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Author: Amanda M. Hinson-Enslin, PhD, and Katie Deering, MA

abstract image of brainpower

As instructors, we want our students to be self-directed learners. We want them to be able to evaluate their submissions and think through their learning process. In fact, thinking about one’s thinking improves understanding of content and assignment submissions (Bowen, 2013). But the challenge is that students usually lack the skills to describe their thinking and learning process or do not understand how they learn. Students often have misconceptions about how learning works. They believe that rereading the textbook chapters will help them prepare for an exam or that multitasking while working on a project does not cause them to lose focus. This lack of understanding prevents them from reflecting on and improving their learning process. Cognitive wrappers can aid students in reflecting, connecting their thoughts, and understanding their learning process.

Using cognitive wrappers

Cognitive wrappers aid students in developing study habits, increase their scores on future assignments, and help them accurately evaluate their past behaviors. They are a means for students to evaluate their performance and reflect on what they can improve for the next assignment or assessment. Instructors can create cognitive wrappers for group assignments, exams, and even lectures. Students who reflect on their learning process can take ownership of their learning and their performance in the course. We have observed students change their habits to improve their learning process, assignment submissions, and achievement of course objectives.

According to Bowen (2013), cognitive wrappers have four parts: rationale, reflection, comparison, and adjustment. The rationale is the instructor’s explanation of the purpose of the assignment. This demonstrates to students that the activity is only to help them improve their learning process and to help them be successful in achieving the learning objectives. The reflection piece is a series of questions and prompts that guide students through their preparation and their performance on the assignment. The comparison requires students to ask what they did well in the assignment and what they need to improve in the assignment. This aids them in identifying the gaps in their study or learning process. The adjustment portion prompts students to plan for how they will adjust their studying and learning process to become more successful on the next assignment.

Student experience

Students have reported positive results after using cognitive wrappers. One said about a group project, “My advice to future students would be to split the work up into two or three days to not only make the workload easier, but to also ensure that you will create quality work. Towards the end of my project I found myself not using as strong of a vocabulary as I was in the beginning. If I had split the workload up it would have been much easier on me to finish with crisp work.”

After she used cognitive wrappers to reflect on her work in the course improved drastically, and later cognitive wrappers included information about how she had broken up her work into one- to two-hour chunks.

In a health studies course, students used group cognitive wrappers in discussion forums to formulate a health education plan, identify gaps in it, and improve their overall project. Additionally, they noted that their quality of work and quality of writing improved over time because they reviewed their previous cognitive wrappers and made efforts to adjust their writing prior to submitting the assignment.

Creating a cognitive wrapper

To create a cognitive wrapper, first identify an assignment for which students have a hard time achieving learning outcomes.

Second, create prompts to guide students through the cognitive wrapper. Make sure to cover the four parts of a cognitive wrapper listed above.

Third, select the appropriate technology for the wrapper. Three considerations dictate what technology to select: (1) the technology available, such as the capabilities of the institution’s learning management system or outside software; (2) the method desired to distribute the cognitive wrapper (multiple-choice quiz, journal entry, or something else); and (3) the reflection on learning method (interpersonal or intrapersonal). Interpersonal reflection allows students to collect self-directed learning practices from their peers and can lead them to improve their own learning process. This is especially useful for group projects since students will have already experienced the collaborative process. Intrapersonal reflection, by contrast, focuses on the student examining only their own learning processes.

Fourth, remind your students to review the cognitive wrapper prior to their next assignment submission. This allows them to review what they discovered during the reflection process and gives them time to adjust their learning process to provide better deliverables. Finally, get student feedback about the wrappers. You may need to adjust your assignment instructions or cognitive wrapper prompts to better guide students to become self-directed learners.

Teaching students to become self-directed learners will increase their success, both in the current course and in the future.


Bowen, J. (2013, August 22).Cognitive wrappers: Using metacognition and reflection to improve learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://josebowen.com/cognitive-wrappers-using-metacognition-and-reflection-to-improve-learning

Further reading

Gezer-Templeton, P. G., Mayhew, E. J., Korte, D. S., & Schmidt, S. J. (2017). Use of exam wrappers to enhance students’ metacognitive skills in a large introductory food science and human nutrition course. Journal of Food Science Education, 16(1), 28–36.

Lovett, M. C. (2013). Make exams worth more than the grade: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. Lavaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18–52). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Shannon, S. V. (2008). Using metacognitive strategies and learning styles to create self-directed learners. Institute for Learning Styles Research Journal, 1, 14–28.

Amanda M. Hinson-Enslin, PhD, is an instructional designer at Texas Woman’s University. Katie Deering, MA, is an instructional design consultant at the University of North Texas.