Implementing and evaluating online meta-learning communities to encourage the development of learning skills in first year students

Louise Ainscough, Kay Colthorpe, Kirsten Zimbardi



The transition from secondary to tertiary education is fraught with challenges for students (Kantanis, 2000; van der Meer, Jansen, & Torenbeek, 2010). University students need to cope with changing academic expectations surrounding independent learning, time management and levels of academic challenge. Therefore, there is a need for students to re-assess the efficacy and efficiency of their learning strategies when transitioning to university, and it is imperative that the meta-cognitive skills required to evaluate learning are taught explicitly (Krause, 2005). This study evaluated the use of online meta-learning communities to encourage students to reflect on the development of their learning skills through collaboration within a social context.


First year anatomy and physiology students participated in online meta-learning communities as part of their course assessment. In previous iterations of the course students completed four ‘individual’ meta-learning tasks, each consisting of six questions completed individually through Blackboard as a short answer test. Meta-learning questions were aimed at encouraging students to think about their learning to date, their learning strategies, and possible changes to strategies leading up to exams. Students received a small percentage (2-3%) towards their overall grade for completing each task. In the current project, students self-allocated to a ‘meta-learning blog’ containing up to five students. Students posted selected answers to meta-learning questions on the group blog, and subsequently reflected on their peer’s blog responses as part of the next meta-learning task. Responses to selected meta-learning questions from consenting students (n=194; 78%) were subsequently analysed for research using inductive thematic analysis.


After sharing their learning strategies with group members in the first meta-learning task, students were prompted in the second meta-learning task to reflect on the usefulness of their peer’s strategies for their own study routine leading up to the mid-semester exam. Of the 177 students who responded to this question, 88% identified new strategies they could incorporate. In the final meta-learning task, students were asked about the impact of the meta-learning communities on their learning. Of the 171 students who responded to the question, 86% indicated that the task had at least one positive impact on their learning, 2% indicated that the task had a negative impact by taking up time, and 18% reported a neutral impact on their learning. Students could report a combination of positive, negative and neutral impacts. The most frequent positive impacts included ‘identifying new strategies’ (n=60), ‘sharing ideas on learning’ (n=33) and ‘identifying effective or efficient strategies’ (n=31). The most frequently reported neutral impact was ‘already aware of learning strategies’ (n=10). Thirty-four students provided suggestions for future improvements, including making the task ‘more interactive’ (n=9), providing ‘more shared content questions’ (n=8) and ‘increasing the group size’ (n=8).


The results from this study suggest that many first year students are still refining their learning strategies as they transition to university. The meta-learning communities prompted students to consider new learning strategies by providing a scaffolded, social environment for sharing strategies with each other online.


Kantanis, Tanya. (2000). The role of social transition in students': adjustment to the first-year of university. Journal of Institutional Research, 9(1), 100-110.
Krause, Kerri-Lee Dawn. (2005). Serious thoughts about dropping out in first year: Trends, patterns and implications for higher education. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, 2(3), 55-68.
van der Meer, Jacques, Jansen, Ellen, & Torenbeek, Marjolein. (2010). It's almost a mindset that teachers need to change: first‐year students' need to be inducted into time management. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 777-791.


Meta-cognition, Collaboration, First year experience

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