Thinking about Thinking

Metacognition” – a current buzz word in education circles, yes, but unlike some it’s a buzz word with solid empirical backing. It really is worth thinking about.

Metacognition’s definition is short and sweet: Meta- refers to “above” and Cognition- refers to “thinking, reasoning, and problem solving.” So the short definition really is something akin to “thinking about thinking.” At this level, it’s easy to dismiss as overblown navel gazing. But I hope you don’t.

Diving in a little deeper, a weighty accumulation of empirical research spanning 40+ years paints a much richer picture. The concept has been studied in both basic contexts (i.e., experimental research designed to figure out what the skill is) and in applied contexts (i.e., practical research designed to assess how the skill relates to real-world behaviors, such as educational outcomes). All together, this work paints a detailed picture of engaged, connected, deep learning with “self” at the center. The research points to a more “pointed” definition, and from it we can …

… make realistic recommendations about how to nurture growth in metacognition

… make reliable predictions about how metacognitive awareness links up with learning and achievement.

Much research suggests that students with honed metacognitive skills achieve more in their classroom experiences, no matter their age. They achieve more because with a well-developed ability to reflect on learning comes an awareness of to think about how YOU learn. Metacognitive thinking about learning has a “knowledge” component and a self-regulation component.

Metacognitive Knowledge:  Awareness that different kinds of learning engagements create different kinds of knowledge, e.g.,

When I practice math facts, I get faster at addition and subtraction problems work

When I practice story problems, I get better at using math in daily life

Metacognitive Self-Regulation: (a) Awareness of what strategies work best for you across the learning environments you find yourself in, and (b) an awareness of the connection between the kind of work you do while learning, and the kind of achievements you make, as a result

For math practice, writing problems over and over with my pencil helps me learn” …

For spelling practice, saying the words and their spelling over and over, while seeing the word spell out in my mind helps me learn

Just writing my spelling words over and over again doesn’t help me learn

The examples I’ve used here reflect the kinds of metacognitive coaching I am using with my 9-year-old at home. But students of all ages benefit from metacognitive coaching.

  • Younger learners benefit from thinking about the connections between sensori-motor engagement what’s learned from each sense, motor system, and the combinations therein (hence the lasting power of traditional Montessori preschools).
  • School-aged learners benefit from learning about different strategies as they apply to the different subject matter they engage with. Spelling, math, and science required different skill sets, and different means of engagement. Helping your students understand why they engage differently with different topics feeds their metacognitive awareness. Additionally, in the “school-years,” metacognitive skill sets are nurtured by guided reflection after engaging in work, by making plans then checking off the list when done, and by setting goals for learning.

Do older learners need coaching in metacognitive awareness too? On the one hand, by the time youth hit secondary school, and certainly by the time youth make it to college, you’d think they would have this all figured out. As it turns out though, just because they are old enough to know better doesn’t mean that they do. In my experience working in higher ed (14 years and counting), I find that plenty of my undergraduate students could use a refresher. In fact, some of my students never acquired it, and made it through by brute [cognitive] force.

Over the years a common refrain resounding in hallway & water cooler chats and in faculty meetings and classrooms alike is that “college students don’t know how to study.” That’s not exactly true though, because they did make it to college after all. Really what my colleagues and I see is that college students often don’t know how to best regulate themselves to maximize their learning.

Over the last few years, I’ve been tinkering in my classrooms with ways to nurture better metacognitive engagement in my students, so that they maximize their learning. In some cases, I’ve done it explicitly by including Metacognition (metacognitive knowledge acquisition) in the array of topics covered. As well, I’ve created an assignment template that guides students to use Metacognitive Self Regulation tactics as they study.

Metacognitive Knowledge

I’ve written before about the coursework aspect of this before. In my class titled “The Psychology of Studying” students learn about Metacognition, Working Memory, and Achievement Motivation in an active seminar format, where we do what they are learning about. In this class, not only do students earn grades, but I measure their metacognitive awareness at the start and the end of class too, and I find that their awareness not only increases, but that increases in metacognition relate to the number of points they earn in the class as well. It’s a double-whammy. I’ve noticed, over the years, that student who take that class internalized the lessons and don’t necessarily attribute what they “now do” (years later) with that class, but I don’t mind. I am just delighted to see them years later doing what they learned “earlier in their college career.”

