Metacognition & Critical Thinking: What's The Connection?


A few definitions for clarification before we begin: Metacognition: is the cognitive aspect of the self-regulated learning cycle, it refers to knowledge and awareness of thought processes and, in practice, involves the planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating of thought-processes underpinning learning.

Critical Thinking: most definitions focus on the rational, sceptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. A more sophisticated and comprehensive definition is provided by Elder (2007): “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and socio-centric tendencies. They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyse, assess, and improve thinking. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.

[Critical thinkers] realise that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society. At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.”


Why Should Teachers & Educators Care About Critical Thinking?

In one word: misinformation. Students are exposed to increasing levels of “fake news” and misinformation as the systems and processes that ensured some degree of information integrity prior to the age of social-media struggle to keep up.

Since most teachers aspire to create lifelong learners with high-levels of metacognition, self-regulation, research skill and learner autonomy, cultivating these skills without accompanying critical thinking skills is dangerous; it is akin to letting a child free in a sweet-shop, able to consume endlessly but without the filter to determine what is worth consuming and what is not.

Aside from preventing obstacles to lofty philosophical ideals about “the pursuit of truth” misinformation is often harmful; as in the case of ‘alternative medicines’, paranormal frauds, conspiracy theories [that prevent vaccination or contribute towards the spread of diseases in a pandemic], manipulative advertising or, simply, fraud.

When an individual, even a well-meaning “truth-seeker”, internalises delusions and misinformation: it is usually occurring within a process that serves another party’s interests at the expense of their own. Misinformation and “fake news” can cost the lives of those who fall for it as well as contribute towards anti-social behaviours that cost the lives of others [e.g. conspiracy theorists who fail to social-distance in a pandemic].

An absence of critical thinking also leaves students vulnerable to political propagandists (both formal and informal ones), extreme political ideologies, and manipulative and hateful political narratives that can result in real world harms (e.g. in cases of racism or other hate crimes).

The rise of social-media and the onset of ‘the information age’ mean that critical thinking skills are, and will continue to be, more and more important.

As we shall see: critical thinking and metacognition are closely related and share a high degree of interdependence (with some authors defining critical thinking as a form of metacognition): so teachers interested in cultivating metacognition and self-regulated learning behaviours must, also, pay attention to critical-thinking skills.


What’s The Link Between Critical-Thinking & Metacognition?

Link 1: Critical Thinking Can Be a Form of Metacognition

Whilst critical-thinking may occur with reference to the claims made by others: being a critical-thinker demands self-examination and an evaluation of our own thoughts and beliefs. The careful examination of our own cognitive and emotional biases, the corruptive role of self-interest, and our own tacit acceptance of unchallenged social-norms and taboos is an essential part of the critical-thinking process.

Since this requires the examination, analysis and evaluation of one’s own thinking critical-thinking is, when self-referential, clearly a form of metacognition (“knowledge and awareness of thought processes”).

Dywer (2004) states: “Critical thinking is a metacognitive process that, through purposeful, reflective judgement, increases the chances of producing a logical conclusion to an argument or solution to a problem.”

Link 2: The Metacognitive Cycle Can Be Applied to Critical-Thinking Processes

The self-regulation cycle (and therefore, the metacognitive cycle) are often conceptualised in a four stage process of: planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating - this cycle is useful and relevant to the critical-thinking process.

Let’s take a simple example: a student has strange rash on their skin and wants to find out what it is and how they might treat it. The metacognitive cycle helps then to find accurate information as opposed to falling for misinformation and potentially wasting time/money on an ineffective treatment that is deliberately miss-sold to them:

Planning The Learning Process:

  • What is it I am actually trying to learn here?

  • What search terms will produce good results?

  • How might my current state of mind interfere with my learning?

  • What are reliable sources of information that I can learn from?

Monitoring The Learning Process:

  • Am I actually learning anything?

  • Does this information seem trustworthy and reliable?

  • How are my feelings impacting my thoughts?

Evaluating The Learning Process:

  • What evidence supports the knowledge I’ve gained through my research?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of my approach to learning?

  • Why might some of the sources I’ve used not be trustworthy or reliable?

  • How confident am I in my learning?

  • What concepts did I find most difficult to understand?

Regulating The Learning Process:

  • What could I do differently in order to improve the quality of my learning?

  • How can I deepen my understanding of this topic?

  • Aside from internet research, what other sources might my research refer to?

  • How can I improve my state of mind to find greater clarity on this matter?

These questions illustrate the overlap between metacognitive questioning skills and critical-thinking questioning skills and some of the similarities between the two pursuits.

Link 3: Metacognition & Critical-Thinking Share the Same Basic Goals

Metacognition and critical-thinking are, fundamentally, approaches towards the acquisition of knowledge. Both concepts are concerned with accurate learning and require the exploration of basic epistemological issues around the process through which reliable and genuine knowledge can be obtained.

Link 4: Successful Metacognition & Successful Critical-Thinking Require Awareness of Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are a shared concern both for those wishing to learn more effectively and those who wish to think more critically. As a teacher hoping to enhance metacognition and develop critical-thinking skills: exploration of cognitive bias is essential.

