Getting Started with Metacognition

Paul Main

How can metacognition be used in your classrooms to develop independent learners who can think for themselves?

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. It is a key component of self-regulated learning. The metacognitive process involves monitoring one's knowledge state in order to determine whether it needs updating or revision. This can be done by using various strategies such as reflection on past experiences, comparing current performance with previous achievements, asking oneself questions about what has been learnt, etc. Metacognition also includes the ability to recognise that one's thoughts are not always accurate reflections of reality.

This is a word that is known to have two viewpoints: Metacognitive knowledge and Metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge is what learners know about learning. For example:

  • The learner’s knowledge of their cognitive psychology capabilities. (‘Mary says that she has trouble remembering scenes in the drama).
  • The learner’s knowledge of particular chores. (‘The job ahead of me might be difficult’).
  • The learner’s knowledge of different tactics that are available to them and when they are suitable to the task (e.g. ‘if I can read the text first it will help me understand the overall meaning’).

Metacognitive regulation is what learners do about learning. This refers to how independent learners monitor and control their cognitive thinking processes. For example, a learner might realize that a particular strategy is not achieving the desired results, so they decide to try a different approach.

What are the metacognition phases?

Planning phase - This is the phase in that learners think about the objectives of learning strategies as it has been set by the teacher as well as consider the approach and the tactics they will use. At this stage, it is useful for the learners to ask themselves:

  • What they are required to do
  • Which strategies are applicable for them
  • Which strategies they have used before and they may come in handy.


Monitoring stage- This is the phase that which learners implement their idea and monitor the development they are directing themselves towards their learning intention. Pupils might decide to make adjustments to the strategies they are using if these deem not so useful for the project. As they work through the task ahead they need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • They should ask themselves if the strategy they are using is working.
  • They should ask themselves if something different would make any difference.

Evaluation stage- In this phase students decide how effective the high-order thinking strategy they used was in helping them to accomplish their learning goal. To promote assessment students reflect on:

  • How well they did in that particular task
  • What went wrong and what can be improved to make a better change.
  • What went well and where the same strategies can be applied in the future.

Reflection is an essential part of the whole process. This is where learners reflect by asking themselves questions throughout the process.

Going forward we shall look at the basics of impact of metacognition in detail. We shall look at the importance and also look at the notion behind distinction in metacognition and discover some useful examples.

The research behind Metacognition

Research done in the 1970s by John Flavell introduced the term ‘metacognition’ which focused on children’s knowledge and control of their memory processes. Metacognition has for a long time been promoted by education psychologists for the benefit of supporting students with learning issues. Researches have since the 20th century identified the importance of control and monitoring in the reading process. Since the 1960’s however researchers have been trying to discover how we monitor the contents of our memories. From the 70s theoretical replicas describing how we process information included a central executive which controls basic cognitive processes.

Another process that was theorized was the Zone of proximal development but that was way back in 1896-1930’s. This zone lies between what the learner can accomplish by himself and what a learner can accomplish with a teacher. The teacher will in the beginning be responsible for observing the progress, setting the required goals, preparing activities, and knowing where to focus his attention.

With time the responsibility for these cognitive thinking processes is given over to the learner. The learner becomes progressively capable of modifying his or her cognitive development activities, this transition is referred to as metacognitive development. We now realize as a result of the research into metacognition that the effective use of the basic cognitive processes is an essential part of learning. These cognitive processes include attention, memory and the stimulation of prior knowledge, and the use of cognitive strategies to resolve a problem or complete a project. To ensure that learners are making the best use of these basic cognitive processes, they need to be fully awake and have the ability to monitor and adapt them.

The biggest challenge for teachers is being able to recognize how well their students understand their learning processes. There are four well-proven levels of metacognitive learners which provide a beneficial framework for teachers.

Metacognitive Framework
Metacognitive Framework

Developing Reflective Learners

  1. Tactic learners - are the learners that are not aware of their metacognitive ability. These learners do not think about any specific strategies for learning and merely accept if they are knowledgeable about something or not. In science, it was observed that Learners had not reflected on the significance of the information they had written down. In business, it was observed that the students could not explain the strategies connected to the task they had.
  2. Aware learners- These learners are knowledgeable about some of the kinds of thinking processes that they do such as generating ideas, finding evidence. They however do not do it deliberately or with a plan.

