Best practice: Making sense of metacognition – Part 1

This article was written for SecEd Magazine.

This is part one of a two-part article.

You’re lucky. As a teacher today, you have access to a wealth of research evidence about what works in the classroom. But knowing what evidence to look at and what it means in practice remains a challenge – especially for those new to the chalkface.

The Educational Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit ranks strategies by the “extra months” of pupil progress they secure and topping their chart is feedback tied with metacognition and self-regulation.

Both these strategies have, says the EEF, “consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months’ additional progress”. The EEF also states that “teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low-achieving pupils”.

I focused on effective feedback practice in a series for SecEd earlier this year (Effective feedback techniques and practices, SecEd, May-June 2018:, so here I will concentrate on metacognition and self-regulation.

Before we answer the all-important question – “what is metacognition?” – I think it helpful to state what it is not…

First, metacognition is not simply “thinking about thinking”, despite the morphology of the word. Although metacognition does indeed involve thinking about one’s thinking, it is much more complex than this; rather, metacognition is actively monitoring one’s own learning and, based on this monitoring, making changes to one’s own learning behaviours and strategies.

Second, not every strategy used while performing a cognitive task can be described as metacognitive. Indeed, Flavell (1981) made a useful distinction. He said that strategies used to make cognitive progress are “cognitive strategies”. Strategies used to monitor cognitive progress, meanwhile, are “metacognitive strategies”.

Third, metacognition is not solely in the domain of the learner and not solely for the benefit of older learners. Although it is true that a metacognitive approach typically focuses on allowing the learner rather than the teacher to take control of their own learning, this is not to say that the teacher has no role to play.

Indeed, the teacher is integral to the development of their learners’ metacognitive skills. For example, in order for pupils to become metacognitive, self-regulated learners, the teacher must first set clear learning objectives, then demonstrate and monitor pupils’ metacognitive strategies, and prompt and encourage their learners along the way. And metacognitive skills can be developed from an early age, certainly while pupils are at primary school; it is not something to be reserved for secondary pupils.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. Metacognition is often considered to have two dimensions:

  1. Metacognitive knowledge.
  2. Self-regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge refers to what learners know about learning. This includes:

  • The learner’s knowledge of their own cognitive abilities (e.g. I have trouble remembering key dates in this period of history).
  • The learner’s knowledge of particular tasks (e.g. the politics in this period of history are complex).
  • The learner’s knowledge of the different strategies that are available to them and when they are appropriate to the task (e.g. if I create a timeline first it will help me to understand this period of history).

Self-regulation, meanwhile, refers to what learners do about learning. It describes how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes. For example, a learner might realise that a particular strategy is not yielding the results they expected so they decide to try a different strategy.

Put another way, self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.

According to the EEF, we approach any learning task or opportunity with some metacognitive knowledge about:

  • Our own abilities and attitudes (knowledge of ourselves as a learner).
  • What strategies are effective and available (knowledge of strategies).
  • This particular type of activity (knowledge of the task).

When undertaking a learning task, we start with this knowledge, then apply and adapt it. This, the EEF say, is metacognitive regulation. It is about “planning how to undertake a task, working on it while monitoring the strategy to check progress, then evaluating the overall success”.

A metacognitive cycle

Metacognition and self-regulation might take the following form:

The planning stage

During the planning stage, learners think about the learning goal the teacher has set and consider how they will approach the task and which strategies they will use. At this stage, it is helpful for learners to ask themselves:

  • What am I being asked to do?
  • Which strategies will I use?
  • Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?

The monitoring stage

During the monitoring stage, learners implement their plan and monitor the progress they are making towards their learning goal. Pupils might decide to make changes to the strategies they are using if these are not working. As pupils work through the task, it is helpful to ask themselves:

  • Is the strategy that I am using working?
  • Do I need to try something different?

The evaluation stage

During the evaluation stage, pupils determine how successful the strategy they have used has been in terms of helping them to achieve their learning goal. To promote evaluation, it is helpful for pupils to ask themselves:

  • How well did I do?
  • What didn’t go well? What could I do differently next time?
  • What went well? What other types of problem can I use this strategy for?

The reflection stage

Reflection is an integral part of the whole process. Encouraging learners to self-question throughout the process is therefore crucial.

The EEF offers a slightly different version of this process which they call the metacognitive regulation cycle. Helpfully, they posit some concrete examples.

For instance, they introduce us to John who is set a maths question to answer. John starts with some knowledge of the task (word problems in maths are often solved by expressing them as equations) and of strategies (how to turn sentences into an equation).

