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Metacognition and self-regulated learning review

EEF’s Metacognition and self-regulated learning review: Our key points

6 min read
  • Metacognition

The Education Endowment Fund just released their updated review on Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning. We thought we’d summarise the key parts for you. So, let’s start at the top:

What are Metacognition and self-regulated learning?

Self-regulation is “the extent to which learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn’ as well as whether students can ‘motivate themselves to engage in learning and if they can develop strategies and tactics to enhance learning”.

On the other hand, metacognition is ‘about the ways learners can monitor and purposely direct their learning’. For example, a student’s ability to select an appropriate learning strategy, monitor it in action and then change it if necessary.

It is worth noting that the review goes on the understanding that metacognition is a part of self-regulation. For this reason, we will focus primarily on the key points about metacognition to help you improve your students’ metacognitive strategies and thus their self-regulation.  

The Education Endowment Fund has previously highlighted in their teacher tool kit the effectiveness of metacognition, for example by suggesting that it is one of the cheapest interventions you could do to help students make an average of seven months additional progress. Interestingly, the report also shows that metacognition can be predictive of later student attainment compensate for students’ cognitive limitations.

Motivation and Metacognition

There is a nice section in the review that emphasises that ‘monitoring and regulating cognition is an effortful process, and to make the effort requires motivation’.

Interestingly, it also indicates that one factor that is associated to a more effective use of metacognitive strategies is delayed gratification. The review states that students who are better able to delay gratification and practise studying are better at planning and regulating their learning activities.

Self-efficacy is cited as a potential factor in self-regulated learning as well. For example, the authors cite some research that suggests that self-efficacy predicted the use of strategies such as organising and monitoring in girls. Therefore, it might be that by improving your students’ self-efficacy, you can improve their use of metacognitive strategies too. For more information on how to implement this, take a look at our guide on developing self-efficacy in students.

There is a also a really nice integrated model in the review on page 10 that you might want to check out.

For more resources on motivation, have a look at these blogs:

Metacognition and context

We found the section about the context-specific nature of metacognition particularly interesting, because of these great take-home messages:

  • The monitoring on a particular task can change a student’s motivation or the metacognitive strategies they use when carrying out the work. A nice example used was that if a student thinks a task is easy, but then realises it is quite difficult, they might give up on it. We think this is partially explained by something called ‘The Planning Fallacy’.
  • Just because a student shows strong metacognitive strategies in one context does not mean that they can transfer them to another. This means that transfer of knowledge isn’t automatic, and that students’ metacognitive abilities are stronger when their knowledge of that subject is stronger.
Develop your students’ self-regulation, emotional control and independent learning with a Metacognition CPD workshop.

What metacognitive learners do

In this section of the review, the authors detailed actual behaviours that metacognitive learners engage in. This including practices such as:

(Click each link for tips to help your students develop these particular practices)

Instruction and Metacognition

The review also explains that, whilst most students pick up metacognition spontaneously from their peers, parents or teachers, other students need to be taught it. This can lead to a difference in your students’ level of metacognition. Regardless of how or when they pick up metacognitive abilities, giving instruction will help any student become more effective. In that case, check out our guide to how to help students develop their metacognition.

Metacognition and improved attainment

For an in-depth review of literature examining the relationship between improved metacognitive skills and student attainment outcomes, we would highly recommend reading section 2, part 5. Here, the authors dissect the most relevant cross-sectional, longitudinal and interventional studies for you.

The overall summary though is that, with a few exceptions, the bulk of the evidence supports the idea that improving metacognition can lead to improved attainment.

What types of metacognitive learning strategies improve outcomes?

The review cites a lot of research stating that metacognition can be improved through education. In order to help students, develop their metacognitive abilities, the strategies that are most commonly used are distinguished as:

  • Planning strategies – Such as deciding how long to spend on a task.
  • Monitoring strategies – Checking understanding.
  • Evaluation strategies – Analysing performance.

In addition, the authors suggest other key skills students should be taught in order to improve their metacognitive knowledge, which include:

  • Making generalisations about a strategy.
  • Explaining when, why and how a strategy should be used.
  • Understanding strengths and weaknesses of different strategies.

Teaching Metacognition

After assessing the research, the review claims that there are two main elements underpinning effective teaching of self-regulation and metacognition. Deliberate actions to teach metacognitive strategies include:

  • Explicit instruction – This includes interactive questioning, feedback and a mastery approach to learning content. This also includes explicitly telling students that you are modelling a learning strategy.
  • Implicit strategies – This includes modelling a thought process without telling students you are doing so.

The review also recommends that teachers should help students develop their metacognition through more open-ended work. For example, where ‘students are given more ownership over a task within a framework of scaffolds, prompts and teacher guidance’.

Other Metacognition issues

The authors also discuss a number of further debates in the field that have implications for the implementation of metacognition. As with the rest of this blog, for an in depth understanding of these themes we would suggest reading the main review, however below is our brief overview:


  • Integrating subject material is important. There are many arguments that a subject specific approach is likely to be more effective.


  • The evidence on duration and intensity of interventions is unclear. Lots of the studies in the review spanned at least a whole school year with one session per week. However, there is evidence to support that short-term interventions are effective too.

Working in groups

  • Again, there is mixed support for group work.
  • Group work can be difficult when students have behavioural issues.
  • However, there is support for students teaching and learning from each other.

Using technology

  • Using technology has been said to be effective for metacognition development, for instance, through the use of multimedia to explore complex topics.
  • However, it requires students to have a firm understanding of the technology beforehand.
  • Technology has been found to be effective when incorporating strategies such as scaffolding.
  • Technology can help to lighten the load for teachers.


  • Testing can help develop self-regulation and metacognition.
  • For example, retrieval practice can aid how students judge their learning which is a key metacognitive skill.

Transfer of learning

  • There is some evidence to support metacognition being effective in aiding transfer across subjects.

Metacognition and age

  • There is no age group where metacognition interventions would not be helpful.
  • The younger the child, the more explicit instruction is needed.
  • Collaborative approaches work best in secondary education.

Metacognition and different subjects

  • Generally speaking, metacognition has been shown to be effective in all subjects.
  • Metacognition draws upon strong domain and subject knowledge.
  • The review discusses literature associated with literacy, mathematics and science.

Effectively implementing metacognition interventions

Finally, the review takes a look at what the research tells us about effectively implementing metacognition interventions. Here are our key take-home points:

  • Changes need sufficient time to happen.
  • Extensive support for teachers is key – teachers should have access to continued professional development.
  • Support from senior leadership is important. So is mentoring.
  • Interventions should fit in with the school year – sessions outside of school hours tend to encounter more resistance.
  • Interventions are more likely to be successful if they take place in schools that are receptive to the type of intervention proposed’.

Final thoughts

As previously mentioned, these are just the points that we thought were most important and as such, we have provided you with a number of brief take-home points. We would encourage you though to the check out the full review which can be found here.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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