Metacognition: Central Concepts All Teachers Need to Know

The following are some central ideas that have arisen within the broader research and theorising around metacognition or are important concepts for understanding best practice in relation to metacognition. This article is written in the hope that teachers and educational leaders might deepen their understanding of metacognition beyond its common conception as "thinking about thinking" and incorporate these ideas in order to bring a more nuanced and precise understanding of metacognition into their work.


Growth Mindset

A 'Growth Mindset' is one which views metacognitive powers (mental faculties that underpin learning such as intelligence, memory, ability to concentrate) not as fixed but as something that develops over time. Growth-Mindset and metacognition are related: one important aspect of metacognition is the students understanding of growth-mindset and, in particular, how the choices they make can influence neurological/psychological development and consequent learning-power. For example: a student may reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as a learner (metacognitive reflection), realise their ability to concentrate is something they can develop (metacognitive awareness), understand the research showing that regular cardio-vascular exercise helps improve concentration (metacognitive knowledge) and take up a sport in order to produce long-term improvements in concentration (metacognitive regulation). Instilling a 'Growth Mindset' can be a valuable first-step in this journey since it helps to remove self-limiting beliefs that can stand in the way of metacognitive development.


Simply put: a student's learning-power is their total capacity to learn at a given moment in time. Maximising learning-power is the goal of metacognition: students are to reflect on their learning-processes, monitor them, understand them (i.e. gain metacognitive knowledge) and make appropriate changes to their approach to learning (metacognitive regulation) all with a view, simply put, to maximise their learning-power.


There are numerous definitions and different models/conceptualisations of metacognition, each emphasising different aspects and components of the theory: a general definition is "thinking deeply about how one learns best" though, arguably, metacognition goes beyond mere thinking and has a deeper, more experiential, aspect (i.e. metacognitive awareness). Metacognition is the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning and oneself as a thinker and learner. The ultimate goal of metacognition is to maximise learning-power by creating 'reflective learners'.

Metacognitive Awareness/Experience

Clearly perceiving learning-processes and the thoughts and emotions underpinning them. This may include perceiving obstacles that disrupt learning-processes. A philosopher once wrote "Experience comes before words; words do not make the experience, they identify it, speak of it.": metacognitive awareness and direct experiences of the thoughts and emotions that underpin learning is, therefore, the foundation of all metacognition; without metacognitive awareness there can be no metacognitive reflection, monitoring, understanding, insight or regulation.

Metacognitive Knowledge

Metacognitive knowledge involves (a) learning processes and your beliefs about how you learn and how you think others learn, (b) the task of learning and how you process information, and (c) the strategies you develop and when you will use them. Metacognitive knowledge includes the students' knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses as a learner. More broadly, metacognitive knowledge is any knowledge that a student can use to boost their own learning-power (e.g. knowledge about how diet and nutrition can impact learning-power)

Metacognitive Powers / Faculties

This term refers to the mental faculties that underpin metacognition, it is sometimes used to refer to the mental faculties that underpin learning in general. Metacognitive powers include intelligence, memory and concentration. In practical terms it is useful to include 'general energy levels' under this umbrella since many students need to reflect on why they "always feel tired in school" and how to change this.

All metacognitive powers can be improved upon over time - including intelligence. A comprehensive approach to metacognition in schools will teach students how they can increase their intelligence, memory and ability to concentrate over time and encourage them to take responsibility for behaviours and lifestyle choices that impact their overall learning-power. For example: students might undertake a short PSHE course (like this one) on how to properly care for their brain and foster brain-development whilst identifying current lifestyle choices (e.g. lack of exercise, poor diet, dehydration etc) that create obstacles for learning. Likewise, students must fully understand the factors that create short-term fluctuations in metacognitive powers. For example: a teacher may give students an exam wrapper prior to a test that asks them to reflect on their current state of mind, how it might impact their performance, and what they could do differently to remedy it. A student can be lead to see that they are struggling to concentrate (metacognitive awareness), that this is due to their lack of sleep (metacognitive knowledge) and that by getting more sleep next time they will probably be able to perform better (metacognitive regulation).

Metacognitive Monitoring

Keeping track of progress, being aware of successes and failures as they unfold, and tracking the learning-process in real time with a critical lens: evaluating learning as it unfolds. Monitoring, in this context, can refer both to monitoring the success of specific learning-activities or it can refer to a more long-term, ongoing, process of monitoring progress on a course. It has, for example, become fairly standard "best practice" for teachers of exam-subjects to provide students with a Personal Learning Checklist (P.L.C.) which lists a summary of the required subject-knowledge for the course: students, at regular intervals, will go through the list and indicate (perhaps using colours or numbers) their confidence for each item on the list. This allows students to monitor their progress, identify strengths and weaknesses, and change their revision and research strategies accordingly.

Metacognitive Reflection

Thinking deeply about learning, learning-processes, and how to maximise learning-power. Using reflective thought to process metacognitive experiences. [See Reflective Learners].

Metacognitive Regulation

Metacognitive regulation refers to choices and behaviours enacted by a student in order to change the learning-process. To take a simple example: a student may have spent an hour using a certain revision-activity to study a topic, having reflected on how useful that activity actually was, they may decide it was not very effective and try a different approach - in this instance the student is regulating their own learning-process with a view to maximising learning-power.

Metacognitive Skills

A metacognitive skill is an ability a student can learn that will help to maximise their capacity for metacognition. For example: mindfulness/meditation is a skill that students can learn that will enhance their capacity for metacognitive awareness and monitoring. A comprehensive whole-school metacognition strategy must teach metacognitive skills as-well as more general study skills. Student reflection upon which skills they need to develop in order to maximise learning-power is itself a valuable component of metacognition.

Metacognitive Strategies

This term can be used in two senses. Primarily it is used to refer to methods used by teachers to help students engage in metacognition and understand the way they learn best. Teachers who use metacognitive strategies can increase students' learning-power by helping them to develop their metacognitive awareness, reflection and knowledge. For example: a teacher may employ the use of 'Metacognitive Debates' or 'Metacognition Reflection Worksheets' as a metacognitive strategy.

The term is also used to refer to long-term approaches used by students in order to monitor and regulate learning-power. For example, the use of regular self-evaluation and target-setting is a metacognitive strategy students might employ. Likewise, a student might take pro-active steps to improve an aspect of their metacognitive power: for example, a student might shift from playing violent first-person shooting games to games that involve problem-solving and strategic thought as well as 'Brain Training Aps' as a way to increase their overall problem solving ability. This would constitute a metacognitive strategy.

Reflective Learners

Perkins (1992) defined four levels of metacognitive learners which provide a useful framework for teachers: Perkins describes students who have achieved the final level of metacognitive development as 'Reflective Learners' - consequently, understanding what is meant by the term helps us to understand the central aims of metacognition. Reflective learners are strategic about their thinking, they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or not of any strategies they are using and then revising them as appropriate. A reflective learner is one who explores, examines and understands what they are feeling, thinking and learning. Such a learner considers academic material, personal experiences and interpersonal relationships deeply. Their reflection is a form of internal inquiry or introspection that helps them to deepen their understanding of the learning-process and their participation in it. Perkins (1992) contrasts reflective learners with 'passive learners' who are at the first stage of metacognitive development. Passive learners do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept if they know something or not. A great way to encourage reflective learners is to use 'Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time' (D.I.R.T) in lessons, we've put together a set of D.I.R.T. Worksheets here.


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Perkins, D. (1992). Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds. Free Press.