Metacognitive Strategies for the History Classroom

In practical terms ‘metacognition’ is best conceived of as a continuous process of planning, monitoring, evaluation and regulation in relation to one’s own (the student’s own) learning processes. Schraw (1998) cites Garner (1987) in the distinction that cognitive skills are necessary to perform a task, while metacognition is the understanding of how the task was performed. Metacognition refers to what we know about our knowledge (including the gaps in it!) and our learning processes.

In history education, teachers can facilitate metacognitive skills in students, thereby increasing the meaningful learning of historical content (Donovan & Bransford, 2005). When reading a historical text, a teacher cognisant of improving metacognitive skills in his students may focus intently on the reading, interpreting words in context and pausing often for students to write their ideas of the narrative including their confusion and prior knowledge. Additionally metacognitive strategies can be used in history classrooms as a way in which students consider appropriate questions to pose and investigate while analysing history content: question generation activities are a simple form of metacognitive reflection – they help students to identify gaps in their knowledge and what information is most important to learn about.

Utilising metacognitive strategies allows for knowing “why caution is required in understanding people of the past” and “what to look for in evaluating historical account of the past…” (Lee, 2005, p. 32). Upon completion, a debriefing of sorts is enacted to discuss results of the reading as it relates to future and past readings. And the discipline of history benefits from this type of cognition since the “facts” of history acquire coherence only from continual interpretive processes and judicious filtering of noteworthy historical data toward integration into significant patterns (Hollander, 1982). These patterns are most closely associated with metacognitive processing.

Most research regarding metacognition recognises three basic elements of this process: planning, monitoring and evaluating. Some theorists include ‘regulating’ is a distinct, fourth, step. The first element is developing a plan of action, second is maintaining and monitoring the plan, and the third is the evaluation of that plan (Sternberg, 1998). The process can be seen as a strategy and plan of action which cycles from enacting the plan, evaluation of that plan, and back to a new plan of action. The nature of metacognition suggests that it is a beneficial process by which learning is enhanced. In fact, the journey from novice to expert in any domain, including history, requires metacognition whether it is recognized as such or not. Metacognition is therefore an essential aspect of learning. Without it, students, including those studying history, may not achieve and succeed in the classroom and are not equipped with appropriate strategies to continue lifelong learning. Metacognition learning strategies should be taught in history classrooms: as students learn skills to make them more successful in learning historical content, an intrinsic motivation to learn becomes evident, thereby prompting deeper learning.

Five Metacognitive Strategies for the History Classroom

1. Use of Lesson Wrappers and Assessment Wrappers

Lesson wrappers are student reflection activities that occur at the start and end of your lessons; they are one of the most popular approaches to metacognition in general and can be utilised in history education. Lesson wrappers can be worksheet-based: like these ones; but you can save paper by using a virtual lesson wrapper: like this one.

Similarly, assessment wrappers (download here) are pre- and post- assessment reflection activities; they have become one of the go-to metacognitive strategy in many subjects due to their versatility and precision. We wrote a simple guide about how to create effective exam wrappers here; or you can save time by downloading our ready-made assessment wrappers here.

2. Metacognitive Cycle: Learning Activity Boosters

The metacognitive cycle involves planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating one’s approach to learning. It is applicable to (virtually) any learning activity that you may set your students. The general aim here is to help students to get more from a learning activity by reflecting on how they are approaching it and making adjustments to their approach accordingly. Mind-mapping activities can be a great way to explore each stage of the process; we’ve also created these simple 4-step mini-worksheets that can be given to students in order to neatly organise their metacognitive reflection. Each worksheet strip contains a section for planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating the students approach to learning. Download them here: Learning Activity Booster Worksheets

3. Focus on Mind-Mapping Skills

Concept-mapping and mind-mapping is an essential study-skill as well as an excellent means of exploring metacognitive matters! Mind-mapping is important because it:

· Allows students to organise and consolidate ideas

· Enhances note-taking

· Is ideal for revision

· Transferable to all school subjects and invaluable for life-long learning

· Allows students to explore connections between different concepts

· Increases productivity (i.e. because mind-mapping is more time-efficient than alternatives)

· Synergises with other learning-skills (such as research, deep-reading, & listening skills)

· Is useful for metacognitive reflection and self-regulated learning activities

We’ve created a useful pack of resource to facilitate the development of mind-mapping skills here. The mind-mapping practice activities included connect with broader metacognitive and self-regulated learning skills and development. Download the mind-mapping toolkit here.