Metacognitive Self-Regulation

In other classes, I layer in metacognition as a topic as relevant (e.g., it fits in my Cognitive class on Memory), but I don’t shoe-horn it if it doesn’t fit. However, in all classes, I now have students complete guided reading annotation assignments. Certain aspects of these assignments vary a little from class to class, but all versions require the same basic process: For each assignment reading, students:

  1. Skim headings and list what the reading is about
  2. BEFORE reading, they challenge themselves to state what they know already about the topic(s)
  3. AFTER reading they write a summary of it, following “learning objectives” prompts I give them to guide the level of detail expected in the summary
  4. They compare and contrast what they knew before to what they just read
  5. They remark on whether the reading was (a) a repetition of previous knowledge; (b) an extension of previous knowledge; (c) completely new knowledge
  6. They state how they can use the knowledge acquire in an applied or an academic context (i.e., they personalize it)

These assignments are a commitment, on my part. It takes a lot of time to read and remark on the students work, when they are turning in at least one, and sometimes two of these a week, across all my classes. I find myself cursing myself some days, when the stack is large and my time frame for reading is short.

Frequently, Stars Align

But then… I reflect. I reflect on the fact that since I’ve been doing this kind of assignment in my classes, my classrooms have changed! The ideal framework is where students are a chapter ahead of where we are in class, so that they read and report, then I read and tailor what we do in class based on their reports. I’ve found that when stars align in this way, students take so much more away from their classroom experience! The content of their final papers is richer, class discussions are productive, and student’s questions are pointed and relevant, more often than not.

But Sometimes, Stars Cross

As it turns out though, not all students appreciate the level of engagement this work requires though. Sometimes, as I noted above, stars align and the classroom is a pleasure. Other times though, stars cross, and things aren’t so smooth. As I type this, I am reflecting on two iterations of the same class: an upper-division undergraduate Cognitive Psychology class that focuses on Memory.

  • Last Fall, stars aligned and the depth of the classes’ knowledge by the end of the semester was fantastic. As a group, we all had fun digging in to the material and seeing how far they could take their learning.
  • In contrast, this Fall, though I am teaching the same way, with the same materials, and with the same general schedule, some stars are crossing, not aligning. The experience right now, for many of us, isn’t all that smooth. Some students are perceiving the assignments not as opportunities to learn, but as annoying “busy work.” These students are letting their angst be known. It’s unpleasant for me, right now, as I see some students happily engaged and other students poorly regulating across the board, scowls on faces, and snarky comments on the tip of their tongues (and included on their homework too!)

How do I handle this lack of alignment? I can’t say I have it all figured out here, I’ll be honest! I am human, and I was not trained in how to deal with bad attitudes and immaturity in my college classrooms. That said, I am trying to be reflective and supportive, and keep my own personal reactions at bay. I’m writing them feedback and encouraging them to change their attitudes. I’ve also found myself talking to the entire class about “framing” and attitudes, and the importance therein. The former is a better strategy than the latter, I know. We’ll see how things move ahead this term. For the majority of the class this term though, I know that my “metacognitive interventions” are working and suspect, based on my own past experience and the predictions I glean from the empirical literature, that even the most reluctant of learners will benefit from this.

Metacognition: How do you think about?

I know many of you reading this are teachers, parents, coaches, and the like. Do you take deliberate steps towards nurturing metacognition with the youth in your charge? I’d love to know what you are doing, in this regard. Please do share.

If you haven’t yet taken steps in this regard, but are thinking about it, I’d love to know what you are thinking about, too. In that regard, I’ve included some links (internal and external) to a variety of sources out there.

Alternatively, if you have something to say, but prefer the less formal setting over on Facebook, you could join in (or start up) a conversation over there on my companion CognitionEducation Facebook group. Over there, in addition to sharing links to my posts here, I also “pin up” and discuss recent news stories that cause me to stop and pause. I’d love to see your “faces” AND “thoughts” over there too.

Related Reading

  1. A little story about learning about learning (while learning)
  2. Vanderbilt University enter for Teaching: Metacognition
  3. Metacognition: An Overview (by Jennifer Livingston)
  4. Edutopia: Metacognition- The Gift that Keeps Giving


  1. Thanks for this post. I teach psychology and lifeskills to 16-18 year olds. I will be teaching study skills this week to my Lifeskills class and I will talk more about metacognition.

    • No problem! Sorry it took me so long. I hope you find it useful. I’d love to hear how things go if you choose to change what you do and implement a metacognition-boosting reading assignment of your own.

  2. […] Reading Annotation Assignments. “RA’s” follow the same format each time. The template is designed to foster metacognitive reflection, elaboration, and active (mental) engagement. In the syllabus, students find a prompt for each reading (I call the prompt different things in different classes, but the purpose is the same: it gives students more specific purpose in their reading). In brief, the template guides students to: […]

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