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What is Metacognition?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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Metacognition is a process by which an individual is aware of his or her own brain processes that occur during learning. In other words, metacognition is thinking about thinking. It can also be described as knowing about knowing. The goal of using metacognitive strategies is to make a person’s thinking visible to themselves and others, as well as to achieve learning outcomes.

The theory of metacognition is usually attributed to J.H. Flavell, who first coined the term in 1979. In recent years, the strategies of metacognition have been increasingly applied in the classroom environment. Through the use of visible thinking, metacognition can assist students and teachers in tackling projects, approaching reading, and completing assignments across the curriculum.

The basic tenet of metacognition is that by understanding what the mind is thinking during learning, an individual will be able to focus his strengths and improve upon his weaknesses when tackling a project, assignment, or text. Cognition can be described as an awareness of knowledge, while metacognition is a farther-reaching subject that involves using that knowledge, as well as applying strategies, when cognitive processes fail to serve the learner in completing a task.

Many good students use metacognitive strategies naturally; for others, this is a process which must be learned. Students who use metacognitive strategies, such as awareness, self-regulation, and refocusing, outperform those who don’t.

One major element to the practice of metacognition is the avoidance of distraction. When an individual is aware of the mind’s ability to be easily distracted away from an assignment due to the external environment, he or she can re-train the brain to identify the interruption, and then refocus on the task at hand.

Another important part of metacognition is the use of learning strategies such as forecasting expected outcomes, fact checking, identifying important components, and re-reading for understanding. This may involve previewing a text or assignment, breaking down the parts of an experiment, researching unfamiliar terms, or integrating previous knowledge with new information.

One way that teachers and students reach this understanding of the brain’s internal work is through the metacognitive conversation. This involves both teachers and students being aware of their own mental process and then speaking about those internal processes aloud. For example, an instructor may act as a model in tackling a particularly difficult text by showing students how he or she would deal with the reading using metacognitive strategies. Verbalizing these internal brain operations makes them available to students, who can then apply the strategies to their own learning. In order to create an environment in which strategies and skills for completing goals are shared, students may also talk aloud to each other about their metacognitive functions.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Mar 16, 2014

@pleonasm - Modern teaching is tough because of large classroom sizes, but I would argue that is why awareness of metacognition is so important for everyone. The teacher can't make up individual worksheets for everyone, that's true. But she can give them a choice of what activity they want to do in order to learn a particular subject.

If the student knows they learn better through writing, then they can choose to present an essay. If they learn better through art, then they can choose to present a visual design.

Metacognition isn't just for the classroom though. It's a valuable skill that everyone can benefit from. If you understand how you think, then you can pretty much organize your brain so that it works the way you want it to.

By pleonasm — On Mar 15, 2014

@MrsPramm - I don't know if that's always true. I don't like the fact that modern parents place so much emphasis on the ability of the teacher and none on the effort of their own child, or their own involvement in education from home.

In an ideal world, where teachers were only dealing with a small handful of kids at a time, maybe they could teach every one of them to their specific needs. But even teaching them about metacognition would be a trial, because no one person thinks the same as anyone else.

By MrsPramm — On Mar 14, 2014

I have taken a few education classes recently and metacognition seems to be one of the major missing pieces for effective classrooms in this day and age. Kids are often taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that they are either smart or dumb and if they are dumb then there's not much point in trying.

Often kids will think they are dumb about particular topics as well, like maths, and will stop trying to understand them because they don't think they will ever achieve understanding.

But if kids are taught to understand how they understand, they will learn a lot faster. Most research points out that when children don't learn something it's the fault of the teacher, not of the student, because every student is capable of learning almost anything if they are taught in the right way. If kids are taught how to teach themselves in the right way, they can start collaborating with the teacher, rather than struggling against them.

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