What is metacognition? 

The prefix 'Meta’ means ‘about', and cognition can be described as the mental process of using existing knowledge, acquiring new knowledge, and understanding through the processes of thought, experience, and senses. Essentially, metacognition means ‘thinking about thinking’. In terms of learning, metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. This is a very useful skill to learn as it can help with schoolwork, but also with everyday activities and problems.  

What is the theory behind metacognition 

A theory of metacognition cited within research literature is Nelson and Narens’ (1990) model of metacognition. The model consists of two levels: the object level and the meta level  

The object level is where cognition, or ‘thinking’ happens. The meta level is when ‘thinking about thinking’ takes place. At this level, metacognitive strategies are used to assess whether the learner has achieved their goal. An example of this is when reading, a learner might think about how well they understand the paragraph they have read. This is monitoring. If they are happy with their understanding, they will keep reading. If they have not understood the information, they may use choose to use a strategy to support their understanding, such as re-reading the paragraph, or using a dictionary to help their understanding of an unfamiliar word. These actions are part of the control process, as the learner changes their cognitive process or behaviour, based on the feedback received in the monitoring phase. This is metacognition. 


Strategies to help children learn metacognitive skills: 

Questions professionals can begin to ask themselves when devising a plan for incorporating metacognitive strategies in the their classrooms 

  • What are the skills a child needs to be able to approach their learning effectively? 
  •  How can children develop these skills, and apply them to all learning tasks?


Self-awareness strategies 

  • Engage children in thinking about their strengths, and the things they find challenging. If they find this difficult you could offer some examples. Ask questions such as: How could they use their strengths to help them in a task?  
  • Encourage children to reflect before starting a task. Ask questions such as: Have I had a problem like this before? How did I solve a similar problem last time? Do I need anything to do this task? 
  • Support children to monitor themselves when doing a task: Ask questions such as: How well is this going? Did I choose the right strategy? Do I need to change my strategy? 
  • Encourage children to evaluate their work when they have finished: What went well? Did it go to plan, or did I have to make changes? 


Planning strategies  

  • Bullet-pointed lists write down ideas and plan tasks. You could use numbers to indicate the order tasks should be done in 
  • Mind maps are good for creating a plan, and starting to link ideas. Colour-coding could be used to group ideas. 
  • Writing ideas on post-it notes then sorting the post-it notes into groups can help with ideas that need to be sorted after writing them down. 
  • Talking through a plan can be helpful 

Further resources  

The Educational Endownment Foundation (EFF) has collected information on the effectiveness of metacognitive and self-regulation strategies, and how professionals can implement them in their setting.  

Cambridge international have information on what metacognition is, and practical tips for how schools can make the best use of metacognitive strategies.  

Using metacognition to boost students' achievement: Recorded webinar from the ‘Be Ready for the world conference’. This session explores the different elements of metacognition and the practical strategies teachers can use to encourage successful learning.