Some of the traits observed in these learners were that:

In math, the learners were applying math strategies to “real world” problems. The students managed to solve the problem but showed limited awareness of the best study strategies to use. In D&T, a student could recognize that they always over-do their designs, which leads to handing over incomplete tasks. However, they had not been able to change this behaviour or work on it. In English students were able to describe a PEE paragraph but could not explain its purpose. In science, students asked elaborative questions showing a yearning to think more deeply, however, these were not predominantly strategic

  1. Strategic learners- This type of learner shape their higher-order thinking skills by using problem-solving, grouping and sorting, evidence-seeking and decision-making, etc. They are knowledgeable and they apply the tactics that support their learning.

Some of the traits observed in these learners were that: In geography, students were able to make a comparison of the different methods to measure height on a map and explain why one was better than the other one.

 In history, students were able to assess what had gone well and off in an assessment. They were also able to describe what they would do differently given another chance.

In math, students were selecting a specific strategy to solve a problem without prompting. They knew the strategy to use but could not explain why they were using it.

In French, students were able to explain their strategies for translation. They said they would first sound it in their heads to see if it was similar to an English word, then use either their books or the teacher but they were unable to explain why one might be better than another.

  1. Reflective learners- These learners are strategic and they also reflect upon learning while on the course considering the accomplishment of the task or not anything planned that they are using and then revising them as ideal.

Some of the traits observed were: - In geography, the students were able to pronounce a strategy from a separate project earlier in the year that they had applied to their current task. They were able to explain the value of the strategy.

Learners can organise their thinking using graphic organisers
Learners can organise their thinking using graphic organisers

Measuring Metacognition

There are many ways to measure metacognition including questionnaires, interviews, observation, tests and video recording. One method used to assess metacognition is called the Think Aloud Method. This technique consists of having participants read aloud whilst they complete tasks. By doing so, researchers can observe how much time each participant spends reflecting upon their answers before giving them out loud. Another way to examine metacognition is via the use of eye tracking technology. Eye movements provide valuable data regarding where individuals focus their gaze during task completion. Researchers can then compare this against the content of the text being read.

The importance of metacognition for supporting student learning has been promoted by educational psychologists. John Flavell's research focused on children's knowledge and control of their memory processes when he introduced the term 'metacognition'. John Flavell's research focused on children's knowledge and control of their memory processes when he introduced the term 'metacognition'. His work demonstrated that students who were able to monitor their own performance had better recall skills than those who did not. The concept of metacognitive monitoring has subsequently been applied to a wide range of subjects such as mathematics, science and language studies.

Metacognition plays a key role in helping us understand our environment and ourselves. It helps us make sense of what we see, hear or feel. We learn from others through observing their actions and reactions. In turn, we also influence other people’s behaviour by showing interest in their thoughts and feelings.

Metacognitive Knowledge

Another important aspect of metacognition relates to its ability to support effective decision making. Metacognitive knowledge enables an individual to identify relevant information and apply it appropriately. For example, if you want to know whether your maths homework was completed correctly, you need to be aware of the fact that you may have made mistakes. You would therefore need to reflect on your previous attempts at solving problems and ask yourself why certain methods worked well while others didn't.

Metacognition in practice

Developing metacognitive skills includes encouraging learners to take responsibility for their own learning and providing opportunities for reflection. These approaches allow teachers to provide more targeted instruction and ensure that all pupils achieve high standards. A number of different types of metacognitive strategy exist which help learners gain insight into their understanding of concepts and materials. These include self-monitoring, elaboration and critical evaluation. Self-monitoring involves taking stock of one's current state of knowledge and skill acquisition. Elaborative interrogation involves asking oneself questions about the material under study. Critical evaluation involves evaluating whether information provided is accurate and relevant. Metacognitive strategies may be taught explicitly using instructional methods like lecture notes, textbooks, tutorials etc., or implicitly through social interactions with peers and teachers.

In addition to metacognitive strategies, there are several individual differences factors that affect metacognitive ability. For example, some people tend to rely more heavily on explicit instruction while others prefer to explore ideas independently. Some people find it easier to think analytically whereas others need to process information visually. People differ in terms of their motivation towards studying; some enjoy reading books and articles but struggle to apply themselves to assignments, while others thrive off completing homework quickly without thinking too deeply. Metacognition advances the learning process because it allows learners to reflect upon how they have learned something before moving onto new topics. This enables them to develop an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses so that they can improve their academic performance over time.

