Mastering Metacognition: The What, Why, and How

You may have come across the term “metacognition” recently and wondered if it was just another instructional buzzword. Metacognition is “thinking about thinking,” but what exactly does that mean, why does it matter to learning, and how can teachers emphasize it in their instruction?

What: Metacognition is an awareness of one’s own learning. It entails understanding the goals of the learning process, figuring out the best strategies for learning, and assessing whether the learning goals are being met. A metacognitive student sees him or herself as an agent in the learning process and realizes that learning is an active, strategic activity.

A useful analogy for understanding metacognition might be mastering an athletic skill: in the early stages, a novice player needs to think carefully about how his or her actions affect performance. For instance, in figuring out the best way to swing a golf club, a novice player might deliberately adjust his or her stance, assess whether the adjustment leads to better performance, and then decide whether to adopt the strategy going forward. This is essentially the active thinking about the learning process that we want to encourage with students.

Metacognition can include any of the following elements:

  • Understanding what one already knows about a topic

  • Figuring out what one wants to know about a topic

  • Realizing what one has learned in the course of a lesson

  • Monitoring one’s understanding during the course of an activity

  • Choosing which learning strategies to employ and when

  • Evaluating whether a particular learning strategy was successful in a given circumstance

Why: Metacognition has been linked to improved learning outcomes. It makes sense that individuals who are strategic in their learning are more successful than those who do not reflect on the learning process. For instance, metacognitive learners are more likely to notice when what they are studying does not make sense. These are the students who try to clarify their understanding rather than passively continuing on with the assignment. According to researcher John Hattie, the effect size for teaching metacognitive strategies is 0.69, making it one of the most effective teaching interventions.

Metacognition is also a significant factor in whether students can transfer their learning to new scenarios. Students who are metacognitive are actively embedding new information in their existing network of knowledge and creating connections among ideas. This is the sort of thinking that gets students beyond surface learning and drives them to deeper understanding.

How: Though some individuals are naturally more metacognitive than others, metacognition is a skill that can be taught and learned. As with other learning skills, students will initially need explicit instruction, scaffolding, practice, and feedback in order to turn unfamiliar operations into habits of mind. Here are a few ideas on how to incorporate metacognition into instruction, particularly as it pertains to literacy.

  • Teachers can model metacognition by demonstrating their own thought process while they read. They can let students see how they interact with the text: how they determine the purpose of their reading, where they pause to ask a question, how they connect new ideas to previous knowledge, how they track whether they understand the content, how they decide when to slow down and re-read, and how they assess what they have learned. Teachers can do this through read-aloud or by sharing their annotations with students. It is useful to repeat this modeling process, particularly at the beginning of more challenging assignments.

  • Teachers can scaffold metacognition by asking students to demonstrate their thinking in writing or during discussion. Instructions on how to do this will need to be explicit; for instance, teachers can guide students to mark one moment in the text they found surprising, confusing, or erroneous and explain their reaction. Reviewing what students have noted is a great way to spur a discussion about the reading.

  • Writing is a particularly useful way to make metacognition visible because it enables students to look back on their previous notes and see how their thinking has changed. Some teachers find it effective to create portfolios of student learning, including rough drafts and pre-writing activities, then ask students to look back on the trajectory of their work and note how it has evolved with successive revisions.

  • To demonstrate the impact of learning, teachers can record students’ attitudes and preconceived notions about a topic prior to reading a text, then follow up after the reading to gauge whether students have changed their minds based on what they’ve learned. This can be done via a pre- and post-reading poll, with the data ultimately driving a discussion about students' previous misconceptions and how the text informed their thinking.

  • Teachers can encourage students to regularly practice metacognition simply by asking, “How did you figure that out?” after a student offers an answer to a question. This helps students reflect on the learning strategies they employ and gives their classmates an opportunity to see how their peers learn.

  • Students can help get in the habit of assessing different learning strategies by judging sample work: after viewing a detailed answer to a question, students can discuss whether the answer shows an effective use of reasoning and how it can be improved.

  • Finally, students benefit tremendously from opportunities to revise their work and reflect on how their thinking has improved. This gives them the chance to understand what errors they made the first time around and how the learning process has led them to see the problem differently.


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