Metacognition – How can you do it?

Metacognition is a bit of a buzzword in the education sector, but if I’m honest, I have always been a bit wary of it. I think it’s one of those terms that gets used without much understanding of it. In essence it means ‘thinking about thinking’.


The concept has been broadly and rather loosely defined as ‘any knowledge or cognitive activity that takes as its object, or regulates, any aspect of any cognitive enterprise’ (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002 cited in Waters and Schneider, 2010). This may include, but is not limited to planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task. Arguably many of the above overlap, but both classroom experiments and cognitive science have found metacognitive strategies useful to cement learning and also develop ‘higher order thinking’ within a domain. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation recently found metacognitive strategies to have an effect of +8 months on achievement, though it must be noted that this meta, meta-analysis is unspecific and encompasses a broad range of ‘metacognitive skills’, including less effective strategies such as ‘changing mindset sessions’. Despite this, broadly speaking, 8 months is pretty much a whole school year, so if we use strategies with learners that get them thinking about their thinking, then we may be able to increase achievement.  Below I attempt to provide some clarity on how we might use a range of metacognitive skills in practice, using  Gorrell et al’s (2009 cited in Sart, 2014) list of skills:

Metacognitive skill What this might look like in practice
Evaluation (or criticality of sources or task success). Provide learners with regular opportunity to peer and self-assess against success criteria. Encourage them to ask the following: ‘What am I doing well/how well did I do against success criteria? What can/could I do better? How will I do it better next time?
Monitoring (the assessment of progress through a cognitive task).
Metamemory (a person’s knowledge and awareness of his or her memory usage). Help learners to understand what they already know and how they best remember new information? Do they remember best by creating a mnemonic? By using analogies or metaphors? By taking notes? By self-testing?
Metacomprehension (an awareness of the extent to which a task is understood). Self-explanation – is a comprehension-monitoring approach to learning where the learner explains what they have learnt and how it links to prior learning. In practice, towards the end of a lesson, try asking the learner to write an explanation of their understanding. For example: ‘How do I know that Earth is closer than Mars to the Sun?’
Planning (appropriate structure is assigned to the task). Encourage learners to plan effectively prior to tackling a problem or learning task. Learners could be provided with cue questions such as: What am I supposed to learn from doing this task? What prior knowledge will help me with this task? What should I do first? How much time do I have to complete this?
Schema training (the generation of a cognitive framework to help understand the task). Graphic organisers can be used to help learners visualise their knowledge and understanding.  This visualisation of knowledge and understanding yields high effect-sizes according Marzano. Try using graphic organisers for comparison (Venn diagrams), for classification (Flow charts) for metaphors, or for cause and effect etc.
Transfer (the ability to use strategies learned on one task to complete a different task). The Learning Scientists expertly discuss the notion of transfer in this series of posts (1 and 2). In essence, near transfer (a closely related problem) is easier to achieve than far (a problem without the same prerequisite knowledge). They argue that learners should be supported to:

1.     Recognise that it is a transfer situation (i.e. that they have prior knowledge on the problem/task) – Try  to explicitly inform learners of this when presenting new problems/tasks.

2.     Retrieve the prior knowledge/skills – Try to build in retrieval practice of knowledge and skills through testing, distributed and interleaved practice.

3.     Know how to apply this to the problem/task – Try to provide opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge in different ways.

All of the above lead me to argue the case for scaffolding well when attempting to teach these skills. Each of the strategies are tools that require attention when planning and delivering them to learners. They should be effectively modelled by the teacher before learners are supported with prompts to enable them to become more independent in their ‘thinking about thinking’. Effectual use of these strategies by learners is not something that will happen over night; like anything, it will take time to become proficient in using them. With this in mind, why not pick something that you can introduce to your teaching this forthcoming academic year and see if it has benefit to your learners?


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