What is Metacognition?

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Metacognition is awareness and understanding of thought processes. In self-regulated learning students monitor, evaluate & regulate various aspects of the learning-process in order to maximise learning and boost learning-power; metacognition refers to the cognitive (thought-based) aspect of self-regulated learning.

Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis of educational intervention effect sizes shows that metacognition is one of the most powerful means of boosting student attainment - so it's worth understanding and worth knowing how to use metacognition in your teaching practice.

The leading model for understanding metacognition emphasises a continuing cycle of:

  • Planning the cognitive aspect of the learning pricess

  • Monitoring the cognitive aspect of the learning process

  • Evaluating the cognitive aspect of the learning process &

  • Regulating the cognitive aspect of the learning process

According to other models for understanding metacognition, metacognition includes two domains: knowledge of cognition and regulation of cognition (Schraw & Moshman, 1995). Regulation of cognition includes the ability to plan, monitor, evaluate and regulate one's learning process. Knowledge of cognition includes knowledge about oneself as a learner, knowledge about learning strategies, and knowledge about why and when to use a given strategy.

Examples of metacognition taking place might include:

  • A student realising that their current way of thinking about a problem in class isn't working and trying a different approach.

  • A student realising that they habitually think negatively about a given subject, that this impacts performance, and that more positive thinking about the subject will improve performance.

  • A student evaluating their current level of thinking and realising that they need to focus on analysing and evaluating ideas instead of merely describing them.

  • A student analysing their strengths and weaknesses as a learner and adapting their approach to learning in order to play to their strengths.

Metacognition is a fairly contested term, the following is an overview of different definitions of metacognition that might clarify things:

  • Thinking about one's thinking processes. It has to do with the active monitoring and regulation of cognitive processes. (Unesco Learning without frontiers)

  • Knowledge about executive control systems”and the “evaluation (of) cognitive states such as self appraisal and self management” (Brown, 1996).

  • Knowledge and awareness of one's own cognitive processes (Mayer,2003 100)

  • Knowledge or beliefs about factors affecting one's own cognitive activities; also reflection on a monitoring of one's own cognitive processes, such as memory or comprehension. (ERIC Descriptors: 190)

One final way of understanding metacognition is to think about the 'type of learners' that one is hoping to develop through metacognition. Swartz and Perkins (1989) distinguish four stages in a students development that are increasingly metacognitive:

  • Tacit Learners: The individual does a kind of thinking--say decision making--without thinking about it.

  • Aware Learners: The individual does that kind of thinking conscious that and when he or she is doing so.

  • Strategic Learners: The individual organises his or her thinking by way of particular conscious strategies that enhance its efficacy.

  • Reflective Learners: The individual reflects upon his or her thinking before and after--or even in the middle of--the process, pondering how to proceed and how to improve."


What's the Difference Between Cognition & Metacognition?

It can be difficult to distinguish cognition from metacognition, fundamentally it is the difference between 'thinking' and 'thinking about thinking'. So, a student might be thinking about a particular problem in a lesson, but then they might monitor and evaluate that thinking, realise that they aren't making progress (i.e. solving the problem) and think about how they might think in a different way so that they can solve it.

“Cognitive strategies are used to help an individual achieve a particular goal (e.g., understanding a text) while metacognitive strategies are used to ensure that the goal has been reached (e.g., quizzing oneself to evaluate one's understanding of that text). Metacognitive experiences usually precede or follow a cognitive activity. They often occur when cognitions fail, such as the recognition that one did not understand what one just read.” (Livingston, 1977).


How does Metacognition Relate to the Idea of Self-Regulated Learning?

There is some debate about to what extent metacognition and self-regulated learning are distinct: sometimes metacognition is described as "thinking about thinking" yet often the term 'metacognition' is used in very broad terms to refer to monitoring, evaluating and regulating the learning process in general (as opposed to the thought-based aspect of that process only). Some even view metacognition as synonymous with 'reflection' in general.

For the sake of precision we think it is useful to emphasise metacognition as a distinct aspect of self-regulated learning. Moreover, the idea that metacognition and self-regulated learning are the same is a commonly listed misconception amongst other experts. That said, it could be argued that other factors in self-regulated learning such as emotions, behaviour and lifestyle choices are all, fundamentally, rooted in cognition: is it really possible, for example, to have a student regulate their emotions (so as to maximise learning) without them reflecting on, critically engaging with, and potentially modifying the thoughts and beliefs that are associated with that emotion? So you can see, perhaps, how quickly the distinction between metacognition and self-regulated learning becomes blurred.


Teaching Resources for Metacognition & Self-Regulated Learning: Where to Start

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Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, A.L. (1987). Knowing when, where, and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. Advances in Instructional Psychology, 1, 77-165. Brown, A.L., Brandsford, J.D., Ferrara, R.A., & Campione, J.C. (1983). Learning, remembering and understanding. In P. Mussen (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Cognitive development (Vol. 3, pp. 77-166). NY: John Wiley.

Livingston, Jennifer A. (1977), Metacognition: An Overview Mayer, R. (2003). Learning and Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. Mayer, R.E.(2001).Cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational aspects of problem solving. In Hartman,H.J. Editor (Eds.),Metacognition in learning and instruction (87-103). Dordrecht:Kluwer Academic Publishers NCREL, Strategic Teaching and Reading Project Guidebook. (1995, rev. ed.). Schraw, Gregory and Moshman, David, "Metacognitive Theories" (1995). Educational Psychology Papers and Publications. 40. Swartz, R.J., & Perkins, D.N. (1989). Teaching thinking: Issues and approaches. Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications.