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Cognition, learning and educational research

Written by: Daniel Muijs
8 min read

We live in exciting times for educational research. Research on learning and cognition is developing rapidly. The findings from this research are increasingly making their way into classroom practice. A range of organisations and people in education (the Chartered College of Teaching very much among them) are working to test how we can use the insights from what is increasingly known as the ‘science of learning’ in classrooms and schools. A range of organisations and individuals are also working to disseminate these findings in the profession (of which this journal is an excellent example). Schools and teachers across the country are using concepts like cognitive load theory, discussed in the first section of this issue, to shape their teaching. This is a great thing, but does have some obvious dangers. Sound scientific ideas can become mutated and turned into new fads. And the last thing we need in education is the new ‘learning styles’.

Metacognition and self-regulation, for example, illustrate both these points well. There is a strong and growing body of research that shows that the ability to self-regulate and to deploy metacognitive strategies can help pupils to learn more effectively and efficiently. Improved self-regulation has a modest positive impact on pupil attainment. But the terms can and have been used to support unhelpfully generic approaches, such as separate lessons on ‘learning to learn’, or to suggest that the role of the teacher is merely to guide pupils to develop their own self-regulation.

We need to be clear on what self-regulation and metacognition are. This is less straightforward than it seems, as a range of definitions exist. James Mannion’s article in this issue explores this matter further but, to me, self-regulation is about the extent to which learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, the strategies they use to learn, whether and how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning, and whether and how they can develop strategies and tactics to enhance learning.

Self-regulation is broader than metacognition. Self-regulation is often seen as consisting of three areas of psychological functioning: cognition, metacognition and motivation (see Figure 1). Cognition refers to information-processing strategies that learners use when doing a particular task, like paying attention or practising. Metacognition refers to strategies to control and regulate cognition. Motivation and affect include all motivational beliefs about oneself related to a task, for example self-efficacy beliefs or interest (Boekaerts, 1999).

Figure 1 is titled "Functions involved in self-regulation". It shows three smaller circles attached to a larger circle. The larger circle is labelled "Self-regulation". The three smaller circles are labelled "Cognition", placed top left of the larger circle, "Metacognition", placed bottom left of the larger circle, and "Motivation", placed on the top right of the larger circle. An additional text in the bottom right corner reads "Both knowledge and strategy need to be explicitly taught to pupils".

All of these elements are important, but in this editorial I am going to focus on metacognition more specifically. Improving pupils’ metacognition is a useful thing for us to attempt to do, but again we need to be clear on what it is.

Metacognition is specifically about the ways in which learners can monitor and purposefully direct their learning. They can, for example, decide that a particular strategy for memorisation is likely to be successful, monitor whether it has indeed been successful, and then deliberately change (or not change) their memorisation strategy based on that evidence. Metacognition includes three main components: planning, monitoring and evaluation:

  • Planning is about goal setting, activating relevant prior knowledge, selecting appropriate strategies, and the allocation of resources (for example, how much time is going to be spent on the task)
  • Monitoring includes the self-testing activities that are necessary to control learning, for example retrieval practice during a learning task
  • Evaluation refers to appraising the outcomes of one’s learning, and deciding whether to use a different strategy next time.


These are things that we as educators and teachers can help to develop in learners. But to do so effectively, there are a few points it is important to remember. Firstly, while self-regulation does to an extent develop naturally in children, it doesn’t do so to a sufficient or equal extent in all. So there is a clear role for education and teaching in developing it further. Secondly, the origins of self-regulation appear early on, and can be fostered even in nursery-age children. In her article in this issue, Tania Choudhury talks about trying to do exactly that, replicating a previous study discussed in Impact (Lewis, 2018) in a nursery context. Thirdly, while metacognition improves over time, it is certainly not the case that maturation alone develops good study skills, for example. Even university students often struggle to use effective and efficient strategies and often fail to reflect on what they do. Elizabeth Mountstevens’ article, describing ways in which metacognitive approaches were used to develop study skills among sixth-form students, illustrates this.

As metacognition doesn’t necessarily spontaneously develop, we need to explicitly teach pupils metacognitive knowledge and strategies.

Metacognitive strategies are most commonly distinguished as:

  • planning strategies, such as making a plan or deciding how much time to spend on an activity
  • monitoring strategies, used to check understanding and learning during a task, for example through self-testing and questioning
  • evaluation strategies, used to analyse performance (Shraw and Dennison, 1994).


Metacognitive knowledge has in turn been described as:

  • making generalisations and drawing rules regarding a thinking strategy
  • naming the thinking strategy
  • explaining when, why and how such a thinking strategy should be used and when it should not be used
  • considering what the disadvantages are of not using appropriate strategies
  • considering what task characteristics call for the use of the strategy (Ben-David and Zohar, 2009).


