Incorporating Metacognitive Leadership Development in Class


by Lauren Scharff, U.S. Air Force Academy*

During the spring 2014 semester I decided to try an explicitly metacognitive approach to leadership development in my Foundations for Leadership Development course in the Behavioral Sciences department at the United States Air Force Academy.

I had taught the course twice before and had many discussions with other course instructors. Overall, my sense was that many of our students didn’t intentionally and systematically connect what they were doing and learning in the course with their own personal leadership development. This is despite a paper that focused on a personal leadership development plan, and a video project that focused on implementing positive change within their squadrons.

This course is an upper-level, required core courses in our curriculum, and my section was one of more than 30 with approximately a dozen different instructors teaching sections. At our institution, much of the course structure within core courses is standardized across instructors, but I had 20% of the points with which to do what I desired, as long as 10% somehow assessed accountability for lesson preparation.

I was aware of a foundation of research in skill development (e.g. Svinicki, 2004), so I knew that in order to most effectively develop skills, people need multiple opportunities for practice coupled with feedback.  Feedback leads to awareness of strengths, shortcomings, and possible alternate strategies. This understanding of skill development became intertwined with my increasing focus on metacognitive approaches. I came to the conclusion that perhaps part of the less-than-ideal student connection to the course material and objectives occurred because our course activities that were designed to support that connection didn’t provide (require) enough opportunities for practice and continued awareness, especially beyond the classroom and course requirements.

As I prepared for the semester I drew on resources from The Learning Record, which outlines Five Dimensions of Learning that connected well with goals I had for my students’ leadership development: confidence and independence, knowledge and understanding, skills and strategies, use of prior and emerging experience, and critical reflection. The site also shares well-developed activities and assignments that supported my goal of using a metacognitive approach to promote my students’ leadership development.

Ultimately, I designed my course to be centered around journal entries, which I also completed.  During each lesson we shared our understandings, questions, and reflections based on the readings, as well as examples of personal observations of leadership and our reflections on how what we were learning might be effectively applied to real situations. More specifically, the journal entries included 1) answers to guided reflection questions about each reading for each lesson, and 2) at least two personal leadership observations and analyses each week. I created a simple grading system so that I wouldn’t be overloaded with assessing journal entries every lesson. (Journal assignment)

A quick poll of my students (N=13) indicated that none of them regularly kept personal journals, and only two had ever had any sort of journal assignment for a class. Thus, this requirement for regular journal writing required a change of habit for them that also represented increased time and energy for class preparation. Although there was some adjustment, when I asked for feedback after two weeks of class, the students were unanimous in their agreement that they were more deeply reading than if I had incorporated reading quizzes for accountability and that they preferred to continue the personal and reading reflections even though they involved frequent writing. Discussion during class was deeper and more engaging than in previous semesters.

Twice during the semester, students wrote evidence-based personal development evaluations, based on a shared example from The Learning Record. Students chose examples from their journals to support their evaluations of their own leadership development. These evaluation exercises forced them to thoughtfully review their observations across the weeks of the semester and develop ongoing awareness of their leadership strengths and weaknesses as well as an understanding of alternate strategies and when/how they might be useful for their leadership efforts. (Personal Development Evaluation assignment)

I also added a question each time that had them evaluate the journal approach and course design.  We made some tweaks at mid-semester. By the end of the semester, all but one student reported that the journal entries deepened their learning and personal awareness of their leadership development. While I will likely make some further tweaks in future semesters, I believe that this approach was a success, and that it could be scaled up for larger classes (see the simplified grading scheme in the Journal assignment). Below are sample comments from the final evaluation assignment (released with student permission):

“The leadership journal has had a tremendous effect on my personal development as a leader.  The journal has made me aware of my strengths and weaknesses…. The journal allowed me an avenue to give time and actually think about how I am doing as a leader and peer within my environment.”


“The personal observations were definitely helpful for documenting our successes and failures, which we can look back upon and improve. This relates not only to our personal leadership development, but to how we learn about ourselves.”


“These journals have taken all of us on a journey through the semester.  They undoubtedly began as something that we disliked and looked down upon each week.  However, I have really grown to love and understand this application of leadership growth.  They not only provide a chance for us to look back on our leadership gains and failures, they offer an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves in order to write about the things we want to see in ourselves.  The journals have become much more than a simple task of writing on a week-to-week basis.  They have grown into an outpouring of our character and lives as we turn the page from underclassmen to upper-class leaders and eventually to lieutenants in a few short months.  I believe that these journals are also a metaphor for many leadership challenges in that they will be frequent, difficult, and time consuming, but in the end they will let us all grow.  ….my reflections are not simply babble, …they actually represent significant growth and understanding of myself.”


Svinicki, Marilla. 2004. Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co, Inc.

The Learning Record:


* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.


2 thoughts on “Incorporating Metacognitive Leadership Development in Class

  1. John Draeger

    Thank you for this journal assignment. I am curious about the logistical side of how you used them in class. For example, did you open class by asking students to share their personal reflections about their leadership and then bring it back to the reading? Or did you begin with a presentation of the reading and then ask how events in their cadet life were related to course materials? Also, did you “target” particular students? Or did you allow discussion to bubble up more organically?

  2. Lauren Scharff Post author

    Thanks for asking John. Each class was a bit different in that I took a somewhat organic approach. I never “lectured” on the material, but would open the discussion with a request for students to share particular aspects of the readings that stood out to them and why. This tended to lead to an open exchange during which students would also bring up personal observations that might be relevant to the points being discussed.

    One thing I think I would change in the future is that I might occasionally have students read their journal entries in entirety rather than just summarizing the points to share. Over the course of the semester, some variance developed across students with respect to the depth of reflection that they wrote in their journals. I think a few learned that they could “get by” with more superficial writings. I think that if we had shared full reflections and occasionally critiqued them for depth/usefulness, then those few would have “stepped up their game” and it would have further increased their awareness of the benefits of the journal writings.

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