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Metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning: what’s the difference?

Written by: James Mannion
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8 min read

In 2018, the Education Endowment Foundation published some guidance for schools on Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning, which we are told provides ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’ (p. 4). Naturally, schools are keen to put these impactful ideas into practice. However, teachers are not always clear about what ‘metacognition and self-regulated learning’ means, or what it looks like in the classroom. This is not surprising, because education researchers aren’t always clear about what it means, either.

Dinsmore et al. (2008) reviewed 255 studies in an attempt to determine the ‘core meaning of metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning, as well as where these constructs converge and diverge’ (p. 392). This review found that only 49 per cent of the studies provided explicit definitions, and that where this did happen, there was considerable overlap between the three constructs. In their guidance, the EEF attempted to simplify this complex field for busy teachers. They also outlined seven key recommendations for schools; these are excellent, and I would urge all teachers and school leaders to read, digest and implement them. However – and bear with me if this seems pedantic, but I really do think it’s important – there are a number of problems with the way in which the EEF define their terms. If we’re going to get to grips with how to teach children to become confident, independent learners, we need to understand the theory (the why) as well as the practice (the what). In this way, teachers can translate these ideas into practice from first principles, rather than simply taking recommendations off the shelf without a clear understanding of the underlying concepts.

According to the EEF, self-regulated learning is a broad umbrella term comprising three components: cognition, metacognition and motivation. They define these terms as follows: ‘Cognition is the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning… Metacognition is about the ways learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning… Motivation is about our willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills and apply them to learning.’ (2018, p. 9)

There are advantages to the EEF’s definition. First, it makes clear the difference between metacognition and self-regulated learning: the former is to be seen as a subset of the latter. Second, it emphasises the importance of cognition: as the guidance states, ‘it is impossible to be metacognitive without having different cognitive strategies to hand’ (2018, p. 9). In other words, if you’re not thinking about thinking, it’s not metacognition. And it’s useful to have motivation in the mix. To develop metacognition and self-regulation is to promote independent learning; by definition, self-regulation cannot be imposed from above.

However, there are also problems with this definition. The first is that this is not how metacognition and self-regulated learning are defined in the research literature. Second, it is overly simplistic. Stripping away research jargon is a noble aim, but can render definitions so basic as to be counterproductive. And third, the terms ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-regulated learning’ are used interchangeably. This is a problem because to understand how these concepts help define one another is actually quite illuminating.

By way of an introduction, I recently carried out an eight-year evaluation of Learning Skills, a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that centres around metacognition and self-regulated learning (Mannion et al., 2018). So, I’ve thought a lot about this, both as a researcher and as a classroom teacher. In this article, I will provide what I consider a more accurate definition of each of the three concepts, propose an alternative model for how teachers can usefully think about them, and explain why this understanding is important for classroom practitioners. Let’s consider each in turn.


Metacognition is often referred to simply as ‘thinking about thinking’. However, when the word was coined in the 1970s, it was conceived as a complex, dynamic process involving several moving parts. In 1979, Flavell published a short paper called ‘Metacognition and cognitive monitoring’, which remains the best model we have (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Flavell’s model of metacognition and cognitive modelling (1979)

Flavell, a developmental psychologist, suggested that we learn to control our thinking by monitoring what we know about people (self and others), tasks and strategies. He proposed that this metacognitive knowledge grows through experience, by setting goals and by choosing and using strategies to achieve those goals. All of these components interact with one another, and through such interactions we develop metacognitive skills and further our knowledge.

Certainly, this model is too complex to be easily recalled on the fly in the context of a busy lesson. But metacognition can be simplified without distorting the message too badly. For example, Watkins (2001) defined metacognition as ‘awareness of thinking processes, and “executive control” of such processes’ (p. 1). Here, I propose an even more succinct definition:

Metacognition is monitoring and controlling your thought processes.


Our understanding of self-regulation is largely based on the work of Bandura in the 1970s and ’80s. In contrast to the cognitive, thought-based world of metacognition, Bandura viewed self-regulation as the process of influencing the external environment through our emotions and behaviour (Bandura, 1986).

However, the language used to describe self-regulation is often strikingly similar to that used to describe metacognition, and in a sense the two can be seen as mirror images of one another. Dinsmore et al. (2008) found that there was significant overlap in the language used to define the two terms, with two words cropping up far more than any others: monitor and control. Echoing Bandura, Dinsmore et al. concluded that there is ‘a clear cognitive orientation for metacognition, while self-regulation is as much concerned with human action as the thinking that engendered it’ (2008, p. 405). Here, I propose the following definition:

Self-regulation is monitoring and controlling your emotions and behaviours.