The following resources explore some of the most common types of metacognitive strategy used by students:

Can you teach metacognition? Yes! It's possible to incorporate metacognitive thinking into lessons without having to spend hours planning activities. Instead, simply focus on helping students become better thinkers through small changes to existing practices. Some suggestions include:

  • Providing regular written reflections
  • Encouraging students to think critically about their own learning
  • Giving students control over their study materials
  • Making sure that students get sufficient sleep
  • Developing a positive attitude towards studying
  • Incorporating peer assessment

Typically, a metacognitive approach involves learners applying metacognitive strategies to respond to clear learning goals. Either the goals have been set by the teacher or identified by the learners themselves. The learner uses their metacognitive strategies to monitor, plan and gauge their progress towards achieving their learning objectives.

To apply a metacognitive approach, learners need access to:

  • Strategies to use
  • An environment preferably a classroom that inspires the learners to use, discover and grow their metacognitive skills.

Self monitoring

When students monitor their own progress during class, this provides feedback as to where they stand relative to their classmates. Students who do not perform well will often try harder next lesson. Conversely, those who excel will likely relax knowing that they did enough work for today.

Elaborative questioning

When teaching concepts such as fractions, students might engage in elaborate questioning techniques. They could start by dividing up into groups and then discussing what each group has learnt. The teacher could also encourage students to write down key points from lectures and share these with other members of the class. By doing this, students learn to evaluate their understanding of the topic and make connections between different aspects of the subject matter.

Critical Evaluation

Students should always assess their own abilities when attempting tasks. If they feel confident about their answers, they should give credit to their efforts. However, if they don’t understand the question, they should seek help from tutors or fellow students. In either case, critical evaluation is essential for developing self-awareness.


For learners to effectively apply their metacognitive strategies, clear learning goals are essential. Learners can plan strategies that will help to achieve the goals and monitor their progress towards achieving these goals. This is possible with clear learning goals. Learners can use strategies across various domains of the school curriculum. For example, a strategy that has been used when studying a language could also be used in science. Deliberating on this strategy in the classroom may help learners to realize what strategies are available to them, how they impact their learning, and why they work.


Mnemonics are usually used by teachers to help learners recall information that they have forgotten. It is good to note that there are various types of mnemonics. 

In word mnemonics, items or expressions in a list are arranged by their first letter to create a phrase or a word.

Image mnemonics

This is a visual reference to aid recall. For example, you can use your hands to remember how many days are in each month. Mnemonics are however limited in terms of supporting the developments of a higher order of thinking processes. They are useful in helping children with specific learning difficulties.

Thinking journals

One effective way to help learners develop their ability to plan, monitor, and self-evaluate is to keep a thinking journal. It is a powerful learning tool that helps learners to reflect on how they think. This kind of journal can inspire a learner to discover, question, connect ideas and continue with their learning. The thinking journal could be used to:

  • Record ideas from a film or a presentation.
  • To calculate future events.
  • To record questions
  • To restate the main ideas of a book.
  • To connect the ideas presented to other fields of knowledge.

What is reciprocal teaching?

This is a strategy used to grow reading comprehension. The teacher models key findings i.e. strategies that support reading and this is done in small groups of learners: Questioning, Clarifying, summarizing, and predicting. The Learners are then asked to take on the role of teacher and teach these strategies to other learners.

The planning stage can be enhanced using the block building methodology
The planning stage can be enhanced using the block building methodology

Metacognitive talk

The metacognitive talk involves thinking aloud that is by talking it aloud while they are working. It might sound a bit irritating and distractive but talking things out loudly could help learners to focus and monitor their cognitive processing as well as help them to be more knowledgeable of their processes.

  • Planning stage- The learner can reflect on questions such as ‘what do I understand about this task?’ ‘Have I ever done this before?’
  • Monitoring- The learner can ask himself questions like ‘how am I fairing?’
  • During the evaluation, the learner can ask himself ‘How well did I do?’

Since some learners especially those in lower grades may not be used to the idea of talking aloud, the teacher can introduce the learners to this strategy by exhibiting a metacognitive talk. This could be by working through an activity out loud.

Exam wrappers – can be given to the learners either before or even after the feedback of their results. These worksheets that ideally contain reflective thinking questions prompt the learners to reflect on how ready they are for the exam. Exam preparation becomes a determining factor of personal assessment of how ready the learners are. After receiving the feedback, the learner may be asked to evaluate the feedback to categorize any mistakes made. Thereafter the learner can be given a chance to discuss how they are doing as far as exam preparation is concerned.

  1. A supportive environment - A step-by-step demonstration of the strategy gives learners knowledge of what the strategy involves.

