Emotions & Metacognition

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

This article posits that emotional awareness, monitoring and regulation is an important yet undervalued aspect of self-regulated learning and that metacognition plays an important role in this process. The central claims of this article are that:

  1. Emotions and moods can have a profound impact on thinking & learning

  2. Emotional awareness, intelligence & insight are essential for boosting learning-power and, therefore, an important part of metacognition

  3. Self-regulated learning initiatives within schools are not comprehensive unless they guide students to reflect on how their emotions impact learning and what can be done to help monitor and regulate inner-emotional states that might create obstacles to learning.

  4. Since cognition and emotion are inexorably linked, the same strategies used by educators when fostering metacognition in relation to thinking processes should be applied to emotional processes and the student experience of their emotions.

  5. Students should be encouraged to explore how the cognitive aspect of the learning-process impacts their emotions and moods and consequent performance in school.

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of thought itself and, more generally, the learning-processes one is engaged in; metacognitive pedagogies focus on the planning, monitoring, evaluation and regulation of thought. Some writers use the term 'metacognition' more broadly to refer to all forms of student reflection in relation to their learning process. John Flavell (1976), who led studies regarding the concept of metacognition through his research, defining metacognition as follows: “metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them”.

Hattie’s (2015) famous research on educational intervention 'Effect Sizes' showed metacognition to be one of the most powerful means of boosting attainment. Metacognition, especially the ability for students to evaluate their own level of understanding, is an essential component of self-regulated learning: the absence of metacognition connects to the research by Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, and Kruger on “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence” (2003). They found that “people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence,” lacking “insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills.”

The Impact of Emotions on Learning

This point should be fairly self-evident: some situational/short-term emotions and emotional preoccupations can distract students from work (e.g. a student is upset because they have fallen out with a friend).

Moreover, other emotional processes or dispositions might disrupt engagement with classwork on a more long-term basis (e.g. a student who struggles to deal with boredom and disengages/misbehaves as a result or a student whose low-moods might cause them to give up on tasks easily). Similarly, it is widely accepted that stress and anxiety can, if not managed effectively, both get in the way of learning and jeopardise the mental health of students.

Likewise, positive emotional states (e.g. of relaxed concentration, happiness, contentment) can make a student a more effective learner. Long-term emotional dispositions such as ‘resilience’ can allow students to have greater perseverance in the face of difficult emotions.

Illustration: The Worst Case Scenario

Let us imagine a student with very limited awareness of how their emotions impact their learning: they are not practised in paying attention to their emotions, they have poor emotional monitoring skills, and they lack insight about what triggers certain emotions and how that tends to impact their performance and, consequently, they cannot fully understand how to regulate and control emotional-states.

As a result the student frequently misbehaves, “zones out”, or coasts through lessons. When the student encounters negative emotions when they fail at a task, since they haven’t been taught to overcome them nor practised doing so, they give up. They have learnt never to try too hard in school because that way they can avoid the negative emotions of failure. What can break this cycle?

The student likes some subjects and dislikes others: they don’t really know why, nor do they consider that there might be ways of finding an emotional/personal connection with the subjects they dislike. The student hates Mathematics, for example, because of a teacher that was mean to them a few years ago: since they cannot gain insight into the cause of their dislike of Mathematics, nor find a way to separate the teacher from the subject, they may well continue to dislike Mathematics for the rest of their days – producing exam results that reflect their apathy.

Perhaps the students struggles with motivation in general or perhaps they have negative emotional reactions to authority figures in general: without being taught the skills to identify, deal with and compensate for these issues, the student and their performance can suffer.

The student doesn’t really understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent to their emotional make-up and personality and how to adapt their approach to learning in response, for example: perhaps they enjoy a particular learning activity more than another but haven’t really processed this and so structure their revision schedule to include less engaging revision activities that (due to their tediousness) reduce the effectiveness of their revision.

Finally, due to poor monitoring and understanding, the student might make poor lifestyle choices that will affect their emotional/psychological states and interfere with learning. For example, perhaps the student is consuming too much sugar/energy drinks and hasn’t realised quite how much of a negative impact their dietary choices are having on their success. Perhaps they are in a sluggish and grumpy mood because they haven’t been getting enough sleep.

In all of these examples we can see clearly that emotional issues are impacting learning, as with any obstacles to learning the student must identify, diagnose, and make changes if the obstacle is to be overcome. One of the take-homes from this article is that getting students to reflect on and identify such emotional issues and respond to them effectively is an integral part to metacognition.

How to Foster Emotional Awareness as an Aspect of Metacognition

The following examples take current good-practice in relation to metacognition and adapt it to emphasise the emotional aspect of metacognition.

