Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours.
Metacognition is often considered to have two dimensions: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.
Metacognitive knowledge refers to what learners know about learning. This includes:
the learner’s knowledge of their own cognitive abilities (e.g. ‘I have trouble remembering dates in history’)
the learner’s knowledge of particular tasks (e.g. ‘The ideas in this chapter that I’m going to read are complex’)
the learner’s knowledge of different strategies that are available to them and when they are appropriate to the task (e.g. ‘If I scan the text first it will help me to understand the overall meaning').
Metacognitive regulation refers to what learners do about learning. It describes how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes. For example, a learner might realise that a particular strategy is not achieving the results they want, so they decide to try a different strategy.
During the planning phase, learners think about the learning goal the teacher has set and consider how they will approach the task and which strategies they will use. At this stage, it is helpful for learners to ask themselves:
‘What am I being asked to do?’
‘Which strategies will I use?’
‘Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?’
During the monitoring phase, learners implement their plan and monitor the progress they are making towards their learning goal.
Students might decide to make changes to the strategies they are using if these are not working. As students work through the task, it will help them to ask themselves:
‘Is the strategy that I am using working?’
‘Do I need to try something different?’
During the evaluation phase, students determine how successful the strategy they used was in helping them to achieve their learning goal. To promote evaluation, students could consider:
‘How well did I do?’
‘What didn’t go well?’ ‘What could I do differently next time?’
‘What went well?’ ‘What other types of problem can I use this strategy for?’
Reflection is a fundamental part of the plan-monitor-evaluate process. Encouraging learners to self-question throughout the process will support this reflection.
Metacognition helps students to become independent learners Metacognitive practices help learners to monitor their own progress and take control of their learning as they read, write, and solve problems in the classroom.
Metacognition has a positive impact on learning Metacognition makes a unique contribution to learning over and above the influence of intellectual ability. Learners who use metacognitive strategies are likely to be able to achieve more. Research shows that improving a learner’s metacognitive practices may compensate for any cognitive limitations they have.
The Education Endowment Foundation has produced a guide of Seven Recommendations for teaching self-regulated learning and metacognition, download it for free here.
John Spencer has also written an article which details 5 ways to boost metacognition in the classroom, available here.
Approaches to integrate metacognitive strategies into everyday teaching
As part of everyday teaching, some of the most common strategies used to embed metacognitive strategies are:
With a focus on activating prior knowledge, introducing new knowledge and skills, modelling the application of knowledge and skills, and providing ample opportunity for independent practice and reflection.
Supporting students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their work/learning
Explicitly teaching skills in these areas, and structuring work around these phases, will give students the opportunity to gradually internalise these techniques and use them to take control of their own learning.
Developing rubrics (and wherever possible co-designing them with students)
Assist students with the monitoring of learning and the setting of individual learning goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (SMART).
Modelling of thinking
Verbalise the thought processes used to consider, analyse and solve problems. This may be as simple as 'thinking aloud'.
Both in terms of using questions to engage students, to monitor their progress and stimulate their thinking, as well as valuing questions from students as a form of feedback and an opportunity for clarification/extension of learning.
'Think aloud' when delivering whole-class instruction
The 'think aloud' approach sees teacher's verbalising their thought train to lead students to understanding the steps involved in the learning intention.
Create prompts and rubrics to drive independent learning
By defining classroom routines for students with worked examples, and leaving spaces and resources that students can access materials to support their own learning, teachers can help develop strong independent learners.
You can create prompts, anchor points, rubrics, checklists and capacity matrices to scaffold self-assessment opportunities. Because again, we can't expect students to be able to analyse their own learning if we're not building their skill in doing that. These are some key tools that you can use to build those metacognitive strategies for students.
A top tip for high-performing teachers is also the use of QR codes as opportunities for students to independently revise or further develop their skills. This approach sees teachers employing not just metacognition, but also differentiation and worked examples.
QR codes can link to worked samples, which give students further opportunities to become more independent with their learning, which is the ultimate goal. This code can link directly to a video that shows the teacher teaching the skill. You can use sites such as QR Code Generator to create your QR codes.
A reader has also shared that she recently found a new one that is more visually appealing than QR code generator. It’s on Website Planet and has a lot of customization options, and is totally free. It allows you to create your own personalised QR code and enables you to choose the colour, add a frame and even add the logo of your school and/or social networks.
Value students questions and make them visible
Teachers should value the questions and wonderings of their students and record them in a visible space, because ultimately if we're not aware as teachers of the questions that students have, students are not going to value the act of questioning itself.
Involve students in learning intentions and success criteria
Use learning intentions and success criteria to scaffold understanding, with explicit teaching and work samples, because with having a clear understanding of where they need to go, students can work towards that individual expectation with confidence.
For more activities for metacognition, download this guide to metacognitive activities:
Flavell, John H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906–911.
Darling-Hammond, Linda, Austin, K., Cheung, M., & Martin, D. (2003). Thinking about thinking: Metacognition. The learning classroom: Theory into practice. Stanford University School of Education.
Tanner, Kimberly D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120.
Yancey, Kathleen. (1998). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.