In the simplest possible terms, metacognition is the practice of thinking about your thinking.

It can be an important skill for improving your learning and problem-solving abilities. By being aware of your thought processes and understanding how you learn best, you can more effectively plan and execute tasks, monitor your progress, and identify areas where you need to focus more attention.

Developing metacognitive skills can help you be a more effective learner and support your overall well-being by helping you be more self-aware and in control of your thoughts and actions. There are many ways to develop metacognitive skills, such as setting learning goals, creating study plans, and regularly reflecting on your progress and understanding. You can better navigate challenges and achieve your goals by cultivating a better understanding of your thinking and learning.

The concept of metacognition has been widely studied in education, and research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of teaching metacognitive skills to learners of all ages. By helping students to become more aware of their thinking and learning processes, educators can support their ability to plan, monitor, and assess their understanding and performance. This can be particularly effective in helping students to learn more efficiently and effectively and can also support them by promoting a sense of self-awareness and control.

The National Academy of Sciences synthesis of research on the science of learning, ‘How People Learn’, highlights the effectiveness of a metacognitive approach to instruction. Many educators have found that incorporating metacognitive strategies into their teaching can improve student learning outcomes.

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How do metacognitive practices work?

Metacognitive practices can support students’ ability to transfer their learning to new contexts and tasks by helping them to develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter and the strategies they use to learn. By becoming more aware of the different strategies and approaches that are effective for learning and problem-solving, students can better adapt their thinking to different contexts and tasks.

This can be especially important when faced with new challenges or unfamiliar learning situations. By developing a conscious meta-strategic level of higher-order thinking, students can better understand their learning processes and use this understanding to adapt their thinking and approach to new situations. Research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of teaching metacognitive skills to students, and many educators have found that incorporating metacognitive strategies into their teaching can be incredibly beneficial for learners.

By becoming aware of their educational strengths and weaknesses, students can better understand their learning processes and identify the best strategies. This can help them be more proactive in seeking resources and support when needed and develop ways to overcome their weaknesses.

By actively monitoring their learning strategies and resources, students put themselves in a better position to assess their readiness for particular tasks and performances. It also allows students to make adjustments as and when needed to ensure success. Metacognitive practices can be a powerful tool for helping students become more self-aware and self-directed learners and develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed in school and beyond.

What happens in the absence of metacognition?

The absence of metacognition can lead to a lack of self-awareness and understanding of one’s skills and limitations. This can result in a tendency to overestimate one’s competence and fail to recognize when one is making mistakes or performing poorly. This is sometimes referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

By developing metacognitive skills, people can become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and become better equipped to recognize when they need additional support or resources to improve their performance. This can be especially important in contexts where accuracy and precision are critical, such as in test-taking, medical procedures, or other high-stakes situations. Overall, research suggests that developing metacognitive skills can be an important way to improve learning and enhance performance in various contexts.

Metacognition in practice

Kimberly D Tanner, who published a journal entitled ‘Promoting Student Metacognition’, suggests the following four strategies to help encourage students to use metacognitive practices:

  • Think-Pair-Share—After students have read, discussed, or listened to a particular concept or idea, have them turn to a neighbor and share their thoughts.
  • Question Formulation Techniques—These techniques help students learn how to generate and prioritize questions that reflect their interests and goals. They also help students practice generating good questions in general.
  • Concept Mapping—A graphic organizer that shows the relationships between concepts.
  • Semantic Mapping—A graphic organizer that shows the relationships between words and phrases.

In addition to these strategies, Tanner also makes the following recommendations to help establish an educational culture steeped in metacognition:

  • Providing feedback on metacognitive skills: In addition to providing feedback on content, make it a habit to provide feedback on students’ metacognitive strategies. This can include praising effective strategies or suggesting alternative strategies that might be more effective.
  • Encouraging students to reflect on their learning: Students should be encouraged to think about their learning processes and how they can improve. This can be done through activities such as reflective writing, class discussions, or one-on-one conferences with the instructor.
  • Teaching students to monitor their learning: Teach students how to set goals for their learning and track their progress towards those goals. This can be done through learning contracts, self-assessment tools, or other goal-setting strategies.
  • Providing chances for collaborative learning: Create opportunities for students to work together and discuss their learning. This can involve group work, peer review, or other forms of collaboration. Collaborative learning can help students develop their metacognitive skills by allowing them to compare their thinking with that of their peers and to learn from one another.

