Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
1. What is metacognition?
Metacognition is sometimes crudely defined as ‘thinking about one’s own thinking’, or ‘cognitions about cognitions’. But it is much more complicated.
Metacognition can be crudely defined as our awareness, control, knowledge and understanding of our own cognitive processes, particularly the processes through which we learn. For example, metacognition concerns our awareness of what we know, what we have learned, our beliefs about our cognitive abilities, and our evaluations of our learning.
Metacognition therefore covers the processes involved in self-conscious learning, such as when learners monitor, reflect on and evaluate their own learning. In other words, when they think about their learning explicitly. Metacognition involves ‘actively monitoring one’s own learning and, based on this monitoring, making changes to one’s own learning behaviours and strategies’ (Bromley 2018).
A learner with good metacognition is characterised by having good abilities in recognising and evaluating their learning processes, and developing them in response.
The concept of metacognition arguably has a history stretching back to antiquity, but was coined by psychologist John Flavell in the early 1970s, who defined it as ‘knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena’, referring to a learner’s knowledge of their own cognition. Flavell called ‘metacognitive strategies’ thosestrategies that we use to monitor our own cognitive progress, such as our own learning. (For an excellent overview of the history of metacognition, see this article by Petros Georghiades.) (Flavell 1971, 1979 & 1981; Georghiades 2004, 365-6; Gunstone 1991.)
Effective metacognition involves a process of effective self-conscious learning – for example, students being aware of their own thinking as they read, write and solve problems, and reflecting on how they could improve these areas.
2. Two dimensions of metacognition
In an excellent article explaining metacognition, Matt Bromley describes how metacognition is widely considered to have two dimensions:
1. Metacognitive knowledge
(1) refers to what learners know about learning. For example, a learner’s knowledge of their own cognitive abilities, and which learning strategies are most suitable to a particular task.
(2) refers to what learners do about learning: how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes. For example, a learner’s awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, an understanding of how to improve their learning and how to motivate themselves to work, etc. (Bromley 2018).
3. Why is metacognition important?
It’s vital for effective learning that we learn how to learn. Metacognition directly supports this, which is the main reason why there’s been increasing interest in the concept in recent decades.
Metacognition and learning how to learn are have been recognised as increasingly important in recent decades, particularly in light of the rapidly changing world of technology and work, and, relatedly, the amount of information (and hence potential knowledge) we are increasingly exposed to. As we amass more knowledge across a range of fields, and as it becomes more difficult to identify what knowledge is particularly important for the future, metacognition and learning how to learn are increasingly important. (Bromley 2018; Georghiades 2004, 366.)
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) rank metacognition and self-regulation practices as among the most effective for students. The EEF rank strategies in terms of the ‘extra months’ of pupil progress they secure, and tied at the top are feedback, metacognition and self-regulation. They report that ‘Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of seven months’ additional progress’ (EEF 2018a).
- develops self-knowledge and self-understanding (and poor metacognition hinders self-knowledge and self-understanding);
- gives us a better grasp of what we know, what we have learned, and how skilled we are;
- helps us to identify where we need to improve our knowledge, learning and skills.
The Education Endowment Foundation state that,
- metacognition and self-regulation have ‘consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months’ additional progress’;
- ‘teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low-achieving pupils’;
- metacognition should be explicitly taught (EEF 2018a).
4. Psychological obstacles to metacognition
Some psychological obstacles can stand in the way of effective metacognition, such as perceptual illusions, cognitive biases, constructing faulty narratives of events and distortions of memory, to which we are all susceptible. Such obstacles are called knowledge illusions: cognitive illusions where we believe that our knowledge is greater than it is or we have learned more than we actually have. These illusions can be brought about through engaging in ineffective learning strategies which produce such beliefs.
Knowledge illusions are examples of poor metacognition. They can be especially problematic in learning, particularly in our assessments of our own learning and knowledge. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, ch. 5, esp. 15-16, 108-9 & 125-7; Kahneman 2011.)
There are many examples of knowledge illusions. The following are some of the most relevant to teaching and learning.
- The ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’: a form of cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something fails to recognise their incompetence and greatly overestimates their competence.
- Fluency illusions: mistaking fluency with a text for a mastery of its content.
- The ‘curse of knowledge’: the tendency of a person who has mastered a skill or area of knowledge to underestimate how long it’ll take someone else to gain knowledge or acquire skills in or related to the same areas. For example, a teacher explaining complex theoretical notions which they have consolidated into a mental model over a long time, but forgets that the students have yet to master the underlying steps in that model and skips over them (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, 113-6 & 121-3).
- ‘Suggestion’: a type of memory illusion which can arise in the way questions are asked – for example, through asking leading questions.
- Feeling of knowing: when false information sounds familiar and engenders the feeling that we know it to be true. E.g., the ‘Big Lie technique’, common in propaganda.