  • When using ‘Exam Wrappers’ include an emotional component: students might reflect on their mood before and after the exam, what has impacted that mood and how it might affect their performance in the assessment. (Download Here)

  • Metacognitive Reflection Worksheets can, likewise, be designed so as to focus attention on emotional issues. For example, one of our mini-reflection worksheets asks students to circle one of many ‘smileys’ in order to reflect how they feel about various aspects of their progress. You might also create a table with different subjects (x) and situations (y) and ask the student to write one word to show how they feel in that situation. (Download Here)

  • Active questioning: “How do you feel about X?”, “What could you do to make it so that you feel more positively about X next time?” “Why do you think X makes you feel like that?” Be careful with active questioning in class: it might be better to speak to students alone, in hushed tones, or take them to one side in order to ask relevant questions that encourage connection and reflection with their emotional states. You might also ask the class as a whole more general questions, for example: “Why is it that some students, when they don’t do as well as they hoped they would, give up very quickly – whilst others are quick to persevere and try again?” or “What learning activities do you find most enjoyable and emotionally rewarding?” (Free Download Here)

  • Use of debates and group discussion to explore the role of emotions in learning (Download Resource: Active Debates) (Download Resource: Group Discussions)

  • Regular mindfulness and meditation practice: the most direct way of monitoring and regulating emotional states. (Download Our Mindfulness & Metacognition Resource Pack Here)

  • All schools should have a school counsellor who can help students to explore how their emotional life is impacting their performance in school.

Connecting Emotions to the Central Concepts in Metacognition Theory

The following are some of the main concepts central to metacognition. The italicised text indicates how this concept can be connected to and refocused on the emotional aspect of the learning experience. Executive functioning: Describes a variety of cognitive processes that are required to attain a goal, including working memory, inhibitory control, attention control and attention shifting.

In practice students will need to manage executive functioning so that it maintains an emotional state conducive to learning, for example: students must learn to control their attention in order to avoid getting lost in anxious thoughts (e.g. about exams) and creating negative emotions that hinder progress.

Metacognition: In simple terms, metacognition is being aware of and in control of one’s own mental processes. More generally it refers to deep reflection on one’s learning and how one can maximise one’s learning-power. Metacognition is a regulatory system that helps a person understand and control his or her own cognitive performance.

Students will need to understand and control their own emotional processes: these are (usually) causally dependent on cognitive processes (since emotions are often driven by thoughts). In order to maximise learning students must monitor and regulate emotions as well as thoughts. Metacognitive control: Involves the learner making changes and adapting strategies. This will often happen following monitoring, for example, if the monitoring indicates they are not doing so well on a certain task.

Students might need to change how they think and feel in order to respond to emotions that are obstacles to learning. For example, one student might think “If I can’t be the best at this task, there’s no point trying at all” - they will feel unmotivated, perhaps “defeated” or with a low-mood. It’s important that students become aware of these emotions and the negative attitudes that cause them: only then can they change the negative attitude and the consequent emotional state.

Metacognitive knowledge: The learner’s knowledge of tasks, strategies and their own cognitive abilities.

Emotional-Metacognitive Knowledge (or Meta-Emotional Knowledge) may include knowledge of what triggers certain emotional states, techniques (such as meditation) that can regulate them, their personal strengths and weaknesses (in terms of emotions and personality), which subjects they may need to apply themselves a little more in due to negative emotions that have held them back previously or knowledge of how to make learning a more emotionally pleasant experience. Students should clearly understand how emotions impact learning. Students should have deep knowledge in how to maintain good mental and emotional hygiene and how lifestyle choices can impact emotional well-being.

Metacognitive monitoring Monitoring of one’s own cognitive processes.

Students should practice monitoring their emotions, reflecting on how those emotions are impacting performance, noticing the relationship between specific thoughts and the emotions they create (as in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). Mindfulness and meditation can be used to enhance students’ abilities to monitor and study their own inner emotional lives.

· Metacognitive regulation How learners monitor and control their cognitive processes.

Students need to learn to discipline, regulate and control their emotions if they are to be effective learners.

· Metacognitive talk Metacognitive talk involves a person saying out loud what they are thinking while they are carrying out a task. This strategy can be used with a special focus on how students feel. For example, students might be asked to reflect on how they feel at the start, middle and end of a practice assessment.


Dunning D, Johnson K, Ehrlinger J, Kruger J. Why people fail to recognize their own competence. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2003;12:83–87.

Flavell, J. H. (1976). “Metacognitive Aspects of Problem Solving”. In L. Resnick (Ed.). The Nature of Intelligence (pp.231-236). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79-91.