Since history-learning emphasises the memorisation of a wide array of facts, processes and concepts (as opposed to more procedural learning in a subject like Mathematics) concept-mapping skills are particularly useful in this context.

4. Ensure Students Apply The Principles of Self-Regulated Learning to Revision Strategy Planning

The principles of metacognition and self-regulated learning more generally can be easily applied to the challenge of long-term revision strategy and exam-preparation.

Students should be given opportunities to plan their approach to revision, monitor their rate of progress and evaluate the effectiveness of their revision strategies (e.g. by using a ‘personal learning checklist’ which lists all topics and asks for self-evaluation) and make adjustments to their revision strategy over the long-term.

It can be useful for students to create a list of different revision activities and evaluate how useful those activities actually are for them personally.

We’ve created a history-themed ‘Revision Strategy Battle Planner’, a printable workbook that incorporates all of these considerations, here. It should save you a lot of time!

5. Trigger Regular Metacognitive Reflections With Casual Debates & Discussions

Students can gain metacognitive knowledge with reference to specific tasks, learning processes or how they, as individual learners, learn best! Metacognitive knowledge can only really be realised as a result of the students’ own metacognitive reflections and awareness: consider using a metacognitive debate generator or a metacognitive discussion generator in order to get your learners thinking, reflecting on, and discussing how they can learn effectively.

Leinhardt and McCarthy-Young (1996) found evidence that expert learners of history have reading skills and strategies which set them apart from others, in that they engage in corroboration and contextualization processes as a reading and learning strategy (Leinhardt & McCarthy-Young, 1996). The strategies employed by expert readers were learned and became fixed learning styles by which these experts had more intrinsic motivation for success.

Teachers employ many learning strategies to get their students to learn, and research indicates that the success of these strategies is contingent on many factors: including the knowledge of the teacher regarding metacognition and learning strategies. As Sternberg (1998) indicated, a teacher who is in touch with his students’ ability regarding metacognition has a much better chance of modelling and teaching those strategies to his students than does a teacher with little regard for those processes. For example, a teacher who recognises the importance of taking learning strategies into consideration may consider using mind-maps to help students connect ideas and concepts to assist in forming long-term memories of the learning. A teacher might also ask her students to perform self-reflective reading strategies during a lesson (e.g. by using a metacognitive bookmark) to monitor progress and understanding. With this strategy, a student has less chance to get lost within the reading, since periodically she is “checking” her understanding.

Garner & Alexander (1989) recognized that students fail to regularly employ such strategies as re-reading text and developing comprehension techniques, the authors suggest that if teachers model this behaviour from the primary grades, such strategies can become more commonplace, leading to more effective metacognitive strategies employed by students. Using exercise book (workbook) enhancers such as these can also help to regularly bring metacognition and the self-regulated learning cycle to the minds of students.

Hopefully you've learn at least one new metacognitive strategy to learn in your practice as a history teacher from this article!


Donovan, M.S. & Bransford, J.D. (2005). Introduction. In M.S. Donovan & J.D. Bransford (Eds.), How students learn: History, mathematics and science in the classroom (pp. 1-28). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Hollander, M. (1982). Comments on the study of historical understanding. Perspecta, 18, 118-127.

Lee, P. (2005). Putting principles into practice: Understanding history. In M.S. Donovan & J.D. Bransford (Eds.), How students learn: History, mathematics and science in the classroom (pp. 31-78). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Garner, R. & Alexander, P.A. (1989). Metacognition: Answered and unanswered questions. Educational Psychologist. 24(2), 143-158

Leinhardt, G. & McCarthy-Young, K. (1996). Two texts, three readers: Distance and expertise in reading history. Cognition and Instruction. 14(4), 441-486

Schraw, G., Dunkle, M.E. & Bendixon, L.D. (1995). Cognitive processes in well-defined and ill-defined problem solving. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 9, 523-538.

Sternberg, R.J. (1998). Metacognition, abilities and developing expertise: What makes and expert student? Instructional Science 26(1-2), 127-140.

Sternberg, R.J. & Horvath, J.A. (1995). A prototype view of expert teaching. Educational Researcher. 24(6), 9-17.

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