Knowledge Bank - Creative Teaching & Learning


Why is there such a strong emphasis on metacognition in modern learning theory?

What is the difference between experienced learners who can successfully internalise material and learners who struggle to get beyond the initial stages of learning? In many cases, the difference comes down to having a grasp of metacognitive techniques.

Metacognition has become a bit of a blanket term that covers many areas of reflective practice in education. However, at its core, it essentially means the taking of deliberate action to reflect on one’s thinking processes and those of others. In a basic sense, metacognition can be thought of as ‘thinking about thinking’—a way of engaging students as active assessors of their own learning. Rather than passively receiving assessment results and using teacher-driven strategies, students can use metacognitive approaches to think about what skills are difficult for them and how they can alter their approaches.

Metacognition is a teachable skill that is central to other skills sets such as problem solving, decision-making, and critical thinking. Reflective thinking is a part of metacognition, and overall, metacognitive practices aim to bridge the gap between ‘knowing a lot’ and knowledge that is meaningful in the lives of learners.

Very often the way that we learn information is determined by the processes that are put in place for that learning. So, by getting students to notice, think about and analyse their learning processes and helping them understand how to translate that into effective learning strategies, teachers can boost students’ independence and ability to use their learning to achieve a higher level of mastery.

One of the key reasons for giving space in lessons to metacognitive practices is that it will give pupils more control over their own thinking. It will enable them to become purposeful thinkers who are able to use important strategies, concepts and criteria to make their thinking more coherent, effective and independent.

Questions that are connected to metacognition include: 

  • What strategies am I using to tackle this task or organise my actions and my thinking?
  • What strategies are other people using?
  • Am I aware of alternative strategies?
  • What concepts and vocabulary am I using to organise my thinking on this topic?
  • Do I recognise how other people are organising their thinking?
  • What are my criteria for recognising a good outcome for what I am thinking/doing?
  • What am I feeling at the moment: e.g. curiosity, boredom, confusion? Why do I feel this way?

Some simple strategies for developing metacognition in the classroom involve:

  • Self or pre-assessment of content
  • Goal setting and planning
  • Think-alouds—talking about how you view a document or image, or sharing your thinking process with students, as well as creating opportunities for students to talk about their thinking and process for how to complete a task or assignment
  • Concept mapping
  • Reflective writing and sharing
  • Asking students to supply examples or make connections relevant to their own experience
  • Discussion and evaluation of the learning process.

Students who develop and internalise strategies to help them think things through and be sensitive to their feelings so they can know how to get beyond frustration and confusion are more successful than those who do not. Metacognitive practices in the classroom should help students take ownership of their learning and realise that the brain can analyse what it is doing, with the ultimate goal of allowing students to generate the questions and approaches they need to take ownership of their intellectual power.

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