Further ways to develop metacognition in students

Maryellen Weimer, who authored a 2012 study called ‘Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning’, provides additional recommendations to develop students’ metacognitive awareness. To do so, Weimer recommends:

  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their learning processes: This can be done through activities such as asking students to write about how they approached a particular assignment or exam or having them create a learning portfolio in which they reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as learners.
  • Helping students to understand the different learning styles and strategies that work best for them: This might involve providing students with information about different learning styles, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, and helping them to identify which strategies work best for them.
  • Encouraging students to take an active role in their learning: might involve having students set learning goals for themselves, choose their reading materials, or take on leadership roles in group projects.
  • Providing feedback on students’ learning processes: This could involve giving students feedback on their study habits, such as how well they organize their materials or how effectively they revise for exams.

Explicitly understanding the language of metacognition

In conclusion, metacognition is an essential aspect of learning and development that can be taught and improved with explicit instruction and practice. By helping students become more aware of their thinking and learning processes, they can more effectively plan, monitor, and assess their understanding and performance.

This can lead to greater transfer and adaptation of learning to new contexts and tasks and increased self-awareness as learners. Educators can support the development of metacognitive skills in their students by incorporating activities that encourage reflection and self-assessment and modeling their metacognitive processes.

Metacognition and specific topics

Metacognition is at its most effective when adapted to specific learning contexts. Learners should be able to adapt strategies to different contexts instead of assuming that learning is the same in every single context. Take courses with a sensitive subject matter, for example, where learning may occur that requires complicated emotional responses.

Students learning about racial inequality or similarly sensitive subjects may become clouded by oversimplified emotional thinking when the task at hand – from a metacognitive perspective – requires greater questioning and the acknowledgment of the complexity of identity.

In certain cases, it can be helpful for educators to explicitly address how students can manage their emotions and use them as a source of learning and growth rather than letting them become a barrier to learning. This can involve helping students develop strategies for regulating their emotions, such as deep breathing or mindfulness techniques, and encouraging them to reflect on their emotional responses to course material.

It can also involve creating a safe and supportive learning environment where students feel comfortable discussing and processing their emotions. By addressing metacognitive and emotional skills deliberately and explicitly, instructors can help students become more effective learners and resilient individuals.

Understanding when to take time out

It is beneficial for students to take breaks while learning to help them reflect on the learning process and apply metacognitive strategies. By doing so, students can better understand the reasoning behind their actions and how they fit into the larger context of a course and its goals.

For instance, a student working through a math problem might want to pause to consider each step’s purpose and logical connections. This can aid in the understanding of the overall problem. It is, therefore, important for students to reflect on their learning regularly throughout the semester, and educators should encourage this before, during, and after assignments.

At-a-glance: tips for promoting metacognition in the classroom

  • Help students understand the learning goals and objectives for the course and how different activities and assessments align with those goals.
  • Encourage students to set their own learning goals and provide support and guidance in achieving those goals.
  • Model metacognitive practices, such as explaining your thought process as you work through a problem or task.
  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning through journaling, self-assessment activities, or group discussion.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and seek help when they struggle with course material.
  • Provide resources and strategies for effective study skills, such as time management, note-taking, and test preparation.
  • Use formative assessments, such as quizzes and progress checks, to help students track their understanding and identify areas where they need to focus their learning.
  • Encourage students to collaborate and seek feedback from peers and instructors, as this can help them reflect on their learning and identify areas for improvement.

Strategies for students: how to use metacognition during the study

Below are some brief ideas to encourage students to engage in metacognition while studying. Educators should encourage students to resonate with these ideas and incorporate them into regular study routines:

The syllabus is a roadmap: use it to navigate

Consult your course syllabus for an outline of the material covered in the class, including the reading list and learning objectives. Use this as a guide for organizing your studies throughout the semester. For example, consider the purpose and connections of the assigned readings in a reading-intensive course. Identify key themes and use prior knowledge to enhance your understanding of the new material. You can continue to revisit and reflect on the syllabus as you acquire more information and see how it fits together.

Utilize existing knowledge

Before you begin reading your textbook or attending a lecture, take a moment to consider what you already know about the topic at hand. Formulate questions and set learning goals to contextualize your studies and facilitate more profound engagement with the material. Knowing what you hope to learn and what questions you have can help create a framework for organizing and understanding new information.

Organize your thinking

While taking notes when reading can be helpful, it can also become a passive activity if you copy from the text without fully engaging with the material. To make your note-taking more effective, try reading in short increments and pausing to summarize from memory what you have read. This will help you actively engage with the material and assess your understanding and retention of the information. This technique also activates your recall, increasing the likelihood that you will remember and comprehend the material later.