The importance of metacognitive knowledge should not be underestimated. This extends to teachers, as Jonathan Firth discusses in his article on reflective practice.

Both knowledge and strategy need to be explicitly taught to pupils. Strategy instruction has shown significant effect sizes in meta-analytic studies, with de Boer et al. (2014) reporting moderate to large effects. Matt Corry and Claire Badger’s article in this issue provides a helpful account of explicit instruction of metacognitive strategies at the Godolphin and Latymer School. Explicit teaching is of course not just about using metacognitive strategies; pupils need to know about cognitive strategies, such as retrieval practice, before they can use them (and in their articles in this issue, Victoria Waller and James Kilsby and Dannielle Dennis illustrate why this strategy is so helpful).

Explicit instruction in itself is not enough to develop metacognition, of course. It is essential that self-regulated learning and metacognition are applied and practised. Specifically with regard to metacognitive strategies, there is a need to ensure that guided practice happens so that pupils actively employ metacognitive reflection on completed tasks. The choice of task is important here, and this is what Shirley Larkin and Helen Lewis describe in their study in early primary in the online version of this issue.

Self-regulated learning and metacognition have been found to be quite context-dependent, which means that a student who shows strong self-regulated learning and metacognitive competence in one task or domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may be differentially effective depending on the specific task, subject or problem tackled (Hadwin and Oshige, 2011; Kim et al., 2013). This has two consequences: firstly, transfer across subjects and domains is by no means automatic, and, secondly, self-regulated learning and metacognition are stronger where the student has a strong grounding in subject knowledge in a particular area. Different domains and subjects differ not just with respect to the nature of instructional tasks but also in the structure of their subject matter, which will inevitably shape how students regulate their own learning. This is why approaches based on generic ‘learning skills’ teaching often show little effect. What we need to do instead is to develop metacognitive strategies through subject teaching, so that pupils understand why and how to use them.

If we are to use metacognition effectively, we must make sure that it is used judiciously and seen as one tool in our teaching toolbox, not as the latest educational silver bullet. In this issue of Impact, teachers and researchers offer examples of a range of effective approaches to teaching. The first section discusses teaching methods developed from research into memory and learners’ cognitive processes, including Rob Coe’s article on the challenges in implementing retrieval practice, an exploration of cognitive load theory by Deborah Pope, and Slava Kalyuga’s article on the expertise reversal effect. These articles describe the strengths and limitations of research in these fields, and how this might influence classroom practice as well as future research. Section two describes a range of strategies to support learning, from Gethyn Jones’s article on tackling misconceptions, to Amy Fancourt’s approach to using audio recordings for delivering feedback and Helen Clarke’s article on supporting autistic girls in schools. Christian Bokhove and Ryan Campbell also discuss mastery learning in relation to Bloom’s taxonomy, pointing out that many new ideas in education have old roots that we would be wise to remember and learn from.

Cognitive research and teacher development are discussed in the third section. As Lisa-Maria Müller and colleagues note, educators are often bombarded with claims about what is and isn’t effective in teaching. They introduce a web-based tool to help educators assess these claims. Maria Tsapali and colleagues explore the issues involved in the participation of schools in research projects, and Adam Stubbs outlines how applying the findings of cognitive research can help with workload.

In the articles in the final section, alongside others in the online version of the journal, we see some really helpful examples of approaches to developing metacognition, but it is good to see that they sit alongside articles on effective teaching and other strategies such as retrieval practice, as part of the range of approaches that effective teachers use.


Ben-David A and Zohar A (2009) Contribution of meta-strategic knowledge to scientific inquiry learning. International Journal of Science Education 31(12): 1657–1682.

Boekaerts M (1999) Self-regulated learning: Where we are today. International Journal of Educational Research 31(4): 445–457.

De Boer H, Donker A and van der Werf MPC (2014) Effects of the attributes of educational interventions on students’ academic performance: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 84(4): 509–545.

Hadwin A and Oshige M (2011) Self-regulation, coregulation, and socially shared regulation: Exploring perspectives of social in self-regulated learning theory. Teachers College Record Volume 113(2): 240–264.

Kim RY, Park MS, Moore TJ et al. (2013) Multiple levels of metacognition and their elicitation through complex problem-solving tasks. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior 32(3): 377–396.

Lewis H (2018) Developing metacognition in young children: The impact of talking about thinking using video reflection as a stimulus. Impact 3: 33–36.

Shraw G and Dennison R (1994) Assessing metacognitive awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology 19(4): 460–475.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas