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9. Thinking About Thinking - Metacognition

Session Content Outline

Key Questions
  • How can people learn by reflecting on what they know and do?
  • How can teachers help students think about their own thinking?

Learning Objectives
  • Defining metacognition – Teachers will understand what metacognition is and how it improves learning. They will become familiar with two aspects of metacognition: reflection and self-regulation.
  • Developing metacognitive skills – Teachers will understand what it means to develop a culture of metacognition in the classroom. Teachers will become familiar with strategies for helping students regulate, monitor, and guide their learning.

Session Outline

How do we know what we've learned and how to direct our own future learning? These are all questions addressed by the concept of metacognition. Simply put, metacognition means "thinking about one's own thinking."

There are two aspects of metacognition:

1) reflection – thinking about what we know

2) self-regulation – managing how we go about learning

Sometimes people use the phrase "going meta" when talking about metacognition, referring to the process of stepping back to see what you are doing, as if you were someone else observing it. "Going meta" means becoming an audience for your own performance – in this case, your own intellectual performance.

The challenge is helping students learn how to "go meta" in regard to thought processes that are not directly visible in order to improve cognitive performances.

Early Ideas About Metacognition

Although the word metacognition did not come into common use until the 1970s, the notion of reflecting about one's own thinking can be found in writings dating back to Plato, who emphasized the importance of reflecting through dialog. John Dewey, often considered the father of progressive education, viewed reflection as a central part of active learning. In addition, both Piaget and Vygotsky described the role of metacognition in cognitive development.

Development of Metacognitive Strategies in Children

Part of developing cognitively is learning how to be aware of one's thinking and direct it consciously and strategically toward desired ends. Metacognitive strategies help us become more efficient and powerful in our learning because they help us to find information, evaluate when we need additional resources, and understand when to apply different approaches to problems.

Metacognitive skills develop over time and depend upon a knowledge base.

Thinking about Thinking

Metacognition is most commonly broken down into two distinct but interrelated areas. John Flavell defined these two areas as metacognitive knowledgeawareness of one's thinking and metacognitive regulation – the ability to manage one's own thinking processes. These two components are used together to inform learning theory.

Metacognitive Knowledge – Reflecting on What We Know

Flavell (1979) describes three kinds of metacognitive knowledge:

  • Awareness of knowledge – understanding what one knows, what one does not know, and what one wants to know
  • Awareness of thinking – understanding cognitive tasks and the nature of what is required to complete them
  • Awareness of thinking strategies – understanding approaches to directing learning

Metacognitive Regulation – Directing Our Learning

When a student has information about her thinking (metacognitive knowledge), she is able to use this information to direct or regulate her learning. Ann Brown and her colleagues (1983) describe three ways we direct our own learning:

  • Planning approaches to tasks – identifying the problem, choosing strategies, organizing our thoughts, and predicting outcomes
  • Monitoring activities during learning – testing, revising, and evaluating the effectiveness of our strategies
  • Checking outcomes – evaluating the outcomes against specific criteria of efficiency and effectiveness

Good metacognitive thinkers are also good intentional learners. That is, they are able to direct their learning in the proper ways to build understanding. They know when to use strategies and how to use them (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989).

A Culture of Metacognition in the Classroom

A number of conditions support a metacognitive classroom environment (from Bransford et al, 2000).

  • Knowledge-centered classrooms focus on meaningful, powerful, nontrivial activities. When students are asked to engage in activities that build on their previous knowledge, challenge them with complex tasks, and require active sense-making, they are more likely to see the utility of being reflective and strategic learners.
  • Learning-centered classrooms take into account students' current knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • Assessment in a learning- and knowledge-centered classroom helps students reflect on what they know, care about, and are able to do. It not only helps learners develop an awareness of themselves, but also give learning-centered teachers valuable information for their instruction. Using activities such as self-assessment, peer assessment, and teacher assessment gives students frequent feedback about their effectiveness of thinking.
  • Formative Assessment involves opportunities for feedback in the midst of an activity, so it is useful to direct further learning.

Metacognitive learning is supported by a culture that encourages and recognizes the importance of revision. When students are given feedback with the purpose of redirecting and revising their work – rather than to simply assign a grade – they have the opportunity to revisit their work with greater understanding. When a teacher provides clear expectations in terms of how she evaluates student work and provides models and examples that give students a sense of the goals they are striving for, students are empowered to take on more responsibility and ownership in their learning.

Strategies for Learning

Teachers who are developing metacognitive skills in the classroom help students incorporate active reflection in their learning. They model and scaffold the processes of reflection, questioning, evaluating, and other thinking strategies that may not come naturally. The strategies below include opportunities to reflect on learning and to learn to regulate or direct one's work:

  • Predicting outcomes
  • Evaluating work
  • Self-assessing
  • Self-questioning
  • Selecting strategies
  • Using directed or selective thinking
  • Using discourse
  • Critiquing
  • Revising


Activities that encourage a reflective and strategic stance toward learning should be embedded in the regular activities of the classroom. When teachers make aspects of learning and problem solving visible, and help students identify their own strengths and strategies, they can have a lasting impact on how their students learn once they leave the classroom.

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