Being Metacognitive about Metacognition

I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about what they care about and want to improve on. I also spend a lot of time in classrooms--both with interns and veteran teachers--seeing what’s important in their practice and what they’re working on. And in the last few years I’ve noticed that across grade levels, geography, school contexts, and stage of career, teachers are converging on the importance of helping students develop their agency as learners, and they are attempting to use instructional strategies that promote this. (In this case, agency refers to the knowledge and authority students have to take action in their learning.)

These teachers see both the importance and need for students to take ownership of their learning, to be self-determined and self-directed, and to learn how to learn. In essence, they want students to act metacognitively throughout their learning. Metacognition, broadly defined, is “thinking about our thinking.” Being metacognitive means asking the right questions when we’re solving a problem, reflecting on what we know and don’t know, monitoring our learning throughout a process (such as how we’re comprehending text), setting realistic goals, planning a design process, and evaluating our performance and learning. It also involves knowing the appropriate times and places to use different strategies to learn effectively (a component of agency).

It’s quite easy to talk about metacognition, and it’s equally difficult to help students become metacognitive! That’s because students’ metacognitive capacities develop over time, and, more importantly, they need to be catalyzed and nurtured by educational environments. In other words, we can’t assume that students’ metacognitive skills will just appear when the bell rings, the educational waves washing over them. On the contrary, as students age, their brains are increasingly receptive to more cognitively challenging tasks and more metacognitive thinking. However, if they’re not challenged, they won’t develop. Although the process of learning language is different, the concept is the same--use it or never develop it.

This means that classroom tasks and environments need to sufficiently promote students’ metacognitive development. Here we often see a mismatch. A classroom poster might hang that encourages students to self-assess their learning, to explain their thinking, and to plan before problem solving, but unless students are engaged in solving actual problems, pressed to explain their thinking through thoughtful and guided questioning, and have practice with tools that help them self-assess, it’s unlikely that their metacognition will develop in intended ways.

Teachers are increasingly aware of the need for this match. Just this fall, I observed first graders self-assessing their understanding of the daily mathematical learning targets at the end of a lesson. They were challenged to think about how well they could use a counting frame for single digit addition. Almost all students put their Popsicle stick into the “I can teach it to others” jar, so perhaps there is an overestimation of their understanding (which is common in young children), but the full potential of this practice can’t be realized in one lesson. Over time, practice--and feedback--with self-assessment creates for these young learners a habit of reflection, of turning their mind’s eye on itself, of generating knowledge about their knowledge. Hey, that’s metacognition!

But effective metacognition is more than habits--it’s an awareness of these habits. Otherwise, without awareness, we have little agency in use of this knowledge. Teachers tell us to self-assess, and we self-assess. Teachers tell us to use a graphic organizer to plan our essay, and we follow directions. Do we know why? Do we know how we might transfer these skills to other settings? Perhaps we’re being metacognitive about our learning in that task, but an awareness of the metacognitive skills we’re applying helps us be metacognitive about our potential as lifelong learners. A true hallmark of agency.

For more information on the research on and practice of metacognition, please read Chapter 2: Key Findings in How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice by Donovan et al. (1999)

Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

Chris is UVEI’s Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.  For more, see

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