This is a metacognition checklist:

  • If the learning objectives have been included clearly. Make sure all the learners understand their learning objectives so that they can plan how to attain their goals. This process should involve learners by identifying which strategies they know could be beneficial and applicable in their current situation.
  • Know how to encourage the learners to monitor their learning- Metacognitive strategies are usually used by effective learners as they learn. They might, however, fail to recognize which strategy is the most effective for a specific learning situation. The teachers can use the strategy of asking questions to prompt the learners to monitor the strategies in place.
  • Know how you can create opportunities for learners to practice new strategies- The learners should be allowed to learn the new strategies both independently as well as with support. Monitor your learners through their learning process and provide them with feedback on the particular strategies they are using to gain knowledge.
  • Give the learner time to self-reflect- Critical analyses of the learner’s performance can be achieved through Personal reflection which enables the learners to see what they might have done differently to improve their performance in future tasks. It is significant that teachers dedicate time for learners to reflect, and offer them the tools to do so. One way of doing this is to use thinking journals as mentioned in the previous section.
  • Understand if the environment supports social metacognitive practices- Since teachers are instrumental in shaping learning culture in a classroom, they have to be able to establish a supportive environment that enhances metacognitive activity practices. These practices eventually become the centre part of the learning steps. Ensure that metacognitive practices are effective so that the learners can have an opportunity to work with the other students, inspiring reflection and assessing their progress.

Students thinking and talking together to promote metacognition
Students thinking and talking together to promote metacognition

To encourage social metacognition in your classroom you can do the following:

  • Know what you know
  • Know what you want to know
  • Know what you have
  1. First of all the class has to have a clear learning objective
  2. Then the learners have to ask what they know. Once they start thinking of what they know, it could help them respond to the learning objective.
  3. Knowing what the learners have learned is an important stage as it provides you with the ability to see what your students are interested in learning. This knowledge can help you shape future learning activities.
  4. During the lesson of learning, encourage your learners to monitor their learning progress and to change the strategies they are using if necessary. Encourage them to ask questions such as: ‘I’m I doing, okay?’, ‘What should I do after this?’, ‘Should I try something new?’
  5. Let the learners list down what they have learned. Still, ask your learners to reflect on what they wrote in the ‘What do I want to know?’ column Do they have answered questions. Are there additional questions? List these unanswered questions and use them to help plan the future.
  6. Reflect on the learning process – Encourage the learners to think about how successfully they answered the ‘What do I want to know?' questions. Support their deliberations with questions that encourage reflection on their learning process

Social metacognition consists of learners coming together in groups with the sole purpose of monitoring and controlling one another’s, emotions, knowledge and actions.

How does metacognition enhance the learning process?

Metacognition helps us to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses so we can improve ourselves. This means that it allows us to recognise how much effort we put into something and whether we have achieved success. For example, if someone asks me “how was your day?” I know exactly what she wants to hear – an answer like ‘it was great thanks’. But if I say “I had a really busy morning but my afternoon went smoothly”, I am giving her information which may prove useful later on. Metacognition enables us to reflect upon our performance and plan accordingly.

It helps the learners to become independent- learners can monitor how they are progressing through distinction Metacognition practices. The learners are also able to be in control of their learnings as they study by writing and reading and they can solve problems in the classroom.

Metacognition impacts positively on learning- Metacognition contributes in a major way in learning over and above the impact of intellectual ability. Learners who use metacognitive tactics are known to realize more. Improving a learner’s metacognitive practices has been proven to compensate for any cognitive confines they could have.

Food for thought: It has been realized that many a time students are taught what they should think but they are not taught how to think.

Social Metacognition is beneficial to all ages- Learners from the primary level upwards stand to benefit from social metacognitive practices. Social Metacognitive skills assist the learners to transfer the information they have learned from one context to something else or from one project to another one. Text comprehension, mathematics reasoning, writing, and problem-solving are included in this process.

Social Metacognition can be implemented easily since it’s cheap- Implementation of development of metacognition does not need costly, special apparatuses or changes in the classroom, unlike other educational interventions.

Some teachers usually think that they need to teach Metacognition skills that is ‘learning to learn’ or ‘thinking skills’ sessions. However, the impact of Metacognitive strategies should be taught in combination with specific subject content as learners find it hard to transfer these common tips to precise tasks.

