What is Metacognitive thinking?

Metacognition is an important skill that involves thinking about how we learn and think. More specifically, it refers to the processes used to understand, regulate and reflect. That is to know our own unique strengths and challenges, monitor ourselves, and think about what we know. This knowledge can then be used to figure out how to expand knowledge or acquire an ability. As a result, goals are set, solutions are brainstormed, progress is assessed, and additional help is sought when needed etc. Teaching metacognitive thinking involves explaining its concept and language and engaging students in its processes on a regular basis.

‘Metacognition’ was first coined in 1976 by developmental psychologist John H. Flavell. Eventually during the mid 1980s, multiple studies were done on the metacognitive thinking of experts in a range of fields. The aim of which was to develop these processes in young children to improve their learning. In How People Learn, a synthesis of decades of research on the science of learning, one of the three key findings was the effectiveness of the “metacognition approach to instruction” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 18). 


Why is teaching Metacognitive thinking useful for students?

This skill is useful because it can result in improved learning outcomes. There is a growing body of evidence showing a strong correlation between the teaching of this skill and student achievement. It has even been shown to be a predictor and facilitator of independent, life‑long learning, as well as critical thinking ability.

Learning metacognitive thinking allows students to become active participants in their own education. What’s more, it can increase their ability to adapt their learning to new contexts. They do this by gaining a level of awareness above the subject matter. Although this is only possible if students are taught the concept of metacognition and its language explicitly, not only its practices. This kind of explicit instruction will help students widen or replace existing learning styles with more effective ones. It also gives students a way to talk about learning and thinking, compare action with their classmates’ and make more informed choices.  As a result, learning becomes “less opaque to students, rather than being something that happens mysteriously or that some students ‘get’ and learn and others struggle and don’t learn” (Pintrich, 2002, p. 223).


How do we go about teaching Metacognitive thinking?

1. Activating prior knowledge;
2. Explicit strategy instruction;
3. Modelling of learned strategy;
4. Memorisation of strategy;
5. Guided practice;
6. Independent practice; and
7. Structured reflection

(Education Endowment Foundation, 2018, p.14)

A few detailed examples of the above are: 

  • Externalising such thoughts as “how you start is…”, “how you check your work is…” etc.
  • Incorporating reflection tasks into assessment i.e. summary of classes and what questions arose during a class/assignment/exam etc.


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