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ECF strands: 

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is about the ways pupils monitor and purposefully direct their learning. For example, having decided that a particular cognitive strategy for memorisation is likely to be successful, a pupil then monitors whether it has indeed been successful and then deliberately changes (or not) their memorisation method based on that evidence. Metacognitive strategies are those we can use to monitor or control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate or selecting the most appropriate cognitive strategy for the task we are undertaking. Metacognition allows students to become aware of their learning experiences, which enhances personal and academic growth. It enables greater self awareness and the development of new skills. To ensure a learner’s success, metacognition is a necessary skill. 

Why is metacognition important?

In the classroom, we can see that successful learners have a good understanding of what they do and do not know and also do not overestimate their abilities. They are persistent and are able to change strategies if something goes wrong or they are not making progress. These children are able to describe how they learn. Struggling learners, on the other hand, tend to overestimate their abilities, they find it difficult to see how the same approach can be used in comparable situations and tend to give up when things go wrong rather than try a different approach or strategy. They do not plan or develop a strategy to complete a task and do not monitor their own progress.

Excellent classroom practitioners have always understood the need for pupils to become familiar with learning behaviours. When pupilsare learning in class, they need to be able to identify the skills or processes required to complete a task. Firstly, they need to be clear about what they already know and what they still need to know. They need to think whether there is information that will be useful to them and how they find that information. If they get stuck, are there resources available to them and can they use those resources? Finally, they need to review their learning and think about their ‘next steps’.  

How can you teach metacognition?

While there may be some benefit to introducing pupils to the general importance of planning, monitoring, and evaluating, the particular strategies are often quite subject- or task-specific, and the evidence suggests that they are best taught through subject content. The following seven-step model for explicitly teaching metacognitive strategies can be applied to learning different subject content at different phases and ages.

It involves:

  1. Activating prior knowledge. The teacher discusses with pupils the different causes that led to World War One while making notes on the whiteboard.

  2. Explicit strategy instruction. The teacher then explains how the 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. 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. 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. The teacher models one further fishbone cause with the whole group, with pupils verbally contributing their ideas.

  6. Independent practice. Pupils complete their own fishbone diagram analysis.

  7. 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

What does successful metacognitive reflection look like?

A successful pupil will regularly engage in metacognitive reflection, asking questions of themselves as they learn and take on challenging tasks, such as:

  • Is this task too challenging for me?

  • What are the most difficult aspects of this task?

  • How much time should I devote to this task?

  • Are there easy bits I can get ‘done’?

  • Is this task asking for subject knowledge I can remember?

  • Do I understand the concept(s) that underpins this task?

  • Am I motivated to stick at this tricky task?

  • What can I do to keep myself focused?

  • Are my notes effective for understanding this task?

  • Do I need to ask the teacher for help?

  • What strategies can I deploy if I am stuck?

  • What can I do to ensure I remember what I’ve learned?

A successful metacognitive learner will ask such questions, either consciously or as an unconscious process, and typically exhibit an awareness of the degree of challenge in what they are learning. However, challenge needs to be set at an appropriate level, otherwise the learner will not accept the challenge; or the learner will suffer cognitive overload.


Read the journal article here by Mohsen Mahdavi entitled 'An Overview: Metacognition in Education'