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Metacognition

“Metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate, and make changes to their own learning behaviours.”

Cambridge Assessment, 2017

Topics on this page:

  • What is Metacognition?
  • Why teach Metacognition?
  • How to teach metacognition
  • Metacognitive learners
  • Putting it into practice
  • The metacognitive cycle
  • Reading

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is another aspect of learning that originates from cognitive science. It is often described as ‘thinking about thinking’. Metacognition is about reflecting on the cognitive processes involved in learning.

It involves students considering for themselves when they do or do not actually understand something. Therefore, if a student faced with a problem in geography asks themselves, ‘What is this about? What have I done before that can help me with this?’, they are using metacognition.

A related term is self-regulation; this is about the extent to which learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn. It describes how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to enhance their learning and to improve.

Why teach metacognition?

The ITT Core Content Framework and the ECF frameworks recognise the value of metacognitive reflection for students, and require new teachers to learn about teaching students metacognitive strategies.

There is evidence that suggests there is a link between students’ thinking and their achievement. Therefore, teaching metacognitive strategies will support students to understand why and how to make learning choices and can help them become more effective learners.

The Educational Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) say in their Toolkit that metacognition has ‘consistently high levels of impact’ with students making an average of eight months’ ‘additional progress’ and the strategies can be particularly effective for low-achieving students. It can be appropriate across the age-range and should not be reserved for the benefit of older learners.

Students cannot become good at metacognition on their own; it must be taught explicitly. Metacognition teaches students to become autonomous learners because it helps them understand what motivates them and what strategies they can draw upon when they get stuck. They must be taught how to monitor their own thinking and identify what they do and do not know. As students become more mature learners they will find this easier to do.

Metacognition should not be taught as a generic skill. Some schools have established courses called ‘learning to learn’ or ‘thinking skills’ as an introduction to metacognition, but the EEF (2018) points out that students do not find it easy to transfer any generic skills they have acquired to specific subjects.

It should not be a separate activity but be incorporated into the subject matter that students are learning. John Morgan and David Lambert (2005) have observed that students need something to think about rather than engage in mechanistic exercises. Therefore, metacognition should be taught as part of the geography curriculum.

See the video extract from Cambridge Assessment where different researchers explain ‘What is metacognition?’.

How to teach metacognition

The DfE Frameworks require that new teachers learn that:

Explicitly teaching pupils metacognitive strategies linked to subject knowledge, including how to plan, monitor and evaluate, supports independence and academic success.

Metacognition involves teaching a student how to monitor their knowledge and cognitive processes and then teaching them how to use their findings to make judgements about the future direction of their learning. 

It is usually taught in a context where students are engaged in significant geographical thinking tasks such as in a geographical enquiry or problem solving/critical thinking activity. The teacher supports them through the activity and then asks them to reflect and think hard about their experience.

Roberts (2023) draws on the work of Bruner, who refers to metacognition as ‘going meta’. She identifies how when undertaking geographical enquiries, students should do this by ‘looking back’ and reflecting on the experience evaluatively, critically or metacognitively. They should also look forward and consider how to apply what has been learned from ‘going meta’ to future learning.

  • Read Roberts (2023) chapter 22 to explore metacognition and reflection.
  • Discuss with your mentor the examples of how teachers could encourage students to reflect metacognitively (pp. 181-2) and consider ways of introducing this in your teaching.

The context for introducing metacognition to students is very important. Choose activities where:

  • The learning objectives are clear
  • There is an appropriate level of challenge
  • Students are already aware of the strategies they will need to use to carry out the activity
  • There is the opportunity in lessons/private study to carry out the activity to a conclusion
  • The context allows you to promote and develop metacognitive talk with groups/individuals
  • There is sufficient time for learner self-reflection?
  • Refer to Quigley et al (2018). This guidance report from the EEF offers practical, evidence-based recommendations to support teachers to develop metacognitive knowledge and skills in their students.

Metacognitive learners

Students do not become metacognitive learners at one sitting. It takes time and it is useful to think four levels as defined by David Perkins (1992). This can provide you with a useful framework and help you to identify how much support students require:

  1. Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They accept if they know something in geography or not. They will not be able to explain how they went about learning it.
  2. Aware learners recognise some of the thinking processes they use, such as brainstorming or finding evidence, but they do not consider or plan the best strategies to use when presented with a task.
  3. Strategic learners can organise their thinking. They are able to group or classify geographical data meaningfully, they can seek evidence to solve problems or make decisions and they know and can apply strategies that help them learn. They are able to explain why one method is better than another.
  4. Reflective learners are the goal you are seeking for all students. They are not only strategic about their own thinking, but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening. A reflective learner will consider the success or failure of the strategies they are using and revise them as needed; for example, when undertaking a geographical enquiry they will review how successfully they are answering the key question or whether they should try something else. Afterwards they are able to explain clearly what went well, or not so well, and can suggest how to improve their strategy next time. 

