Promoting academic rigor with metacognition

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By John Draeger (SUNY Buffalo State)

A few weeks ago, I visited Lenoir-Rhyne University to talk about promoting academic rigor and I was reminded of the importance of metacognition. College faculty often worry that students are arriving in their courses increasingly underprepared and they often find it difficult to maintain the appropriate level of academic rigor. Faced with this challenge, some colleagues and I developed a model for promoting academic rigor. According to this model, promoting academic rigor requires actively engaging students in meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation for a given context (Draeger, del Prado Hill, Hunter, and Mahler, 2013). The model (see FIGURE ONE) can be useful insofar as it can prompt reflection and frame conversation.  In particular, faculty members can explore how to improve student engagement, how to uncover a course’s most meaningful elements, how to determine the forms of higher-order thinking most appropriate for a course, and how to modulate expectations for different student groups (e.g., majors, non-majors, general education, honors). There is nothing particularly magical about this model. It is one of many ways that college instructors might become more intentional about various aspect of course design, instruction, and assessment. However, I argue that promoting academic rigor in these way requires metacognition.

In a previous post, Lauren Scharff and I argued that metacognition can be used to select the appropriate teaching and learning strategy for a given context (Draeger & Scharff, 2016). More specifically, metacognition can help instructors “check in” with students and make meaningful “in the moment” adjustments. Similarly, engaging students in each of the components of the rigor model can take effort, especially because students often need explicit redirection. If instructors are monitoring student learning and using that awareness to make intentional adjustments, then they are more likely to encourage students to actively engage meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation.

Consider, for example, a course in fashion merchandising. Students are often drawn to such a course because they like to shop for clothes. This may help with enrollment, but the goal of the course is to give students insight into industry thinking. In particular, students need to shift from a consumer mentality to the ability to apply consumer behavior theory in ways that sell merchandise. What would it mean to teach such a course with rigor? The model of academic rigor sketched above recognizes that each of the components can occur independently and not lead to academic rigor. For example, students can be actively engaged in content that is less than meaningful to the course (e.g., regaling others with shopping stories) and students can be learning meaningful content without being actively engaged (e.g., rote learning of consumer behavior theory). Likewise, students can be actively and meaningfully engaged with or without higher-order thinking. The goal, however, is to have multiple components of the model occur together, i.e. to actively engage students in meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectations. In the case of fashion merchandising, a professor might send students to the mall to have them use consumer behavior theory to justify why a particular rack of clothes occupies a particular place on the shop floor. If they can complete this assignment, then they are actively engaged (at the mall) in meaningful content (consumer behavior theory) with higher-order-thinking (applying theory to a rack of clothes). Metacognition requires that instructors monitor student learning and use that awareness to make intentional adjustments. If a fashion merchandising instructor finds students lapsing into stories about their latest shopping adventures, then the instructor might redirect the discussion towards higher-order-thinking with meaningful content by asking the students to use consumer behavior theory to question their assumptions about their shopping behaviors.

Or consider a course in introductory astronomy (Brogt & Draeger, 2015). Students often choose such a course to satisfy their general education requirements because they think it has something to do with star gazing and it is preferable to other courses, like physics. Much to their surprise, however, students quickly learn that astronomy is physics by another name. Astronomy instructors struggle because students in introductory astronomy often lack the necessary background in math and science. The trick, therefore, is to make the course rigorous when students lack the usual tools. One solution could be to use electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light) as the touchstone concept for the course. After all, light is the most salient evidence we have for occurrences far away. As such, it can figure into conversations about the scientific method, including scientific skepticism about various astronomical findings. Moreover, even if students cannot do precise calculations, it might be enough that they be able to estimate the order-of-magnitude of distant stars. Astronomy instructors have lots of great tools for actively engaging students in order-of-magnitude guesstimates. These can be used to scaffold students into understanding how answers to order-of-magnitude estimates involving light can provide evidence about distant objects. If so, then students are actively engaging meaningful content with higher-order thinking at a level appropriate to an introductory course satisfying a general education requirement. Again, metacognition can help instructors make intentional adjustments based on “in the moment” observations about student performance. If, for example, an instructor finds that students “check out” once mathematical symbols go up on the board, the instructor can redouble efforts to highlight the importance of understanding order-of-magnitude and can make explicit the connection between previous guesstimate exercises and the symbols on the board.

If tools for reflection (e.g., a model of academic rigor) help instructors map out the most salient aspects of a course, then metacognition is the mechanism by which instructors navigate that map. If so, then I suggest that promoting academic rigor requires metacognition. It is important to understand how we can help students actively engage in meaningful course content with higher-order-thinking at the appropriate level of expectation for a given course. However, consistently shepherding students to the intersection of those elements requires  metacognitive awareness and self-regulation on behalf of the instructor.


Brogt, E. & Draeger, J. (2015). “Academic Rigor in General Education, Introductory Astronomy Courses for Nonscience Majors.” The Journal of General Education, 64 (1), 14-29.

Draeger, J. (2015). “Exploring the relationship between awareness, self-regulation, and metacognition.”  Retrieved from

Draeger, J., del Prado Hill, P., Hunter, L. R., Mahler, R. (2013). “The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: One Institutional Journey.” Innovative Higher Education 38 (4), 267-279.

Draeger, J. & Scharff, L. (2016). “Using Metacognition to select and apply appropriate teaching strategies.” Retrieved from