- ‘Social influence’: the ways in which our memories are influenced by the people with whom we interact. This psychological process is known as ‘memory conformity’ or the ‘social contagion of memory’.
- Some forms of unconscious bias that can impede the reliability of our marking are related to knowledge illusions, such as the ‘similarity effect’: teachers using themselves as reference points for assessing students (in terms of knowledge or style) (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, 113-7 & 121-3). (On this point, see this CIRL blog post.)
It’s important to be aware of the ways that knowledge illusions can produce poor metacognition. For example, the Dunning-Kruger effect causes us to overestimate our competence, which can prevent us from seeing any need to improve our knowledge or skills in certain areas. We need to develop metacognitive skills, to form reliable judgements of our own learning, knowledge and cognitive abilities.
For a real-life example of the importance of metacognition: pilots are trained to be aware of certain perceptual illusions they are particularly susceptible to in their line of work and how to adjust their flight instruments accordingly (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 121).
For more on knowledge illusions, see this CIRL blog post.
5. The metacognitive cycle
Bromley (2018) outlines a ‘metacognitive cycle’ which consists of the following stages:
1. Planning stage: learners think about the learning goal set by the teacher and how they’ll approach it.
2. Monitoring stage: learners implement their plan and monitor their progress towards their learning goal.
3. Evaluation stage: learners determine how successful their strategies have been towards meeting their learning goal.
4. Reflection stage: learners reflect on the whole learning process and adapt their approaches to what has and hasn’t worked well.
6. Teaching metacognition
While metacognition focuses on the learner controlling their own learning, the teacher is nonetheless integral to the development of a student’s metacognitive skills. Key strategies for developing students’ metacognition include:
- Setting clear learning objectives
- Demonstrating and modelling metacognitive strategies
- Monitoring metacognition among students
A general strategy for developing a person’s metacognition and their level of competence in an area is to teach them the skills for judging their own performance more accurately. This can be done in several ways, much of which requires independent learning from the student:
- Becoming better at recognising competence in others (as examples of modelling)
- Finding objective ways to track our progress (e.g., results, reports, feedback)
- Becoming more accurate judges of what we know and don’t know, have learned and have not learned (e.g., through formative testing, including self-quizzing) (Bromley 2018; Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, 105 & 121-3).
7. General strategies for teaching metacognition
Kimberly Tanner (2012) outlines strategies to teach students to monitor their own learning. She provides a list of questions that she suggests teachers could give to students as a mechanism for them to plan, monitor, and evaluate their preparation for an exam. An excerpt is below.
Strategies for teaching students to monitor their own learning, by Kimberly Tanner.
The Education Endowment Foundation have created a seven-step guide for teaching metacognitive strategies. What follows is a general example contextualised for the subject of design to illustrate.
1. Activating prior knowledge: the teacher discusses with students the different approaches towards approaching a specific design problem, and the advantages of design thinking for solving that problem.
2. Explicit strategy instruction: the teacher explains how design thinking will help students identify possible ideas for further exploration to solve the problem.
3. Modelling of learned strategy: the teacher models how they might approach the task or problem.
4. Memorisation of learned strategy: the teacher tests whether students have understood the key aspects of design thinking in application to the problem, through questions and discussion.
5. Guided practice: the teacher models an additional way of approaching the problem using design thinking, with students verbally contributing their ideas.
6. Independent practice: students engage in design thinking themselves to address the problem.
7. Structured reflection: the teacher encourages students to reflect on how appropriate design thinking was to solve the problem, how successfully they engaged in and applied design thinking, how they might use it in the future, and what they might change.
The EEF’s ‘Metacognition and self-regulated learning: summary of recommendations’ (EEF 2018b)
Bromley, Matt, 2018. ‘In the Classroom: Metacognition Explained’. SecEd, 18 Nov. 2018.
Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel, 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Education Endowment Foundation, 2018b. ‘Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning: Summary of Recommendations’
Flavell, John, 1971. ‘First discussant’s comments: What is memory development the development of?’. Human Development, 14, 272-278.
Flavell, John, 1979. ‘Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: a new area of cognitive developmental inquiry’. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911.
Flavell, John, 1981. ‘Cognitive Monitoring’, in W. P. Dickson (ed.), Children’s Oral Communication Skills (London: Academic Press).
Georghiades, Petros, 2004. ‘From the general to the situated: three decades of metacognition’. International Journal of Science Education, 26:3, 365-383.
Gunstone, R. F., 1991. ‘Constructivism and metacognition: theoretical issues and classroom studies’, in R. Duit, F.
Kahneman, Daniel, 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Penguin.
Tanner, Kimberly D., 2012. ‘Promoting Student Metacognition’. CBE – Life Sciences Education,11, 113-120.
Other useful resources
Brame, Cynthia, 2013. ‘Thinking about Metacognition’. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, 10 Jan 2013.
Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning: Guidance Report’