Putting it into practice

To be effective, the students need to have some metacognitive knowledge before they start. This means that they need to know about:

  • The task – to have a clear understanding of the expectations
  • Themselves as learners – aware how they have performed in earlier geographical tasks, their strengths and weaknesses and their learning goals
  • The appropriate strategies they will be using e.g., geographical enquiry process.

Teaching metacognitive strategies could involve:

  • ‘Thinking aloud’ to model how you think
  • Building in time to monitor and evaluate (perhaps with a partner)
  • Prompting students to express themselves in terms of the strengths, development areas and next steps when you give them verbal feedback
  • Paying explicit attention to how students do work, not only what they do.

The metacognitive cycle

Students should work through the metacognitive cycle of ‘plan, monitor, evaluate’. The teacher provides support and guidance – suggested questions are shown in brackets in italics.

Planning requires students to:

  • Consider the aims and objectives of the task (What am I being asked to do?)
  • Identify the prior learning that is relevant (What do I know about problems like this?)
  • Discuss prior experiences (What ways have I used before to solve such problems? What issues did I meet?)
  • Review strategies, identify which will be relevant and decide how they will apply in that task (Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?).

Monitoring requires students to implement the activity and:

  • Understand what an exemplary piece of work looks like and know where they are performing in relation to this (What is a good outcome for this task and am I achieving this?)
  • Ask meta-cognitive questions about their progress and how they are monitoring this (Is the strategy that I am using working? Do I need to try something different?)
  • Consider what problems they faced and the strategies they used (What challenges have I experienced? How did I overcome them?)
  • Students peer and/or self-assess their work against specific success criteria.

Evaluation and reflection require students to consider whether their strategies were successful. They should ask:

  • ‘How well did I do?’
  • ‘What didn’t go well? What could I have done differently?’
  • ‘What was hard? How did I overcome this?’
  • ‘What went well? What other types of problem can I use this strategy for?’.

Students need reliable evidence to monitor their own learning, such as a test or teacher feedback otherwise they are likely to make judgments based on how ‘comfortable’ they feel with the learning rather than whether they have achieved deep understanding.

  • Refer to Thinking through geographyMany of the thinking skills activities and subsequent debriefing are a way of developing metacognition – see Leat (1998).

The reflection stage is critical to the whole process of metacognition. The EEF provides this geography example:

Amy’s geography teacher asks the class to prepare a short presentation about rainforest ecosystems. To plan this, Amy reflects on how she learned best on the last topic (using the school textbooks) and decides to read the relevant chapter before drafting her presentation. However, when reading it she decides that the chapter does not really improve her understanding. She starts to panic as she was relying on this. 

Then Amy remembers a geography website her teacher mentioned. She adapts her strategy and searches the website. This provides a more useful overview and she uses the information to summarise some interesting facts. She reflects on the experience and decides that next time she will gather a range of resources before starting to research a topic rather than relying on one source.

Amy was self-regulating her learning and finding ways to motivate herself when she got stuck. Over time, this can increase her motivation as she becomes more confident in undertaking new tasks and challenges.

At first teachers will need to prompt students with these questions, but the aim is that they will increasingly become independent and use metacognition widely to improve their learning.

  • Discuss with experienced geography teachers the role that metacognition plays in their geography teaching.
  • Read more about metacognition and teaching strategies in the references below. The second Bromley (2018) article provides good strategies to use and there are several articles in Issue 8 of Impact (Chartered College of Teaching) January 2020.
  • Refer to Getting started with Metacognition from Cambridge Assessment International Education which provides a detailed analysis for teachers.

The GA project Critical thinking for achievement enabled metacognitive skills to be developed within a secure subject context. 

Geography teachers engaged in this project were often surprised by the level of sophistication students can attain in their thinking and their gains in self-confidence. (Refer to Critical thinking for more information) approaching a new problem intelligently.

 Reading

  • Bromley, M. (2018) In the classroom: Metacognition explained SecEd 14 November 2018 and Metacognition: Classroom strategies SecEd 21 November 2018.
  • Cambridge International Education Teaching and Learning Team (n.d) Getting started with Metacognition.
  • Corry, M. (2020) ‘Improving metacognition through explicit instruction of learning strategies’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), January.
  • Firth, J. (2020) ‘Teacher classroom reflections: tackling flawed metacognition and memory’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), January.
  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography, Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing (See page 159 and the Story-telling exemplars (pp 78-96)).
  • Mannion, J. (2020) ‘Metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning: what’s the difference?’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), January.
  • Morgan, J. & Lambert, D. (2005) Geography: Teaching school subjects 11–19, London: Routledge.
  • Muijs, D. (2020) ‘Cognition, learning and educational research’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), January.
  • Muijs, D. and Bokhove, C. (2020) Metacognition and Self-Regulation: Evidence Review, London: Education Endowment Foundation.
  • Perkins, D. (1992) Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Mind, The Free Press.
  • Quigley, A., Muijs, D. and Stringer, E. (2018) Education Endowment Foundation Technical Report: Research evidence on metacognition and self-regulation, EEF.
  • Quigley, A., Muijs, D. and Stringer, E. (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning: Guidance reportEducation Endowment Foundation.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.