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What is Metacognition?

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition is a concept that is becoming increasingly popular in education. Ever since the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit highlighted metacognition as one of the most cost-effective ways to help students improve their learning, more and more schools have started teaching metacognition in the classroom.

However, despite its popularity, many educators are still wondering: what is metacognition? And how can teachers help students develop it? This blog will answer these questions – and more.

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So, what is Metacognition in the Classroom?

Metacognition (derived from the Greek root word "meta" meaning "beyond" and the Latin word "cognoscere" meaning "getting to know") refers to a student’s ability to be aware of what they are thinking about and choose a helpful thought process. It captures a student’s ability to:

  • Analyse how they think
  • Have high self-awareness and control of their thoughts
  • Choose an appropriate and helpful strategy for the task at hand.

The importance of metacognition in education is on the rise after research suggested that it is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to help students make gains in their learning. Evidence shows that students who use metacognitive thinking and related strategies improve in a range of subjects, including Maths, Science and English.

What is metacognition?


I’m Still Confused. What does Metacognition mean in schools?

Let’s have a look at concrete examples of metacognition in schools. Try seeing it as:

  • The ability to critically analyse how you think. We don’t often like to believe we are wrong but being able to take a step back and assess your own thoughts plays a key role in becoming an independent learner.

  • Having high self-awareness and control over your thoughts. It is important to be aware of our skills and what we can and can’t do. Those who lack metacognitive thinking tend to overestimate themselves. As a result, when they don’t succeed, they suffer a major setback. Knowing your capabilities as a student and as a teacher is particularly useful when you are looking for areas you can improve.

  • Developing appropriate and helpful thinking strategies at each stage of a task.
    - Before a task, students can use metacognitive thinking to think about which strategy has worked previously for something similar and what the best first step may be.
    - During a task, they can use it to make sure that they are staying on track and that what they have done so far is working.
    - Finally, after a task, having a self-debrief that is consistent regardless of outcome will ensure that excessive positive or negative emotions don’t cloud their judgement and learning. It will also allow them to identify which areas they can improve, and whether the strategy they used needs to be tweaked next time a similar task comes up.

There are different types of metacognition. These include:

  • Metacognitive knowledge – this refers to a student’s awareness of what they do or don’t know about their cognitive processes. It includes knowing their strengths, weaknesses, and identifying gaps in their knowledge. This type of metacognition also refers to knowledge of skills that students may use to solve a problem.

  • Metacognitive regulation – this refers to the different strategies that students may use to manage their thoughts and emotions. This includes how well they plan, monitor and evaluate their performance. For example, identifying that a particular strategy is not giving them the results that they want and deciding to try a different one is an instance of metacognitive regulation.


Frequently Asked Questions About Metacognition

Is metacognition the same as self-regulation?

No, but they are similar and often linked. Self-regulation is the process of managing one’s thoughts and feelings whilst doing a task.

Metacognitive thinking is having control over the cognitive processes you use in learning. However, due to their similarities, it can be assumed that improving one will improve the other.


Is metacognition the same as “thinking about your thinking”?

“Thinking about your thinking” only describes part of metacognition, in that it describes becoming more aware of your thought processes. Metacognition takes things a step further as it encompasses the regulation of these thoughts. At this level of self-awareness, students are able to actively channel their thoughts and alter their behaviours to enhance attainment.


How can I help my students develop metacognition?

There is no one set way to improve students’ metacognition. Each student may respond differently to different strategies. However, we have compiled a few tactics you could introduce in the classroom to kickstart your students’ metacognitive thinking:

  • Identify what does and doesn’t work well – Working alongside students to see what could be improved and what needs to be sustained will help both groups in setting targets. It will also help build a positive student-teacher relationship.

  • Reflective thinking – Ask them what they would do differently next time if they experience a setback, failure, or make a mistake. This will help increase their self-awareness - a key aspect of metacognitive thinking.

  • Build on their reflexive thinking – This type of thinking involves becoming aware of biases and prejudices that sometimes cloud our judgement. Encourage discussions in the classroom about society and moral dilemmas, and this will enable students to challenge their own biases and become adaptive thinkers.

For more concrete strategies to use in your classroom to develop metacognition, check out these blogs:

I’ve tried to develop metacognition in class with my students, but I don’t know if it has worked?

Fear not, you are in good company. Research suggests that teachers can help students develop their metacognition (using the strategies above), but that these gains were more pronounced when a professional in psychology delivered the training. One likely reason for this could be due to them having an increased knowledge of the topic. They are typically more able to explain the concept and advise students on how to put it into practice.

But the best way is to learn about metacognition from an expert yourself. It's easier than before to find great resources on the subject, many of which we link to below. We've also written guidelines to help you choose the best online CPD provider for your school.


Find out more about metacognition in the classroom

Metacognition is a subject much too vast to be entirely summarised in one blog – and the research around it is still being carried out. For a wider overview of it, you can check out our ultimate guide to improving metacognition or download it as a free ebook.

An even easier way to learn how to develop metacognition in your school is to book one our Metacognition CPD workshops. We’ll teach you everything that we know, from what the research says to which classroom-ready strategies are our favourites.

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