Self-regulated learning

Thought processes, emotions, behaviour… clearly, metacognition and self-regulation are broad concepts that extend beyond academic learning. As Fox and Riconscente (2008) put it, ‘understanding metacognition and self-regulation… requires situating them within the broad context of all activities for humans of all ages and points of development’ (p. 374).

Following the publication of Bandura’s classic work Social Foundations of Thought and Action (1986), the concepts of metacognition and self-regulation were increasingly applied to the process of learning. This led to the development of a new term, ‘self-regulated learning’. Schunk (2008) describes self-regulated learning as ‘the process whereby students activate and sustain cognitions and behaviours systematically oriented toward the attainment of their learning goals’ (p. 465, emphasis added). Here, I propose the following definition:

Self-regulated learning is the application of metacognition and self-regulation to learning.

To recap: metacognition is monitoring and controlling what’s in your head; self-regulation is monitoring and controlling how you interact with your environment; and self-regulated learning is the application of metacognition and self-regulation to learning (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning

As with all models, this is a simplified version of reality. In particular, there are a number of additional factors that influence the extent to which a student is able or willing to regulate their own learning. These include things like motivation (to what extent are they motivated, and is this intrinsic or extrinsic?); autonomy (do they have any choice about whether or how to engage in their learning, or are the expectations imposed by the teacher or a looming deadline?); self-efficacy (to what extent do they believe they can learn effectively within this domain?); and so on. As ever, context is king. However, I believe that this model of self-regulated learning is more accurate and more helpful than that proposed by the EEF – not least because it recognises the importance of emotional self-regulation, which is especially important in early childhood (Whitebread and Basilio, 2012).

So what?

Zimmerman (2002) offers the following guide for how to spot a self-regulated learner, should you encounter one in the wild: ‘These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies… These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.’ (p. 65)

If we want children to learn how to become such confident, independent learners, we need to have a clear, accurate, common understanding of what metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning are, and how these concepts interrelate. In this way, teachers can see why it is important to provide students with regular opportunities to monitor and regulate their thoughts, emotions and behaviours, such as through weekly and termly goal-setting and review sessions, peer tutoring or using learning journals. It is also important to establish a classroom culture where pupils are encouraged to take ownership over aspects of their own learning, and where failure is viewed as valuable feedback rather than avoided at all costs. Such a classroom culture is most powerfully established and reinforced through questioning.

As Flavell suggested (1979), the focus of metacognitive questioning can be applied at the level of the person, task, strategy, experiences or goals. A useful rule of thumb is to ask pupils to reflect on the ‘how’ of learning, as well as the ‘what’. The overarching aim is to enable them firstly to describe and then to increasingly control their inner and outer worlds. This work is not limited to questioning or weekly reviews: the use of talking points (provocative statements) and ground rules to promote exploratory talk are also powerful tools for stimulating metacognitive discussions in the classroom (Mercer, 2016). In this way, pupils learn to ask such questions of one another, and ultimately of themselves. When they’re asking these questions of themselves, that’s when you know you’ve cracked it.


Bandura A (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Dinsmore DL, Alexander PA and Loughlin SM (2008) Focusing the conceptual lens on metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review 20(4): 391–409.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning: Guidance Report. London: EEF. Available at: (accessed 22 November 2019).

Flavell JH (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist 34(10): 906–911.

Fox E and Riconscente M (2008) Metacognition and self-regulation in James, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Educational Psychology Review 20(4): 373–389.

Mannion J, McAllister K and Mercer N (2018) The Learning Skills curriculum: Raising the bar, closing the gap at GCSE. Impact 4: 63–65.

Mercer N (2016) Education and the social brain: Linking language, thinking, teaching and learning. Éducation & Didactique 10(2): 9–23.

Schunk DH (2008) Metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning: Research recommendations. Educational Psychology Review 20(4): 463-467.

Watkins C (2001) Learning about learning enhances performance. London, Institute of Education National School Improvement Network (Research Matters series No 13). Available at: (accessed 22 November 2019).

Whitebread D and Basilio M (2012) The emergence and early development of self-regulation in young children. Profesorado: Revista de Currículum y Formación del Profesorado 16: 16–33.

Zimmerman BJ (2002) Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice 41(2): 64–70.

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