What Is Metacognition? How Does It Help Us Think?

Metacognitive strategies like self-reflection empower students for a lifetime.

Posted Oct 09, 2020

Siphotography/Deposit Photos
Source: Siphotography/Deposit Photos

Metacognition is a high order thinking skill that is emerging from the shadows of academia to take its rightful place in classrooms around the world. As online classrooms extend into homes, this is an important time for parents and teachers to understand metacognition and how metacognitive strategies affect learning. These skills enable children to become better thinkers and decision-makers.  

Metacognition: The Neglected Skill Set for Empowering Students is a new research-based book by educational consultants Dr. Robin Fogarty and Brian Pete that not only gets to the heart of why metacognition is important but gives teachers and parents insightful strategies for teaching metacognition to children from kindergarten through high school. This article summarizes several concepts from their book and shares three of their thirty strategies to strengthen metacognition.

What Is Metacognition?

Metacognition is the practice of being aware of one’s own thinking. Some scholars refer to it as “thinking about thinking.” Fogarty and Pete give a great everyday example of metacognition:

Think about the last time you reached the bottom of a page and thought to yourself, “I’m not sure what I just read.” Your brain just became aware of something you did not know, so instinctively you might reread the last sentence or rescan the paragraphs of the page. Maybe you will read the page again. In whatever ways you decide to capture the missing information, this momentary awareness of knowing what you know or do not know is called metacognition.

When we notice ourselves having an inner dialogue about our thinking and it prompts us to evaluate our learning or problem-solving processes, we are experiencing metacognition at work. This skill helps us think better, make sound decisions, and solve problems more effectively. In fact, research suggests that as a young person’s metacognitive abilities increase, they achieve at higher levels.

Fogarty and Pete outline three aspects of metacognition that are vital for children to learn: planning, monitoring, and evaluation. They convincingly argue that metacognition is best when it is infused in teaching strategies rather than taught directly. The key is to encourage students to explore and question their own metacognitive strategies in ways that become spontaneous and seemingly unconscious.

Metacognitive skills provide a basis for broader, psychological self-awareness, including how children gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Metacognitive Strategies to Use at Home or School

Fogarty and Pete successfully demystify metacognition and provide simple ways teachers and parents can strengthen children’s abilities to use these higher-order thinking skills. Below is a summary of metacognitive strategies from the three areas of planning, monitoring, and evaluation.

1. Planning Strategies

As students learn to plan, they learn to anticipate the strengths and weaknesses of their ideas. Planning strategies used to strengthen metacognition help students scrutinize plans at a time when they can most easily be changed.

One of ten metacognitive strategies outlined in the book is called “Inking Your Thinking.” It is a simple writing log that requires students to reflect on a lesson they are about to begin. Sample starters may include: “I predict…” “A question I have is…” or “A picture I have of this is…”

Writing logs are also helpful in the middle or end of assignments. For example, “The homework problem that puzzles me is…” “The way I will solve this problem is to…” or “I’m choosing this strategy because…”

2. Monitoring Strategies

Monitoring strategies used to strengthen metacognition help students check their progress and review their thinking at various stages. Different from scrutinizing, this strategy is reflective in nature. It also allows for adjustments while the plan, activity, or assignment is in motion. Monitoring strategies encourage recovery of learning, as in the example cited above when we are reading a book and notice that we forgot what we just read. We can recover our memory by scanning or re-reading.

One of many metacognitive strategies shared by Fogarty and Pete, called the “Alarm Clock,” is used to recover or rethink an idea once the student realizes something is amiss. The idea is to develop internal signals that sound an alarm. This signal prompts the student to recover a thought, rework a math problem, or capture an idea in a chart or picture. Metacognitive reflection involves thinking about “What I did,” then reviewing the pluses and minuses of one’s action. Finally, it means asking, “What other thoughts do I have” moving forward?

Teachers can easily build monitoring strategies into student assignments. Parents can reinforce these strategies too. Remember, the idea is not to tell children what they did correctly or incorrectly. Rather, help children monitor and think about their own learning. These are formative skills that last a lifetime.

3. Evaluation Strategies

According to Fogarty and Pete, the evaluation strategies of metacognition “are much like the mirror in a powder compact. Both serve to magnify the image, allow for careful scrutiny, and provide an up-close and personal view. When one opens the compact and looks in the mirror, only a small portion of the face is reflected back, but that particular part is magnified so that every nuance, every flaw, and every bump is blatantly in view.” Having this enlarged view makes inspection much easier.

When students inspect parts of their work, they learn about the nuances of their thinking processes. They learn to refine their work. They grow in their ability to apply their learning to new situations. “Connecting Elephants” is one of many metacognitive strategies to help students self-evaluate and apply their learning.

In this exercise, the metaphor of three imaginary elephants is used. The elephants are walking together in a circle, connected by the trunk and tail of another elephant. The three elephants represent three vital questions: 1) What is the big idea? 2) How does this connect to other big ideas? 3) How can I use this big idea? Using the image of a “big idea” helps students magnify and synthesize their learning. It encourages them to think about big ways their learning can be applied to new situations.

Metacognition and Self-Reflection

Reflective thinking is at the heart of metacognition. In today’s world of constant chatter, technology and reflective thinking can be at odds. In fact, mobile devices can prevent young people from seeing what is right before their eyes.

John Dewey, a renowned psychologist and education reformer, claimed that experiences alone were not enough. What is critical is an ability to perceive and then weave meaning from the threads of our experiences. 

The function of metacognition and self-reflection is to make meaning. The creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human. 

Everyone can help foster self-reflection in young people.