His knowledge of the task then develops as it emerges from being a word problem into a simultaneous equation. He would then continue through this cycle if he has the strategies for solving simultaneous equations. He could then evaluate his overall success by substituting his answers into the word problem and checking they are correct. If this was wrong, he could attempt other strategies and once more update his metacognitive knowledge.

In another example, Amy’s geography teacher asks the class to prepare a short presentation about rainforest ecosystems. To plan this, Amy reflects on how she learned best on the last topic (using the school textbooks) and decides to read the relevant chapter before drafting her presentation.

However, when reading it she decides that the chapter does not really improve her understanding. She starts to panic as she was relying on this. Then Amy remembers a geography website her teacher mentioned. She adapts her strategy and searches the website.

This provides a more useful overview and she uses the information to summarise some interesting facts. She reflects on the experience and decides that next time she will gather a range of resources before starting to research a topic rather than relying on one source.

  1. Most learners, says the EEF, go through many of these thinking processes to some extent when trying to solve a problem or tackle a task in the classroom. The most effective learners, however, will have developed a repertoire of different cognitive and metacognitive strategies and be able to effectively use and apply these in a timely fashion. They will, in other words, self-regulate and find ways to motivate themselves when they get stuck. Over time, this can further increase their motivation as they become more confident in undertaking new tasks and challenges.

Teaching metacognition

The EEF argues that metacognition and self-regulation must be explicitly taught. This might look as follows:

The planning stage

The teacher encourages pupils to think about the goal of their learning (set by the teacher, or themselves) and to consider how they will approach the task. This might include:

  • Ensuring they understand the goal.
  • Activating relevant prior knowledge about the task.
  • Selecting appropriate strategies.
  • Considering how to allocate their effort.

The monitoring stage

Here, the teacher emphasises the need for pupils to assess their own progress. This might include self-testing and self-questioning, as well as making changes to their chosen strategies. Teachers can explicitly teach these skills by prompting pupils with examples of the things they should be considering at each stage of a learning task.

The EEF uses the example of pupils drawing or painting a self-portrait in art. Effective teacher questioning while modelling a self-portrait, they say, can aid the development of metacognitive reflection as follows:


  • What resources do I need to carry out a self-portrait?
  • Have I done a self-portrait before and was it successful?
  • What have I learned from the examples we looked at earlier?
  • Where do I start and what viewpoint will I use?
  • Do I need a line guide to keep my features in proportion?


  • Am I doing well?
  • Do I need any different techniques to improve my self-portrait?
  • Are all of my facial features in proportion?
  • Am I finding this challenging?
  • Is there anything I need to stop and change to improve my self-portrait?


  • How did I do?
  • Did my line guide strategy work?
  • Was it the right viewpoint to choose?
  • How would I do a better self-portrait next time?
  • Are there other perspectives, viewpoints or techniques I would like to try?

Some of the above “planning” questions activate prior knowledge (resources, previous exemplars) whereas others model the use of the best cognitive strategies (viewpoint, line guides).

The “monitoring” questions, meanwhile, emphasise both general progress (proportion, editing) alongside checking general motivation (meeting goals and dealing with challenge).

The “evaluation” questions concentrate on assessing the relative success of the cognitive strategies used (line guide, viewpoint, comparison with other techniques) and on what can be learnt from the experience.

The EEF suggests that these prompts are accompanied by explicit instruction in the relevant cognitive strategies. In the self-portrait example, for instance, pupils will only be able to consider these questions and approaches if they understand the importance of perspective and the different techniques.

The EEF proffers a handy seven-step guide to teaching metacognitive strategies, as follows:

  1. Activating prior knowledge – here, the teacher discusses with pupils the different causes that led to World War One while making notes on the whiteboard.
  2. Explicit strategy instruction – here, the teacher explains how a ‘fishbone’ diagram will help organise their ideas, with the emphasis on the cognitive strategy of using a ‘cause and effect model’ in history that will help them to organise and plan a better written response.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy – next, the teacher uses the initial notes on the causes of the war to model one part of the fishbone diagram.
  4. Memorisation of learned strategy – here, the teacher tests if pupils have understood and memorised the key aspects of the fishbone strategy, and its main purpose, through questions and discussion.
  5. Guided practice – next, the teacher models one further fishbone cause with the whole group, with pupils verbally contributing their ideas.
  6. Independent practice follows whereby pupils complete their own fishbone diagram analysis.
  7. Finally, in structured reflection the teacher encourages pupils to reflect on how appropriate the model was, how successfully they applied it, and how they might use it in the future.

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