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‘But how and why does it “work”?’: A primary school study into the impact of metacognitive strategies on disadvantaged learners

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Kathryn Atkins, School Improvement Adviser, Leeds, UK

Jonathan Doherty, Leeds Trinity University, Institute of Childhood Education, UK

Renewed interest in curriculum design to maximise student learning, along with the publication of the revised Ofsted framework in 2019, has led many schools to review their curriculum and how it is taught. The overview of research (Ofsted, 2019) underpinning the 2019 ‘Education inspection framework’ (EIF) made frequent reference to the ‘learning sciences’. The drive to embed evidence-based practices that have real impact in classrooms in the areas of cognition and learning (Muijs, 2020; Willingham, 2019) is often closely linked to such curriculum reviews. In the primary author’s role as a school adviser, the schools worked with are routinely making subject-based decisions about the key knowledge, vocabulary and concepts that students should know and understand. Alongside this, decisions made about classroom pedagogy are often linked to cognitive science.

The success of metacognitive and self-regulation strategies is widely reported in research (EEF, 2018; Wilson, 2018; Dent and Koenka, 2016). The particular success of metacognitive strategies on the learning of disadvantaged students (classed as those eligible for free school meals (FSM) or who have been in the last six years, looked after children (LAC) or those who have previously been looked after by the state, or children with parents in the armed forces) (EEF, 2018) made it popular with schools who were striving to close the gap between the attainment of these students and their peers.

This article reports on a Master’s-level study led by the primary author and supported by Leeds Trinity University. The motivation for the study arose from this ‘popularisation’ of the use of metacognitive strategies in classrooms. The fact that ‘metacognition can help students to learn’ is not in dispute, and there are particular studies that demonstrate its impact on disadvantaged students (Mannion and Mercer, 2016; Callan et al., 2016). Accepting that the strategies can work, this study aimed to look at why that was the case to support teachers in making more informed decisions about the wider classroom strategies that help to secure each student’s learning. As schools review their curriculum and focus on embedding knowledge in the ‘long-term memory’, the authors believe that taking opportunities to look beyond the headlines of ‘what works’ can have wider implications for classroom practice. An increasing emphasis on encouraging teachers to use research in the classroom is no doubt a positive step, but becoming ‘critical consumers of research’ (Wiliam, 2019) enables them to make more informed decisions about its classroom application.

The research project

The project was based in an inner-city primary school where three of the teachers had been involved in recent professional development in metacognition and self-regulation and were keen to embed this in their classroom practice. The teachers had engaged in three days of training and began the term with a good understanding of metacognitive processes, the research behind metacognition and its classroom application. The ‘plan, monitor, review’ cycle was explicitly taught in their classes and the teachers modelled their own thinking in lessons using worked examples. Regular reflection on learning helped the students to organise and manage their learning more effectively. The small number of students involved in the project were all disadvantaged and drawn from three classes across Key Stage 1 and 2. The key question of the study was: Metacognitive and self-regulation strategies: How do they support the learning of disadvantaged students?

Data gathered for the study was mainly qualitative, based on interviews with the students and teachers and on classroom observations. An adapted form of a Metacognitive Awareness Inventory (MAI) (Schraw and Dennison, 1994), with true/false/unsure responses to statements about learning, was used to strengthen reliability. Full ethical approval was granted for the project in advance of the study.

Initial data was collected to form a baseline, and then the same methods were used after a term of teaching the students to use self-regulation and metacognitive strategies when learning. The students were asked questions such as ‘Tell me about something new you learned in class recently – what helped you to learn?’ and ‘Is there anything your teacher has taught you to do that helps when you find things tricky?’. Transcripts of answers were coded and categorised. Teachers were also asked questions at the end of a term of teaching metacognitive strategies, such as ‘How have these strategies made a difference to the students’ approach to learning?’ and ‘Why do you feel that these strategies may have a greater impact on disadvantaged learners?’. Classroom observations enabled direct observation of how students responded to new learning. The inventory proved useful in noting responses to statements such as ‘I have different ways of helping me remember things’ and ‘I know what I need to remember or use before I start my work’.

Classroom observations and interviews showed that although the younger students demonstrated some metacognitive knowledge, the older students used a wider range of metacognitive and self-regulation strategies. Themes emerged from the transcripts of interviews such as the impact of teacher modelling, students’ knowledge of themselves as learners and student self-efficacy with regard to learning.


It is clear from the data that the metacognitive skills and knowledge of the students developed over the period of the project. Comments such as ‘I’m getting better at checking my answers, like in tests and stuff’ show that they were using strategies that they had been taught to help them to reflect on and regulate their learning. Students were explaining that they knew how to learn. Teacher modelling was referred to frequently by students in their interviews. One student explained how the models helped them not to become ‘confused or lose track’ and a teacher described how she now articulated her thinking when modelling a worked example. Results from the survey also demonstrated how students had an improved understanding of themselves as learners, reflected in increased positive responses to statements such as ‘I have different ways of remembering things’ and ‘I know when I will find things easy/hard’.

Improvements in self-efficacy with regard to learning were also evident. Comments such as ‘I’m confident, independent and I don’t give up easily’ from a girl who had initially rated herself ‘five out of ten’ as a learner were backed up by the teachers, who noted that the students in the study now had a greater expectation of success in lessons. Low self-confidence with regard to learning is often associated with disadvantaged students (Hutchinson et al., 2016), so any increase could have a particular impact on this group of students.

The notion that students from all socio-economic groups can be taught to use metacognitive and self-regulation strategies successfully (Callan et al., 2016) was supported by the teachers in the project, with comments such as ‘It gives them [disadvantaged students] a shared language around learning; it’s levelling, it levels things.’ Teaching metacognitive processes provided the disadvantaged students with strategies and skills that some of their advantaged peers already used, and may therefore have had a greater impact on their learning.


‘It [metacognition] goes to the heart of the learning process’ (Sherrington, 2019) and the learning process is central to any curriculum reform. Staff training in the use of metacognitive and self-regulation strategies is therefore a justifiable area of investment in any curriculum review and reform. A pertinent quote from a Year 6 teacher in the study demonstrates this well: ‘In the past I expected that children would just pick things up, that if I teach it they will learn, but that often doesn’t work. They need to be taught how to.’

Although this small-scale study makes no grand claims, it highlights aspects of the metacognitive process that had particular impact on this group of disadvantaged students. Teachers modelling their thinking, increased classroom reflection on learning and providing students with useful monitoring strategies were repeatedly noted as useful by both students and teachers. The answer to how metacognition may have a particular impact on the learning of disadvantaged students appears to be twofold:

  1. It provides disadvantaged students with practical tools and an awareness of themselves as learners that they may well not have had before – thus mitigating some of the barriers to learning that their advantaged peers may not face
  2. It can increase self-efficacy in learning, which can have a greater impact on disadvantaged students.


The aim of this study was fulfilled by looking beyond the ‘metacognition works’ research to answer the how and why questions. The motivation to conduct this study arose from a belief that although research-based evidence can and should inform classroom practice, it is important to look beyond the headlines. An understanding of why and how a strategy ‘works’ can empower teachers by providing them with a deeper understanding, allowing for more informed decisions to be made in the classroom, a view now strongly supported by the teachers in this project. Knowing how and why something ‘works’ in a particular context has also deepened each teacher’s understanding of how their children learn. Applying this knowledge in the classroom is what will translate new curriculum plans into long-term student learning. The next time a new pedagogical initiative is suggested at school, we hope that they’ll stand back and ask those how and why questions.

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