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Metacognition: It’s Not Just What You Learn But How You Learn

While many types of animals can learn, humans are different in that we can think about our own learning. We can strategize, make adjustments, and evaluate our efforts. These are a few of the skills that have allowed us to advance as a species.

These skills are all part of one’s metacognitive skills. Metacognition is an educational buzzword that’s the source of much research, and for good reason. When students can engage with and evaluate their learning, they can accomplish so much more.

What Is Metacognition?

A simple definition of metacognition is thinking about how one thinks. It’s the ability to understand what one knows and doesn’t know, make a plan to learn and apply new skills, and reflect on and assess on how well one understood the information.

Metacognition is a form of higher-order thinking, as it involves most of the higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and evaluation. For some students, metacognitive abilities regarding their academics are innate. They can easily assess their learning and make adjustments so that they understand what they need to grasp new material.

For many students, though, metacognition in school isn’t innate. They may spend hours studying only to do poorly on an assessment without an understanding of what went wrong. They may quickly get frustrated because they feel as though they’re working hard for no reward. Other students may take one look at new material and immediately shut down because they feel it’s out of reach for them.

However, all students can be taught to use their metacognitive skills. Most of them use these skills in other pursuits without even knowing, such as the basketball player who changes their arc slightly as they perfect shooting a three-pointer or a pianist who practices new fingering techniques to play a difficult piece.

For an educator, the goal is to help students to develop their metacognitive skills. With the right guidance, even low-performing students can make impressive improvements. Once students understand that they’re not “dumb” or unable to learn, they’ll be eager to shift their mindset to make their learning easier and more effective.

Why Metacognition Is One of the Most Important Skills for Learners

As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Educators aren’t meant to fill students with information. Instead, they’re supposed to teach them how to learn so that they can learn for themselves.

For students to take charge of their own learning, they need strong metacognitive skills. They need a deep understanding of how they learn and how their learning may vary from subject to subject, i.e. the way they approach math may be different than the way they study for a history test. Educators must assure students that everyone has an individual style of learning and that no one way is better than another – it’s about finding what works for them.

Students must be able to engage and interact with new content in a meaningful way. They should be able to make connections with what they already know and with other material they’re learning. Students need to assess their knowledge as they’re learning new content. They need to know if they’re actually understanding the new material or if they’re just memorizing.

After an assessment, students need to evaluate their own performance. If they get a lower grade than they expected, they need to figure out where they went wrong and make adjustments so that they can go on to grasp the material.

Once students have these skills, they are better prepared for life in the real world. Adults are constantly challenged with learning and applying new concepts. Those who understand how they learn are primed for success.

Strategies for Teaching Metacognition in the Classroom

Educators often assume that kids already understand their own learning. However, most kids don’t have a strong grasp of how they learn and need to be taught these skills. Below are some strategies teachers can use to help students develop their metacognitive abilities.


One of the easiest (yet most effective) methods teachers can use for teaching metacognitive skills is modeling. Simply giving students access to how a teacher thinks is a powerful tool.

For example, when demonstrating how to do a complicated math problem, the teacher doesn’t just show the students the steps in the process. They show them how they approach the problem, make connections with prior knowledge, and check their work as they go. Once a teacher finishes the problem, they verbalize how to evaluate how well they know the material and what their next steps would be.

Educators may think your students aren’t listening to them, but students internalize a lot of what teachers say and use it when they have to work on their own.

Strengths and Weaknesses

While educators always want to boost their students’ confidence, students must know their strengths and weaknesses. People who know where they’re strong and where they need to work harder learn more effectively.

Before helping their students discover their strengths and weaknesses, educators may need to help them understand that discovering their weaknesses shouldn’t make them feel bad. Recognizing their weaknesses is the first step in conquering them.

Making Connections

Educators must help students get away from the idea that learning occurs in a vacuum. They should be making connections with everything they’re learning. Teachers should help them see the connections within a subject and between different subjects. They should also point out connections to the real world, current events, and their own lives.

Teach Controversial Topics

For educators of middle or high schoolers, controversial topics, such as race or gender biases can be great topics. Not only are these topics important, but they get kids to challenge their own ways of thinking. This experience can easily translate to other new topics, as students begin to challenge and evaluate their thoughts.

Open-Ended Assessments

Open-ended assessments are much more likely to encourage metacognitive skills. Multiple choice questions encourage a “drill and fill” approach to studying, whereas essays and other less guided assessments force students to meaningfully engage with the content.

Time for Reflection

While educators often feel rushed to move on to the next topic, it’s important to give students time to reflect on their learning. Teachers should spend some class time after each assessment to help students evaluate their performances and understand where they need to keep working.

Parting Thoughts

Metacognitive skills are among the essential tools students need as they move into an uncertain future. No one knows what the career field will look like, so the most important thing educators can do is to teach students to think actively, make connections, engage with new material, and evaluate when their learning is effective. With these skills, students will be ready to take on the world.

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