Metacognition 101: Teaching students how to learn

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs on learning science research, designed to help you start thinking about research evidence and how it could look in your classroom.

Rob Mason

What is Metacognition?

To begin to understand the term, it’s helpful to break it into two parts: 

Meta is a prefix of Greek origin, indicating that something is ‘above’ or a layer of abstraction beyond the original concept.

Cognition refers to the way we interact with incoming information, including:

  • attending to it
  • recognising its importance
  • encoding or processing it in a way we can understand
  • storing it in our memory
  • retrieving it at a later time
  • using it effectively


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In this case, metacognition refers to thinking about thinking. It is what we know about how we think (our cognition), and how we use knowledge of our own learning to guide future learning processes.

Early research in this area was pioneered by John Flavell, who published a paper in 1979 that explained why two different age groups of students (younger and older) select different strategies for learning the same task. He found that younger students had less awareness about how effective their learning had been, while older students were more experienced in knowing which strategies to select and whether they had been effective. That is, they had developed greater metacognition.

Three Parts of Metacognitive Knowlegde

Learning Strategies

Typically, metacognition is thought of as a knowledge of learning strategies that work in a particular context. As an example, consider a year 8 student who is studying history. If the student has strong metacognitive knowledge, they might know that a graphic organiser such as a mind map is a useful way for them to effectively organise and consolidate their knowledge about the Ottoman Empire.

When to Use Each Strategy

However, there is more to metacognition than just knowing which learning strategies work. A student with strong metacognitive knowledge also knows when to use each strategy – is a strategy effective in both history and maths tasks? At the start of a unit and at the end? Task difficulty is another important factor in knowing when to use each strategy. It is a skill to be able to look at a task and decide which features make it easy or difficult, and select a strategy as appropriate.

Strength and Beliefs about Learning

Students with metacognitive knowledge may also be aware of their own strengths and beliefs about learning – do they find written tasks more difficult than solving equations? Are they confident in their ability to take effective notes? Early primary students, for example, are usually unaware of their own abilities to recall something after it is studied. The year 12 student who believes they can cram everything effectively the night before an exam probably also has low metacognitive knowledge!

Another element of metacognition is metacognitive skill – being able to actually put the above knowledge into practice to plan, monitor, and evaluate learning.

What does the research say?

There is a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that metacognition has a medium to large positive impact on student learning. Often, the biggest impact is found when encouraging students to plan and organise their learning, including planning which strategies to use and when.

View our Past Blogs

How do teachers currently promote self-regulated learning in the classroom

As part of our series on learning science research, and how it applies to the classroom, we will be taking a deep dive into a handful of recent learning science research papers. While looking into some current research, we will pull out practical recommendations that can be implemented into the classroom.

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Bibliography & suggested further reading

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

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Evidence for Learning website contains a wealth of information about the effectiveness of metacognition and self-regulated learning:

Another good resource for evidence on educational interventions is the Visible Learning MetaX website. It’s a free online resource that brings together a great deal of John Hattie’s Visible Learning work in an easy-to-use online format:

Most good educational psychology texts contain some basic information and implementation advice. For example:

Snowman, J. & McCown, R. (2015). Psychology applied to teaching (14th ed.). Stamford: Cengage Learning.


The Science of Learning Partnership Schools Initiative connects research and practice, to enhance educational outcomes in Schools.

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