. San Francisco: Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Winkelmes, M (2013), “Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learningLiberal Education 99/2 (Spring 2013), 48-55. See also Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, for http://go.illinois.edu/transparentmethods
  1. Kelly P. Beischel Reply
    I have been using Cognitive Wrappers in my courses since your visit to XU this fall. One student said "This is genious" when I explained the wrappers to the class. I told her that I couldn't claim the idea just the implementation of it:) Thanks for the introduction to this fabulous tool!
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