What is Metacognition?

(From innerdrive.co.uk)


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. But what exactly is metacognition and how can teachers help students develop it?


Metacognition refers to a student’s ability to be aware of what they are thinking about and choosing a helpful thought process. It captures students’ ability to analyse how they think, have high self-awareness and control of their thoughts and choose an appropriate and helpful strategy for the task at hand. Research suggests that metacognition is one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to help students making gains in their learning. Evidence shows that students using metacognitive strategies improve in a range of subjects, including in MathsScience and English.

What is metacognition?


Try thinking about it as:

  • The ability to critically analyse how you think
  • Having high self-awareness and control over your thoughts
  • Developing appropriate and helpful thinking strategies at each stage of a task

There are different types of metacognition. These include:

  • Metacognitive knowledge – this refers to your awareness about what you do or don’t know. It is similar to knowing your strengths, weaknesses and any gaps in your knowledge
  • Metacognitive regulation refers to the different strategies students use to manage their thoughts and emotions. This includes how well students plan, monitor and evaluate their performance.


Is metacognition the same as self-regulation?

No but they are similar and often linked. Metacognition describes the ability to be aware of your thoughts and choose helpful strategies. Self-regulation describes the act of staying calm and focused. Improving one is likely to improve the other.

Is metacognition the same as ‘thinking about your thinking’?

‘Thinking about your thinking’ describes part of metacognition, in that it describes becoming more aware of your thought processes. Metacognition takes things a step further as, after this level of self-awareness, students should actively channel their thoughts towards effective strategies.

How can I help my students develop metacognition?

If metacognition is about choosing helpful strategies at each stage of the task, then we can break this down. Before a task it helps to think about what has worked previously and what the best first step may be. During a task it helps to check to ensure that you are staying on task and if what you have been doing so far has been working. Finally, after a task, having a self-debrief that is consistent regardless of a positive or negative outcome will ensure that either excessive positive or negative emotions don’t cloud their judgement and learning. There is no one set way of how to improve students’ metacognition. We have written about this herehere and here.

I’ve tried to develop metacognition in class with my students, but don’t know if it’s 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 delivers the training. One likely reason for this could be due to them having an increased knowledge of the topic.

For more info and research on the subject, check out our page How to Improve Metacognition.

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