What is Metacognitive Knowledge?

This article introduces and unpacks the concept of 'metacognitive knowledge' and hopes to clarify what exactly the term refers to.

Metacognition is often defined as "thinking about thinking"; 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; metacognition generally means higher level thinking about how a learning task will be handled, and making plans on processes of observing and evaluating comprehension (Livingston, 1997). Scarr and Zanden (1984) define metacognition as individuals’ awareness and comprehension of processes of regulating their mental state, skills, memory and behaviour.

An Analysis of Research on Metacognitive Teaching Strategies (Ellis et al 2014) concludes metacognition to be an effective strategy especially when used regularly and accompanied by effective teacher modelling. Teaching students how to use metacognitive strategies increases academic achievement (Biggs, 1988); developing metacognition is an essential aspect of creating 'Reflective Learners', defined by Swartz and Perkins (1989) as students who reflect upon their thinking before and after (or even in the middle of) the learning process, pondering how to proceed and how to improve."

What is Metacognitive Knowledge?

According to Flavell (1979) metacognition has three core components:

  1. Metacognitive knowledge (also called metacognitive awareness) is what individuals know about themselves and others as cognitive processors.

  2. Metacognitive regulation is the regulation of cognition and learning experiences through a set of activities that help people control their learning.

  3. Metacognitive experiences are those experiences that have something to do with the current, on-going cognitive endeavour.

Flavell (1981) states that metacognitive knowledge consists of sets of beliefs about personal attributes, task features and strategies. Likewise, according to Pintrich (2002), strategic knowledge, self-knowledge and the knowledge of tasks and their contexts are the three important types of metacognitive knowledge. Over the years metacognitive knowledge has been used to refer to:

  • Knowledge of one's strengths and weaknesses as a learner and how to make the most of these.

  • A dimension of metacognition; referring to what we know about our own cognitive processes (Brown, 1987).

  • An individual’s knowledge of strategies, how to use strategies, and when and why to use strategies to be, think, feel, act, and learn in the world.

  • One’s awareness and understanding about what and how various factors act and interact to affect one’s own learning and thinking.

  • Knowledge of motivations, beliefs and attitudes and how these might impact learning Pintrich (2002)

  • Refers to knowledge of skills and strategies that an individual may employ in solving a problem.

According to Pintrich (2002): "Metacognitive knowledge includes knowledge of general strategies that might be used for different tasks, knowledge of the conditions under which these strategies might be used, knowledge of the extent to which the strategies are effective, and knowledge of self (Flavell, 1979; Pintrich et al., 2000; Schneider & Pressley, 1997).

For example, learners can know about different strategies for reading a textbook as well as strategies to monitor and check their comprehension as they read. Learners also activate relevant knowledge about their own strengths and weaknesses pertaining to the task as well as their motivation for completing the task. Suppose learners realise they already know a fair amount about the topic of a chapter in a textbook (which they may perceive as a strength), and that they are interested in this topic (which may enhance their motivation). This realisation could lead them to change their approach to the task, such as adjusting their reading approach or rate.

Finally, learners also can activate the relevant situational or conditional knowledge for solving a problem in a certain context (e.g., in this classroom; on this type of test; in this type of real-life situation, etc.). They may know, for example, that multiple-choice tests require only recognition of the correct answers, not actual recall of the information, as required in essay tests. This type of metacognitive knowledge might influence how they subsequently prepare for an examination".


Advice on Teaching for Metacognitive Knowledge

Our main tip when teaching for metacognitive knowledge is to make it explicit instead of implicit. Many teachers assume that some students will be able to acquire metacognitive knowledge on their own, while others lack the ability to do so. Of course, some students do acquire metacognitive knowledge through experience and with age, but many more students fail to do so.

One of the most important aspects of teaching for metacognitive knowledge is the explicit labelling of it for students. For example, during a lesson, the teacher can note occasions when metacognitive knowledge comes up, such as in a reading group discussion of the different strategies students use to read a section of a story. This explicit labelling and discussion helps students connect the strategies (and their names/labels) to other knowledge they may already have about strategies and reading. In addition, making the discussion of metacognitive knowledge part of the everyday discourse of the classroom helps foster a language for students to talk about their own cognition and learning processes.


Biggs, J. (1988). The Role of Metacognition in Enhancing Learning. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 127-138.

Ellis, Arthur & Denton, David & Bond, John. (2014). An Analysis of Research on Metacognitive Teaching Strategies. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 116. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.883.

Flavell, J.H. (1979). "Metacognition and cognitive monitoring. A new area of cognitive-development inquiry". American Psychologist. 34 (10): 906–911.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). Metacognition: An Overview.

Pintrich (2002) The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge in Learning, Teaching, and Assessing, Theory Into Practice, 41:4, 219-225

Scarr, S. and Zanden, J. (1984). Understanding Psychology. New York: Random House.

Swartz, R.J., & Perkins, D.N. (1989). Teaching thinking: Issues and approaches. Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications.