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Using evidence-based practices that support metacognition

Written by: Juan Fernandez
8 min read

Educational research has identified different strategies to promote students’ learning. Integrating this best available evidence from research with teachers’ knowledge and expertise, while considering students’ unique needs and personal preferences, is usually considered as evidence-based practice (Galindo-Domínguez et al., 2022). Metacognition and retrieval practice have been promoted as two of the most cost-effective and impactful strategies for educators – for example, by the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit in the case of metacognition (EEF, 2021). Retrieval practice, on the other hand, is strongly supported by over 100 years of research and is one of only two learning techniques rated by Dunlosky et al. (2013) as having ​‘high utility’ for classroom practice. The aim of this article is to investigate the efficacy of integrating retrieval practice techniques as a means to enhance metacognitive awareness and skills in students. This integration is based on the self-regulation model proposed by Zimmerman (2001).

John Flavell (1976) proposed an early definition of metacognition as ‘knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them’ (p. 232). Since then, educational research has generated an ever-growing amount of evidence on the impact of metacognition in learning (McCormick and Pressley, 2003). Firstly, metacognition enables students to better understand their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Through self-reflection and self-awareness, learners can identify areas where they excel and those where they struggle. Secondly, metacognition facilitates the development of essential problem-solving skills. By teaching students how to monitor their thought processes, evaluate their strategies and adjust as needed, metacognition equips them with the ability to approach complex problems with greater flexibility and adaptability.

However, popular methods of implementing metacognition involve the use of questionnaires related to feelings of self-satisfaction or perceptions of learning. This could disregard how difficult students find self-assessing their own learning (Ehrlinger et al., 2016). Moreover, one of the explanations for our cognitive biases is the need to maintain a coherent vision of ourselves in the face of uncertainty (Benson, 2016). This is why we suffer from biases such as the over-confidence effect, in which a person’s subjective confidence in their judgments is reliably greater than the objective accuracy  of those judgments, or the better known to educators illusion of explanatory depth, where people tend to believe that they understand a topic better than they actually do (Benson, 2016).

This is the reason why I prefer to define metacognition as ‘knowing that you don’t know’. It’s clear to me as a teacher that many students struggle to realise the fact that they just aren’t ‘getting it’. This illusion of knowing lies deeply at the heart of many problems that we encounter every day. If we believe that we have already learnt something, why continue to try to learn it?

The EEF’s guidance report on metacognition (Quigley et al., 2018) asks teachers to ‘Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning’ (p. 6). These three phases resonate within Zimmerman’s self-regulation model (Zimmerman, 2001). This model is a widely recognised framework outlining the processes that individuals go through to self-regulate their learning and performance. It consists of three main phases: forethought, performance and self-reflection (see Figure 1). In accordance with metacognition, the model could be described as follows:

  1. Forethought phase: This initial phase involves setting goals and planning one’s learning or performance. In this phase, individuals engage in metacognition, considering their current knowledge and skills, their self-efficacy and their task analysis. They set specific, challenging goals, develop strategies to achieve those goals and create a task-oriented mindset. 
  2. Performance phase: Once the goals are set and plans are in place, individuals enter the performance phase. Here, they put their strategies into action, monitor their progress and regulate their learning or performance. This phase involves managing their attention, effort and persistence, and adapting their strategies as needed. 
  3. Self-reflection phase: After the completion of a task or learning experience, individuals enter the self-reflection phase. This reflective process helps individuals to gain insight into their strengths and areas for improvement. It also serves as a critical point for adapting and refining their self-regulation strategies for future endeavours.


Figure 1 is a simplified version of Zimmerman’s self-regulation model which consists of the cycle: forethought; planning; evaluating.

Figure 1: Zimmerman’s self-regulation model (simplified version)

I propose using retrieval practices (like ‘do now’ or ‘hinge questions’) for assessing metacognitive strategies in students, so that their perceptions about their use (and misuse) and efficacy of using certain learning strategies is more accurate.

Retrieval practice offers significant opportunities to build and enhance metacognitive skills in students. It involves actively recalling information from memory, typically without the aid of notes or textbooks, and has been extensively proved efficient by research (e.g. Dunlosky et al., 2013; Karpicke and Roediger, 2007). The process encourages learners to assess their own understanding and retrieve relevant knowledge independently, making it an ideal context for metacognition development. It fosters metacognitive awareness by making learners more attuned to their own understanding or misconceptions. They begin to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to strategically allocate their study time and resources to areas that need improvement (Zimmerman’s (2001) ‘forethought’ phase) – for example, using a ‘brain dump’.