As per the aforementioned definition from Elder (2007) critical-thinkers “are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked”: the awareness of our own limitations, weaknesses (as well as strengths) as learners, and our own attitudinal and emotional biases is an essential aspect of metacognitive awareness and a prerequisite for metacognitive regulation.

Whilst the detection of logical fallacies is a vital aspect of critical thinking and an important aspect of metacognition; perhaps the detection of cognitive biases is of more significance in the process of metacognition. ‘Overconfidence bias’, for example, refers to “someone’s false sense of their skill, talent, or self-belief” and has an obvious connection to the Dunning-Kruger Effect: it prevents people from identifying their mistakes and working out how to improve (an important aspect of metacognition and self-regulated learning) because students who have this bias tend to assume their work is already the best that it can be.

Another example might be the ‘Moral Credential Effect’, this cognitive bias occurs when someone who does something good and, as a result, gives themselves permission to be less good in the future. Clearly this cognitive bias can have an impact on a students’ attitude to learning or behaviour in class. The bias is both an obstacle to clear thinking but also an obstacle to learning that students can be made of during the metacognitive process.

Other cognitive biases include:

· Illusory Correlation - Inaccurately perceiving a relationship between two unrelated events

· Interoceptive bias - The tendency for sensory input about the body itself to affect one's judgement about external, unrelated circumstances.

· Framing Effect - Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented

· Confirmation Bias - The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions

Hopefully it is clear that these biases are something of relevance both in developing students’ critical-thinking skills as well as in developing their metacognitive abilities and self-regulated learning behaviours. For a more comprehensive list of cognitive biases please see this Wikipedia article – you may wish to take some time to realise the connections other cognitive biases have with metacognition and self-regulated learning development (and learning more generally!).


Going Deeper Into Research & Theory

Flavell (1979), often cited as the father of metacognition, sees critical thinking as forming part of the construct of metacognition when he argues that “critical appraisal of message source, quality of appeal, and probable consequences needed to cope with these inputs sensibly” can lead to “wise and thoughtful life decisions” (p. 910).

Kuhn (1999) sees critical thinking as being a form of metacognition, which includes metacognitive knowing (thinking that operates on declarative knowledge), meta-strategic knowing (thinking that operates on procedural knowledge), and epistemological knowing (encompassing how knowledge is produced).

Likewise, Wyre (2007) [full article here], researching the impact of metacognitive enrichment exercises on critical thinking skills in college aged students found that “a focus on metacognitive enrichment can significantly increase a student’s personal epistemology and, thereby, the student’s critical thinking skills.”; Wyre (2007) contends that when one facilitates a student’s thinking about his or her thinking process, that student will demonstrate improved skills associated with more mature epistemologies. Similar research was undertaken, reproducing these findings, by Magno (2010).

Lai (2011) [full article here] writes: “Metacognition (or thinking about thinking) supports critical thinking in that students who can monitor and evaluate their own thought processes are more likely to demonstrate high-quality thinking. In addition, the ability to critically evaluate one’s own arguments and reasoning is necessary for self-regulated learning.”

Dywer's (2014) 'integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century', which views critical thinking as a fundamentally metacognitive process, identifies memory and comprehension as foundational processes necessary for the application of critical thinking: his framework integrates reflective judgement and self-regulatory functions of metacognition with past conceptualisations of critical thinking.

Halonen (1995) identifies metacognition as the ability to monitor the quality of critical thinking. Similarly, Halpern (1998) casts metacognition as monitoring thinking and strategy use by asking the following kinds of questions: What do I already know? What is my goal? How will I know when I get there? Am I making progress? (Lai, 2011)

Lai (2011) concludes: “Critical thinking skills relate to several other important student learning outcomes, such as metacognition, motivation, collaboration, and creativity. Metacognition (or thinking about thinking) supports critical thinking in that students who can monitor and evaluate their own thought processes are more likely to demonstrate high-quality thinking. In addition, the ability to critically evaluate one’s own arguments and reasoning is necessary for self-regulated learning.” (p.42)



Dwyer, Hogan, Stewart, An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century, Thin

Elder and Paul (2007). The Thinker's Guide to Analytic Thinking. Foundation Critical Thinking. ISBN 978-0944583197.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906–911.king Skills and Creativity, Volume 12, 2014, Pages 43-52, ISSN 1871-1871

Halonen, J. S. (1995). Demystifying critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 75–81.

Kuhn, D., & Dean, D. (2004). A bridge between cognitive psychology and educational practice. Theory into Practice, 43(4), 268–273.

Kuhn, D., & Pearsall, S. (1998). Relations between meta-strategic knowledge and strategic performance. Cognitive Development, 13, 227–247.

Lai, E., Michael Bay-Borelli, R. Kirkpatrick, Anli Lin and Changjiang Wang. “Critical Thinking: A Literature Review Research Report.” (2011).

Magno, C. The role of metacognitive skills in developing critical thinking. Metacognition Learning 5, 137–156 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11409-010-9054-4