Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking Improves Learning

Metacognition. Have you ever analyzed the strategies you use for learning new information? Do you read the information out loud several times? Or do you explain it to someone else? Maybe you’re one of those who writes summaries, makes schemes or mind maps? What about making drawings or creating songs?

Maybe when you were young -or even as an adult- you tried different learning techniques. What do you think about them? Were/are they useful? Were/are you able to remember the information after a long period of time? Or did/do you forget most of it after the test you were studying for? If you answered ‘yes’ to the last question, maybe you weren’t taught how to learn the best way. Nowadays, there are many studies showing the benefits and effectiveness of metacognition in education. Have you heard about this term?

The use of metacognition for learning is effective

What is Metacognition?

Cognition” is the amazing quality of the human mind to capture and interpret the reality that surrounds us. Cognitive processes allow us to perceive a sunset, concentrate to read a good novel or remember unforgettable moments of our childhood. So how does this relate to metacognition?

Psychology has a section dedicated to the study of the essence of the mind from a scientific point of view. This is known as metacognition.

Thanks to advances in Cognitive Psychology we have learned that the mind is able to self-regulate through its meta-cognitive activity. Thanks to Neuroscience we know that the metacognitive functions are located in the most modern part of the brain: the cerebral cortex. Is metacognition an additional mental process?

Therefore, is metacognition an additional mental process? Let’s say that metacognition “oversees” the rest of mental processes and knowledge, and allows us to have information about ourselves. Traditionally it is used in education to help to learn in the classroom, strategies, memory, reading, writing, exams, self-instruction, attention and concentration problems, self-efficacy, emotional intelligence, social communication skills, etc. Lately, it has also revealed itself as a process to be taken into account in the study of clinical problems such as depression, obsessions, ADHD or schizophrenia.

Imagine that you are speaking to a friend or a teacher, and during the conversation, thoughts like “I do not understand”, “I am not interested” or “perhaps it’s important … I should pay attention”. That mental discourse, that is metacognition in action.

J. Flavell defined metacognition as “the knowledge of oneself about the products themselves (knowledge) and cognitive processes, or everything related to them”.

Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking?

Even though it’s impossible to remember all the information you studied at school, research has found effective ways and techniques for achieving meaningful learning. In this case, thinking about thinking, or using metacognitive strategies or metacognitive processes, is helpful. This concept has also been referred to as “meta-reasoning” because this process involves goal-setting, updating, monitoring, self-regulation and controlling reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making. In other words, thinking about how you’re learning, its effectiveness and what’s the best strategy to use next.

Furthermore, metacognition involves two important dimensions: metacognitive knowledge or reflection and metacognitive self-regulation.

  • Metacognitive knowledge or reflection refers to the capacity of recognizing or acknowledging one’s own:
    • Cognitive skills thinking about which abilities are your strengths and weaknesses: “I struggle with reading comprehension”
    • Knowledge of specific tasks- “this book I’m reading is complex”
    • Use of strategies- not only which ones do you use, but also when to use one or another: “I’ll try chunking the information and try to explain it to myself with other words”
  • Metacognitive regulation involves monitoring and controlling your cognitive processes. Or else, managing how is your learning going: “Is this strategy helping me understand the information? Should I try a different method?” Besides, thinking strategies to solve problems, organize ideas, plan, set goals and assess are also related to this dimension.
    • Plan approaches to plan– by analyzing the problem, selecting a strategy, organizing your thought and anticipating outcomes
    • Monitor activities during learning– examining, revising and evaluating your strategies
    • Revise outcome– assessing the results according to effectivity and efficiency criteria

Without a doubt, having high metacognitive skills enables you to: identify your flaws on the way you’re thinking; adequate the thinking process you’re using; and supervise the effort made on the task, as well as evaluate the results. Certainly, with this ability, you are able to direct your own learning!

Metacognition and Childhood Cognitive Development

The first time metacognition in a child was used was through the Theory of Mind (ToM). It appears around the 4-5 years. At this age, children realize that different points of view may exist, and different ways of interpreting reality. It is curious to see how the knowledge we have about our own mind begins to unfold when we “realize” the mind of others.

Metacognition will continue its development from infancy until adolescence. However, during adulthood, if it is practiced, you can increase the number of learning strategies and increase effectiveness leading to greater meta-knowledge.

“Not all adults become self-regulating experts. Although maturation plays an important role, this will depend on the educational experiences of each person. “

A metacognitive development is distinguished in three levels: interpersonal, personal (metacognitive control and executive functions) and impersonal (abstract metacognition). We will focus on these last two:

  • 5-6 years old: Over-estimation. There appears a slight consciousness, which coexists with imprecise ideas about the infallibility of memory. Young children use literal memory, are more impulsive, and have difficulty evaluating their own performance.
  • 8-9 years old: Realism. They combine effort with capacity and efficiency. They have a knowledge of the functioning of mind and memory (recognition, memory, associations, clues). The first learning strategies are acquired, although initially imprecise, which will be improved during and thanks to the schooling stage.
  • + 12 years: Trust. Their assessments are more dependent on external judgments, especially in their peer group. During the adolescence conditional knowledge is applied it refers to how and when to apply different strategies. Increasing cognitive resources (processing speed, capacity, automation) during this stage improves meta cognitive functions.
  • Adults: Integration. Ability to select strategies among multiple options, ability to consider different variables (the type of task, the objectives, etc).

