How to improve metacognition in the classroom

Metacognition is an individual’s ability to identify their current thought process and select helpful strategies to tackle challenges more effectively. It is often divided into three parts – before, during and after a task. Research suggests that metacognition is one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to help students make gains in their learning.

Metacognition is much more than just ‘thinking about thinking’ or ‘learning how to learn’...

Research, much of which has been evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation, suggests that metacognition is one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to help students make gains in their learning.

The science is now clear – developing metacognition leads to better learners.

Recent research has revealed that those with strong metacognitive abilities have more grey matter in the part of the brain known as the anterior prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, the anterior prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in metacognitive abilities, is one the few parts of the brain where we as humans show differences to our closest relatives, the great apes; therefore, it seems as though this ability to introspect may be unique to us.

Researchers still remain unsure as to whether the prefrontal cortex developed as individuals become better at introspection, or whether individuals who are better at introspection have greater development in this area in the first place. However, this does not mean that those with a lower functioning prefrontal cortex cannot demonstrate metacognitive abilities, as through practising the strategies highlighted below, everyone can improve.

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On average, students who develop metacognitive skills have been found to make seven months additional progress.

Developing metacognitive skills encourages independent learning, resilience and grit in children. This is because it helps students identify what does and doesn’t work as well as helping them deduce what they would do differently next time if they experience a setback, failure, or make a mistake.

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By establishing clear processes before, during and after a task, students will get into the habit of self-reflection.

Put simply, planning happens before a task, monitoring takes place during it, and reviewing occurs afterwards.

Planning Before a Task

Most people understand that preparation is key, but whether they know how to best prepare is another matter. Good preparation involves:

  • Thinking about similar tasks
  • Setting clear goals
  • Working out how long a task may take to complete selecting appropriate strategies

This can help allocate your efforts more efficiently - read more about the Planning part of the metacognitive process.

Monitoring During a Task

Students need to assess how they are progressing on a task, to ensure they are on the right path. This self-monitoring is made easier if they spend time on the planning stage and know exactly what they want to be working towards. Read more about the Doing part of the metacognitive process.

Reviewing After a Task

After completing a task, students should spend time reflecting on what went well and what they would do differently next time. This ensures that they are learning as much as possible from the experience and as such, are developing and improving. Read more about the Reviewing part of the metacognitive process.

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Goal-setting, understanding how we learn and knowing how to ask for and receive feedback are some great metacognitive strategies.

Metacognition and Goal Setting

Setting and reviewing goals is one of the most significant ways that a student can make and monitor progress. This can be done by setting both short- and long-term goals, ensuring that they are both challenging and realistic, as well as placing a strong emphasis on skill development as well as on outcome.

Metacognition and Feedback

Feedback can be one of the best ways to help someone improve their learning, yet research suggests that 38% of feedback interventions actually do more harm than good. Making feedback an integral part of the learning process is a key way to encourage metacognition in the classroom. Teachers should create an environment in where students appreciate that feedback from the task at hand is not a judgement on who they are as a person.

As giving and receiving feedback is so important, we have written a lot of blogs on the subject. This one is probably the best place to start.

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Asking yourself questions may lead to better performance because it kick starts your brain into searching for answers. Essentially, it is a call to arms.

So what are the best questions to ask yourself? Here are our top 5:

1. What do I need to do first?
2. Why is this true?
3. How can I get better?
4. Who can I ask for help?
5. Where do I do my best work?

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Encouraging students to keep a diary is one of the simplest ways to improve self-reflection.

Evidence suggests that keeping a diary helps improve a range of factors which include, but are not limited to, self-awareness, ability to manage nerves, mental well-being and metacognition. Diary keeping helps people in all walks of life and it’s a really easy way to improve your well-being. Just as Benjamin Franklin did, by writing down your targets, reflecting on how well they went or consciously trying to improve them for the next day, you give yourself the best chance of success.

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Teaching metacognitive strategies within each subject is essential - metacognition in Maths or in French may look different from each other.

For example, metacognition can be used to solve a maths problem (although this process is not unique to helping with maths):

- Planning: The student thinks about similar maths problems they have solved before and the strategy they used.
- Monitoring: The student then assesses the progress they are making in solving the problem and asks questions of their teacher if they need help.
- Reviewing: The student considers whether this was the best approach or strategy to solve that particular problem.

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Learn more about metacognition - from us!
We deliver CPD workshops to your staff to help them develop metacognitive strategies in students.

Our other guides

How to develop a growth mindset in schools guide page

How to develop a Growth Mindset

A guide to revision

The best ways to revise

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The Benefits of sleep

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Mobile phone addiction

A guide to Sport psychology in football

Sport psychology for football

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