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What is metacognition? Understanding and applying the concept in your teaching

By Dr Jonathan Firth, University of Strathclyde
Jonathan is a university teacher and researcher and taught in secondary schools for many years. His current research interests focus on the psychology of education specifically in how memory works, metacognition, and teacher professional learning.

You might have heard of metacognition. This aspect of learning has been described as one of the most effective educational interventions that we can use[1]. However, do we actually know what metacognition is? Are we all talking about the same thing?

The aim of this post is to make metacognition clearer and less subjective. After all, if it’s going to be effective – something you can use in your own teaching or learning – then you need to know how it works.

Metacognition – the basics

When explaining metacognition to students, I often find that it helps to define cognition first. Cognition includes a set of everyday mental processes, including:

•     beliefs
•     paying attention
•     thinking
•     problem solving
•     reflecting
•     learning
•     memory
•     language

In short, it covers everything that your mind does on a moment-to-moment basis!

Metacognition means cognition about cognition. It’s also commonly defined as thinking about thinking – though, as you can see from the list above, that makes it sound narrower than it actually is. In terms of the cognitive processes listed, things like beliefs about memory would also count as metacognition, as would reflecting on your own use of language. And even talking about learning is metacognitive, too.

These examples show that metacognition is not something strange or additional to normal teaching processes. It is already happening in classrooms everywhere. You’re already developing metacognition with your learners every day!

Another very common example of metacognition in the classroom is when students feel that they are ‘stuck’. If they feel stuck on a task, they must have thought about their own learning or problem solving, and decided (rightly or wrongly) that they can’t make any further progress. It’s therefore a metacognitive process.

Something like growth mindset could also be seen as a form of metacognition. Whether learners do or don’t accept that ability can change through practice, this demonstrates a belief about learning.

Hopefully these examples make it a little clearer to see what metacognition is.

However, it would be a mistake to think that all complex or deep thinking is metacognition. Higher-order skills such as analysis are not necessarily metacognitive. Rather, they are just cognition! Likewise, something like problem solving is not necessarily a form of metacognition. It only becomes metacognitive if the problem solver stops to reflect on their strategy, or thinks about how much progress they have made.

Using metacognition in learning

It’s helpful to think about metacognition in terms of what happens before, during, and after learning[2]:

1 Before: this is where a learner thinks about their cognitive processes in advance. For example, they might decide that they are going to take a particular strategy when writing an essay, perhaps because they are aware that other strategies have not been successful in the past. Or they may plan how they will revise for a test.

2 During: this is where learners think about or reflect on their progress as they do a task, and perhaps change strategy if things are not going well.

3 After: this is where learners reflect on their learning and make decisions about what to do next.

There is some interplay between the three stages above. For example, when students reflect on their learning this informs their planning, therefore looping back to the ‘before’ stage. Also, when thinking about their progress during a task, they may realise that something isn’t working well, and revise their plan. They may opt to change to a different strategy.

Despite these slight complexities, understanding the three stages provides a useful mental tool, and helps you think about how broadly metacognition applies.

This very process is supported by the Adapt platform, where students are continuously required first to retrieve their knowledge and decide on a strategy, and then to reflect on their level of confidence. The consistency of this process means that the ‘metacognition muscles’ are strengthened by regular sessions within Adapt.

Not forgetting that when you are thinking about your students’ learning, you are engaging in metacognition, too!

In practice in the classroom

When it comes to planning their attempt at a classroom task, learners may be better able to strategize if we take time to demonstrate worked examples[3]. We can also make an effort to improve their metacognitive knowledge about learning, for example by:

  • Modelling strategies and ‘thinking aloud’ as they do so
  • Making them aware of effective learning strategies
  • Guiding them that their gut feeling about learning is not always accurate
  • Using accurate technical language when talking about strategies and cognition

In combination with these strategies, a little more planning time may pay dividends.

During the task, learners may then engage in what is known as metacognitive monitoring. This is where they think about their performance and progress. Do they realise how well or badly they are doing, for example, or notice when they have made a mistake?

The evidence suggests that students’ metacognitive monitoring is not always accurate – but it is better than chance or guesswork![4] This means that we should encourage learners to do this, and can do so by encouraging them to pause and think from time to time. Questions and reminders can nudge them to engage in monitoring, and can be built into tasks and worksheets (a similar strategy can be used for later reflection, for example via homework tasks).