Metacognition “Getting Meta”: Learning How To Learn

This expression refers to the employment of metacognitive strategies to acquire, retain and transfer new information. Applying what you’ve learned to new and different situations is what allows you to really learn the information.

Although it might sound like an easy thing to do, it takes awareness to develop this skill, as well as effort. In other words, being reflective and mindful of your own learning process, helps you obtain abilities to be a great problem-solver.

Metacognition in the Classroom
Metacognition in the Classroom

Metacognition in the Classroom

What do I already know? What don’t I know? What do I need to know? How will I find out what I need to know? How am I doing in the process? – Teachers are guides, so they help students reflect on what they know and what they want to know when starting a new topic in class. During the lesson, the teacher encourages self-assessment so that they can direct their learning process. When they finish, they might as well ask themselves what they know now that the lesson has finished. Fortunately, this technique enhances their independence as learners, because they are actively looking to answer these questions. Also, with the information, material, and peer-support that the teacher provides, they can start monitoring their performance.

Often, identifying your own knowledge can help you assist others – that’s why peer support plays a key role in metacognition. By recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, you can offer help or be assisted by others. Consequently, education gets active, dynamic and empathetic. 

Now, take a look at the next video to fully understand, in a simple way, the importance of metacognition on teaching techniques!

Metacognition: Metacognitive Strategies

Moreover, there are strategies that help the students analyze the material they’re studying; reflect on what they’re learning and direct their own work.

  • Predicting outcomes- It helps the learner realize which information is needed to solve a problem and compare the initial understanding to the final result.
  • Evaluating work- Identifying strengths and weaknesses in the student’s thinking process as well as in their work is key.
  • Teacher questioning- The teacher asks questions such as “what are you doing now? “why are you doing it?” and “how does it help you?”
  • Self-assessing/ self-appraisals Students must reflect on their performance to determine: what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it and the skills they needed to develop to solve the task.
  • Self-questioning- Students question their own knowledge while learning and working, in order to direct their thinking and determine the help they may need.
  • Selecting strategies- Learners choose which strategies to use in a certain situation according to their learning styles, strengths and the type of problem they’re facing.
  • Using directed or selective thinking– A specific line of thinking is used by the student.
  • Using discourse– Discussing ideas with teachers and peers helps them ask questions, recognize gaps in their own knowledge, as well as learn from others.
  • Critiquing- Giving and receiving constructive feedback helps learners to verbalize their thinking and to improve their performance and thinking process.
  • Revising- After receiving feedback students update their thinking and check the learning strategies they’ve used.
  • Boosting your cognitive skills– putting into practice your cognitive processes can help you keep these strategies more accessible and easy to do. CogniFit brain training program gives you the opportunity to keep track of your improvement and train cognitive abilities through fun brain games.

Metacognitive Studying Techniques

Another important aspect involves teaching studying strategies. Getting the students to ask themselves “how do I study best?”, “which learning tools help me retain information better?” (Read also how to tell if a child has problems studying). This way, learners can assess their own abilities in different situations and with different types of information. As an example, a student might think “I don’t understand very well what this chapter is trying to explain. I know I can understand better when I create flow charts, so I’ll see if that way I can make the information clearer”. This is metacognition.

  • Self-questioning– As described before, when students work and ask themselves questions about their performance and understanding, it helps them direct their own learning.
  • Journaling– Using a journal where they can write the reflections related to their thinking process, their learning, etc. is very effective on metacognition.
  • Annotated drawings– Making drawings and adding notes help the learner get a visual support to what he or she is learning.
  • Concept mapping– Going from general to particular when studying helps the learner get a more organized idea of the topic and simplify what is not being understood.
  • Checklists– Organizing priorities and having visual aids helps the student check on his or her progress.
  • Reciprocal teaching– Studying with peers helps in several ways: determining what you’ve learned and what you need to improve; helps others revise what they know and don’t know; helps both reflect and be empathetic to others, etc.

9 Questions to help improve metacognition


  • Is this similar to a previous task?
  • What do I want to achieve?
  • What should I do first?


  • Am I on the right track?
  • What can I do differently?
  • Who can I ask for help?


  • What worked well?
  • What could I have done better?
  • Can I apply this to other situations?

How is Metacognition Effective?

The main benefit of using metacognition is how it helps students be responsible, independent learners! Being in control of your learning process is a powerful tool to succeed and improve academic achievement. As mentioned before, transferring what you’ve learned from one context to another, helps you solve problems in different environments.

To achieve this in your classroom, is important teachers are well-aware of how metacognition works. Getting practical strategies to use on lessons helps create the learning environment to develop metacognitive skills. In addition, encouraging teachers to share practical expertise is fruitful and enriches other teachers. Finally, promoting the whole school to be involved in a metacognitive learning is successful so students make it part of their lives.

Finally, I leave you with the movie trailer “How to be John Malkovich”. A little humor and good cinema to know more about metacognition and to test what has been learned. Cinema has proven to be a source of fantasy and incredible ideas.

Questions or comments? Leave me a message below 🙂


Ruiz (2004). “Las caras de la memoria”

Gutierrez, M. y Vila, C. “Psicología del desarrollo II”

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