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Metacognition – Learning Better by Understanding How We Think

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. – Albert Einstein.

Education is no longer just about teaching children the 3 R’s and a handful of random subjects. Aside from academic learning, we are also striving to develop the whole child so that our children:

In addition to these, we can also help them to become better learners by:

Recently, our school had a talk to the parents about something else that will help our children become better learners – it’s called “metacognition”…

What is Metacognition?

An awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes – cognitive, emotional and motivational. It refers to higher order thinking that actively controls the cognitive processes engaged in learning.


Metacognition is learning in progress…

  • Thinking about thinking – monitoring our own thinking.
  • Knowing about knowing – being aware of what you know.
  • Cognitive self-management – planning, decision making, identifying problems and setting goals.
  • Emotional self-management – knowing how to control our own emotions, how to show empathy, etc.
  • Self evaluation – evaluating our own performance.

Why do we want children to develop metacognition?

Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature. Because metacognition plays a critical role in successful learning, it is important to study metacognitive activity and development to determine how students can be taught to better apply their cognitive resources through metacognitive control. – Jennifer Livingston

Metacognitive skills helps children improve their learning – they can guide, regulate and evaluate their own learning.  If they can identify the problem, what they know and what they don’t understand, they can actively direct their own learning. They can seek out new challenges for the work they find easy, and get help for the work they’re struggling with. Metacognition helps them assess the problem, select appropriate strategies to deal with the problem and decide how they will handle the problem.

Individuals who demonstrate a wide variety of metacognitive skills perform better on exams and complete work more efficiently – they use the right tool for the job, and they modify learning strategies as needed, identifying blocks to learning and changing tools or strategies to ensure goal attainment. – TEAL

How can we help children develop metacognition?

Have you ever noticed a child struggling in a corner over a problem and wondered why he didn’t ask for help when he was clearly out of his depth? Or why he keeps repeating the same methods for solving the problem when they clearly aren’t working for him? He may be so overwhelmed by the problem that he has tunnel-vision and he can no longer think of alternative solutions.

The Looking for Learning Toolkit

Students with the ability to recognise where they are at on the learning spectrum can take the appropriate measures to further their learning. While this might seem logical to us, it isn’t always the case for students lacking metacognitive skills.

  • New Learning – this is something new for me.
  • Consolidated Learning – this is strengthening and clarifying my previous learning.
  • Treading Water – This is something I already know.
  • Drowning – I’m struggling with this and need clarification.

Eleonora Louca provides the following strategies and ideas

Instructional strategies that help develop metacognitive abilities: 

  • encourage children to ‘think aloud’;
  • focus attention on understanding the way they think and the problems they have to solve;
  • ask not only for the results, but also for the procedure of thought and the strategy followed;
  • teach strategies for overcoming difficulties;
  • place each subject among its relevant ones and find connections among them;
  • encourage the children to generate questions before, during and after the elaboration of a subject;
  • help the children to perceive entities, connections, relations, similarities and differences;
  • enable the children to become aware of the criteria for assessment.

Encourage students to be conscious of their thought process and to develop introspection:

  • identify what they know and what they don’t know
  • plan and organise their own strategies
  • generate their own questions about the work they are involved in
  • choose consciously by exploring the consequences of their choices and decisions, prior to the decision, during the act of deciding and after the decision
  • set and pursue their own goals
  • evaluate their way of thinking and acting
  • identify the difficulty
  • paraphrase and elaborate on their ideas
  • label their behaviours
  • debrief the thinking process at the end of the learning experience
  • offer problem solving and research activities
  • role playing, drama and “putting oneself into another’s shoes” helps students see things from a different perspective
  • encourage thinking aloud
  • provide interactive multimedia learning environments
  • keep a thinking journal
  • invite the children to teach other children through cooperative learning
  • modelling the behaviours

TEAL also offers some very specific examples of how metacognitive strategies can be taught to students

  • Encourage students to become more strategic thinkers by helping them focus on the ways they process information.
  • Self-questioning, reflective journal writing, and discussing their thought processes with other learners are just a few ways to encourage learners to examine and develop their metacognitive processes.

Fogarty (1994) – Metacognition is a process that spans three distinct phases. To be successful thinkers, students must:

  1. Develop a plan before approaching a learning task, such as reading for comprehension or solving a math problem.
  2. Monitor their understanding; use “fix-up” strategies when meaning breaks down.
  3. Evaluate their thinking after completing the task.

Encourage students to ask questions, for instance:

  • During the planning phase, students can ask, What am I supposed to learn? What prior knowledge will help me with this task? What should I do first? What should I look for in this reading? How much time do I have to complete this? In what direction do I want my thinking to take me?
  • During the monitoring phase, students can ask, How am I doing? Am I on the right track? How should I proceed? What information is important to remember? Should I move in a different direction? Should I adjust the pace because of the difficulty? What can I do if I do not understand?
  • During the evaluation phase, students can ask, How well did I do? What did I learn? Did I get the results I expected? What could I have done differently? Can I apply this way of thinking to other problems or situations? Is there anything I don’t understand—any gaps in my knowledge? Do I need to go back through the task to fill in any gaps in understanding? How might I apply this line of thinking to other problems?

We can also use specific subjects as opportunities for students to reflect on their learning processes, for example:

  • Reading: Teach students how to ask questions during reading and model “think-alouds.” Ask them questions during read-alouds and teach them to monitor their reading by constantly asking themselves if they understand what the text is about. Teach them to take notes or highlight important details, asking themselves, “Why is this a key phrase to highlight?” and “Why am I not highlighting this?”
  • Writing: Model prewriting strategies for organizing thoughts, such as brainstorming ideas using a word web, or using a graphic organizer to put ideas into paragraphs, with the main idea at the top and the supporting details below it.
  • Social Studies and Science: Teach students the importance of using organizers such as KWL charts, Venn diagrams, concept maps , and anticipation/reaction charts to sort information and help them learn and understand content. Students can use organizers prior to a task to focus their attention on what they already know and identify what they want to learn. They can use a Venn diagram to identify similarities and differences between two related concepts.
  • Math: Teach students to use mnemonics to recall steps in a process, such as the order of mathematical operations. Model your thought processes in solving problems—for example, “This is a lot of information; where should I start? Now that I know____, is there something else I know?”

More strategies from KQED

Get students to check which of the following strategies they use regularly (the more the better):

  • I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.
  • I make up questions that I try to answer about this subject.
  • When I am learning something new in this subject, I think back to what I already know about it.
  • I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.
  • I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject.
  • I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the ideas in this subject.
  • When I don’t understand something in this subject I go back over it again.
  • I make a note of things that I don’t understand very well in this subject so that I can follow them up.
  • When I have finished an activity in this subject I look back to see how well I did.
  • I organize my time to manage my learning in this subject.
  • I make plans for how to do the activities in this subject.

Questions educators can ask students to help them figure out how to proceed with the learning (especially if they’re getting stuck):

  • What is the topic for today’s lesson?
  • What will be important ideas in today’s lesson?
  • What do you already know about this topic?
  • What can you relate this to?
  • What will you do to remember the key ideas?
  • Is there anything about this topic you don’t understand or are not clear about?

See also:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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