There are seven recommendations for teaching metacognition

  • Teachers should have professional knowledge and skills to develop their learner’s metacognitive knowledge especially where cognitive decline is detected.
  • Teach the learners metacognitive strategies clearly including how they should plan, monitor, and gauge their learning
  • Learners should be aided by their teachers to learn how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.
  • An appropriate level of challenge should be set to grow learners’ self-regulation and component of metacognition.
  • Metacognitive talk should be encouraged and developed.
  • Learners should be taught clearly how to organize and effectively manage their learning independently.
  • Teachers should be fully supported by the schools to develop the knowledge of these procedures and expect the knowledge to be applied correctly.

The main benefit of incorporating metacognition into education is that it encourages people to look at themselves objectively. Students who use metacognitive techniques tend to perform well because they realise that there will inevitably be times when they do not meet expectations. They therefore try harder next time around.

The ability to identify areas where improvement is needed makes individuals more likely to succeed. When students work hard to overcome challenges, they gain confidence and motivation. As a result, they often find that they enjoy schoolwork even more than before. Metacognition develops independent learners who are able to make decisions based on personal experience rather than relying solely on external sources of knowledge.

Why might teaching methods fail to encourage metacognition? Many schools still rely heavily on rote memorisation as opposed to active engagement with material. Teachers need to consider ways of making this approach less effective. One way would be to introduce new concepts gradually instead of cramming everything into one lesson. By making thinking processes more visible in class, teachers could help students develop strategies for overcoming difficulties. Another option would be to provide opportunities for students to discuss topics outside of formal classes. These discussions should take place within a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing opinions. Having an awareness of your cognitive abilities also gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself by trying out different approaches to problems. These cognitive processes are all indexed in the Universal Thinking Framework, you can read more about it here. Having learning strategies such as these available to you will enable you to become a better learner.

Using thinking tools to promote clearer cognition
Using thinking tools to promote clearer cognition

Misconceptions surrounding metacognition

Some of the misconceptions surrounding metacognition and the related construct ‘self-regulated learning’ are:

  • Metacognition is all about ‘thinking about thinking’-Metacognition does involve thinking about thinking but it is surely more compound than that. Metacognition is largely about monitoring one’s learning and making changes to one’s learning behaviors and strategies based on this monitoring.
  • All strategies used while performing a cognitive task is metacognitive- This is not always true. The distinction between the two is identified as Strategies used to make cognitive progress are cognitive strategies and strategies used to monitor cognitive ability progress are metacognitive strategies.
  • Teachers play no critical role in the learner’s metacognitive practices- Metacognitive approach may typically focus on supporting the learner to take control of their learning though the teacher is still required to help in the development of the learners metacognitive skills. Clear learning objectives have to be set by the teacher as well as demonstrate and monitor strategies. The teacher should also encourage and prompt the learner continually.
  • Role of Metacognition applies only to older learners- Some studies have been done showing evidence of young children’s metacognitive capabilities. As young as 18 months old have been seen to demonstrate error-correction strategies, 5 year olds being conscious of forgetting, and others demonstrating a wide range of verbal and non-verbal indicators of metacognitive processes in junior classrooms.

Develop the skills of an effective learner with the new framework
Develop the skills of an effective learner with the new framework

Unpicking a learning situation using a metacognitive approach

A component of metacognition is having an awareness of what cognitive processes you have available. Having names for these different learning words provides us with a rich repertoire for moving our thinking forward. Whether you are in a primary school or secondary school having the vocabulary of learning at your disposal is a step forward in the development of metacognition. We have seen many of our member schools make the thinking processes of their children visible using the Framework's learning actions. Having a set of colour-coded indexed cognitive processes available means that classrooms can design instructional processes for any learning situation. Once children have an awareness of these cognitive processes they can then begin to choose which ones are appropriate for any given academic task. Using the framework in this way automatically kick starts a metacognitive approach as the learner has to think carefully about what the task entails. This type of metacognitive experience enables a student to think carefully about the cognitive task in hand. In time, this type of metacognitive regulation will have a positive impact on academic achievement. Learning is not a singular mental process. It is made up of a variety of cognitive actions that can be carefully woven together to create rigorous metacognitive thinking. 

The Universal Thinking Framework can be thought of as the guidance for reaching those learning objectives. Depending on the learning context, teachers and students can choose the actions from the taxonomy to create a well constructed and manageable learning path towards the objectives. These learning path's can be seen as academic stepping stones towards deeper levels of learning. When a child says 'I can't do it' what they are often saying is they don't know how to move forward. These learning pathways create routes forward for both primary school and secondary school children.