The retrieval practice known as a ‘brain dump’ is a study technique proposed by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain (2019), where you recall and write down or verbally express all the information, facts, concepts or ideas related to a particular topic or subject from memory. This practice is often used as a self-assessment tool before or after studying, to gauge your understanding and identify areas where you may need further review or clarification.

Here’s how a brain dump typically works:

  1. Choose a topic: Decide on the specific subject or topic on which you want to test your knowledge. This could be a chapter from a textbook, a specific concept or a set of key terms.
  2. Set a timer: You can allocate a specific amount of time for your brain dump, depending on the complexity of the subject. It could be a few minutes or longer.
  3. Recall and write/verbally explain: During the allocated time, rely solely on your memory to recall as much information as you can about the chosen topic. Write down key facts, concepts, formulas and any other relevant information. Alternatively, you can verbally explain the information as if you were teaching it to someone else.
  4. No references: Importantly, during a brain dump, you should avoid using textbooks, notes or any external resources. The goal is to test your ability to retrieve information from memory.
  5. Review and self-assess: After the brain dump session, review what you’ve written or consider what you’ve explained verbally. Compare it to your notes or the actual content to identify any gaps in your understanding. Take note of the areas where you struggled or couldn’t recall information.


The brain dump technique can be especially helpful when preparing for exams or tests, as it allows you to identify weak points in your knowledge and tailor your study sessions accordingly.

Secondly, retrieval practice enhances metacognitive control and planning. As students engage in this technique, they are required to make choices about which concepts or facts are most crucial to their goals and which strategies are most efficient for retrieval. This process promotes metacognitive planning, as learners evaluate and refine their retrieval strategies over time, honing their ability to decide when, how and what to study (Zimmerman’s (2001) ‘planning’ phase). The retrieval practice ‘draw it’ would fit in perfectly.

‘Draw it’ is a retrieval practice technique that involves creating visual representations, diagrams or drawings in order to recall and reinforce information or concepts. This practice leverages the power of visualisation and active engagement to enhance memory retention and understanding of the material. Here’s how the ‘draw it’ retrieval practice works:

  1. Select a concept or topic: Choose a specific concept, idea, process or piece of information that you want to reinforce through drawing. This could be related to your studies, work or any area where visual representation can aid your understanding.
  2. Visualise and draw: Close your textbooks, notes and any external resources and rely solely on your memory to visualise the concept or information. Try to picture it in your mind as vividly as possible. Then, put pen to paper (or use digital tools if preferred) and create a visual representation of what you’ve visualised. Your drawing can be as detailed or as abstract as necessary to capture the essence of the concept.
  3. Label and annotate: Alongside your drawing, add labels, annotations or brief descriptions to clarify key components or elements within your illustration. These labels help to reinforce your understanding and can serve as cues during the review process.
  4. Review and self-test: After completing your drawing, take a moment to review it while recalling the associated information. Try to explain the concept or topic to yourself or someone else, using your drawing as a reference. This step serves as a self-testing process that engages your memory retrieval.


As students practise recalling information repeatedly, they develop a heightened sense of their own progress. They can gauge whether their retrieval attempts are improving over time and whether their strategies are becoming more effective. This metacognitive monitoring encourages students to adjust their study methods and adapt their learning strategies based on the self-assessment of their performance. In this way, retrieval practice not only strengthens memory but also cultivates metacognitive skills that empower students to take more control of their learning processes (Zimmerman’s (2001) ‘evaluation’ phase) – for example, using hinge questions.

A ‘hinge question’ involves asking a specific question that serves as a checkpoint or ‘hinge’ on which to gauge students’ understanding of a critical concept or topic, before proceeding with further instruction. The term ‘hinge question’ implies that the response to this question is essential to determine whether students are ready to move on to new material or whether additional review and clarification are needed.

Figure 2 is a simplified version of Zimmerman’s self-regulation model which consists of the cycle: forethought; planning; evaluating, with the additions of retrieval practice, self-regulation and metacognition working at once.

Figure 2: Retrieval practice, self-regulation and metacognition working at once

In conclusion (see Figure 2), retrieval practice is a valuable tool for developing metacognitive skills in students. By promoting self-awareness, planning and monitoring, this technique encourages learners to become more effective, independent and strategic in their learning endeavours. As students continually engage in retrieval practice, they not only improve their memory retention but also cultivate the metacognitive skills necessary for lifelong learning success.

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