Teachers may wonder how these strategies fit with cognitive load. Working memory capacity is limited, and thinking metacognitively (for example, monitoring your progress) adds extra load.

For this reason, it’s important to set aside time for these processes, particularly for younger learners whose working memory capacity is still developing. Even as little as a minute can make a difference. The key thing as that they are not being asked to monitor or reflect at the same time as doing a task. Doing two things concurrently is very demanding on working memory, and it’s only really possible for learners who are already highly experienced.

A problem with self-directed learning

If you consider the processes discussed above, it’s clear that students also need to engage in a lot of metacognition when they are studying by themselves. They have to decide what to study, when to study it, whether to stop work on one topic and switch to another, and so on. For this reason, metacognition researchers are very interested in self-directed learning.

One major problem that has arisen from this field of research is that learners are not very good at self-directed learning. This is partly due to motivation (they often leave things to the last minute)[5], but they are pretty bad at metacognition, too.

For example, most learners make flawed decisions about what to practise. They tend to focus their study time where they feel like they are making the most progress[6]. This can lead to their skipping harder topics, or failing to consolidate easy ones (where they mistakenly feel they have nothing more to learn). In short, they underestimate both the cost of forgetting and the benefit of practice.

Within the Adapt platform, the opportunity to make these flawed decisions is greatly reduced. The system moves the learner beyond the ‘easy’ topics (having first tested them), and focuses instead on identifying, practising and consolidating the harder or lesser-known elements of learning.

People tend not to fully understand memory, either. In particular, students tend to avoid subjectively-difficult strategies that slow down practice. They prefer to engage instead in passive strategies such as highlighting and re-reading texts, as these lead to a sense of rapid progress. They feel like they have understood and learned – but any such learning is shallow, and won’t last! Linked to the same issue, many learners avoid active revision strategies such as self-testing, and they don’t space out their practice over time.

These flawed study strategies lead to students getting worse grades[7] than they otherwise might. Improving and guiding their metacognition as they study will help them to attain better, potentially making a big difference to outcomes.

As teachers and lecturers, we can play a role in tackling these errors. It is important for teachers to explain the rationale behind techniques such as retrieval practice (actively recalling things from memory, e.g. self-testing) and interleaving of practice problems[8], and to practise using evidence-based study strategies in the classroom.

Remember – we are the experts in learning, and can try to put ourselves in the position to gradually correct our students’ errors, guiding them towards more effective study habits. I think that this should happen quite early in schooling – long before young people face their first major exams[9].

Final notes

The examples in this article very obviously apply not only to classroom work in areas like science, maths and social science, but to other areas of the curriculum, too. A music student who is playing a musical scale may engage in metacognitive monitoring of their own skill and progress, and an athlete needs to think about scheduling their practice and adjusting elements of their physical performance.

Understanding metacognition and memory techniques are now central parts of Department of Education policy, and at times it can feel like a buzzword or fad in education. Everyone seems to want to be seen as metacognitive in their practice! Hopefully this article has convinced you that metacognition is an everyday part of learning, and not one that is beyond you or your students.

It’s also not something that can be left to take care of itself, however. Learners often avoid engaging in metacognition, and tend to have flawed beliefs about learning. We can tackle these issues in our practice. Hopefully these pointers will help you to recognise and develop metacognition in your own classroom.

By Dr Jonathan Firth, University of Strathclyde

Twitter: @JW_Firth
ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jonathan-Firth
Memory and Metacognition Newsletter: www.getrevue.co/profile/jw_firth


[1] https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

[2] As explained by Nelson and Narens (1994); https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1994-97967-001

[3] Muijs & Bokhove (2020). https://d2tic4wvo1iusb.cloudfront.net/documents/guidance/Metacognition_and_self-regulation_review.pdf

[4] Son & Schwarz (2002). https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2003-02861-001

[5] Kornell & Bjork (2007). https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03194055

[6] As discussed by Metcalfe and Kornell (2005). https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-04919-002

[7] Hartwig & Dunlosky (2012). https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-02361-015

[8] See Firth (2019). https://www.jonathanfirth.co.uk/blog/interleaving-using-it-in-the-classroom

[9] Firth (2022). https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/understanding-the-human-mind-a-foundation-for-self-regulated-study/