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What do teachers understand about metacognition and why does it matter?

Written by: Sarah Dowey
8 min read

Sarah Dowey, PhD researcher, University of York and Principle Development Lead – English Mastery, Ark Curriculum Plus, UK


Since John Flavell’s pioneering research into metacognition and its potential value in helping students learn and understand more efficiently (Flavell, 1979a), there has been an increasing number of studies researching the impact of metacognition and of teachers seeking tangible ways of fostering a metacognitive approach in the classroom. Studies into the impact of metacognition on student attainment have shown promising results (Perry et al., 2018; Motteram et al., 2016; Dignath et al., 2008; Desoete and De Craene, 2019), creating a compelling argument for teachers to adopt a metacognitive approach in their classrooms. Given the potential benefits that adopting a metacognitive approach may offer, it is not surprising that educational leaders and teachers are seeking to develop their own theoretical understanding of the concept and how it could be effectively deployed in the classroom.

What is metacognition?

Although Flavell’s initial research categorised metacognition as 4-part model (metacognitive knowledge; metacognitive experiences; goals; actions), metacognition and the concepts that underpin it are often either over-simplified or deemed too complex (Akturk and Sahin, 2011; Quigley et al., 2018).  The root of the term derives from the Latin, “cognoscere”, meaning getting to know, while the suffix “-tion” denotes the action of the verb (in this case, thinking) and can mean a process of. This may be why the term metacognition is frequently reduced in education to ‘thinking about thinking’. But for teachers wanting to find out more about metacognition this definition is problematic as it assumes that just being cognisant of the thinking process is sufficient, which is not the case. The complexity of metacognition as a concept, coupled with increased pressure and workload on teachers (Higton et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2019; Wood, 2019), risks educators attempting to adopt this approach without fully understanding it. This may generate “lethal mutations” in classrooms, where practice and theory become uncoupled from each other. The EEF’s review of the evidence underpinning cognitive science in the classroom (Perry et al., 2021) cautioned against this uncoupling. Instead, it advised that care should be taken by teachers seeking to utilise cognitive science principles in lessons to undertake a considered and informed approach, which takes into account the context of their students, setting and learning outcomes.

Although metacognition involves a learner’s capacity to examine, control and evaluate their learning (Quigley et al., 2018), the term is also closely allied to the concept of self-regulated learning.  Self-regulation is broadly classified as the ability an individual has to control and adjust what they do, what they think and what they feel (Bakracevic Vukman and Licardo, 2010).  Bandura and Wood’s research into self-regulation (1989) referred to self-regulated learning as the ability to control, regulate and recognise one’s own learning and to work consciously towards a specific goal by monitoring and adjusting the strategies being used to achieve the goal. This definition is similar Flavell’s concept of metacognitive actions, which monitor the cognitive process and play a key role in monitoring understanding.

An individual’s awareness of their thought process is central to the concept of metacognition (Hennessey, 1999; Kuhn and Dean, 2004; Hacker, 1998). This element was also identified in Flavell’s early investigations into metacognition and metamemory, which defined metacognition as ‘one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them’ (Flavell and Resnick, 1976). More precisely, the term metacognition may be defined as a process, which involves recognising, understanding, monitoring and evaluating one’s own thinking (Hacker, 1998). Throughout this process, the learner is not only aware of, but also controls their thinking, in order to complete a task (Hacker, 1998; Hacker et al., 2009; Schraw and Dennison, 1994; Moshman, 2018; Schraw and Moshman, 1995). During the planning stage, a learner might ask themselves: “how do/will I tackle this task?” and when monitoring they may reflect on: “how am I tackling this task and are my chosen strategies working?” Evaluating involves the learner asking themselves: “how successfully did I complete this task?” Finally, during the reflection stage, they will consider: “how will I tackle a similar task next time based on what I have learned from completing this task?”  Throughout this process, the learner is also required to self-regulate to work towards a specific goal and, when monitoring, adjust their chosen strategies, if these are not working.

Metacognition in practice

Teachers’ understanding of metacognition can play a vital role in helping students to understand metacognition and develop a metacognitive approach to their learning. Research in this field indicates that one of the primary factors affecting student understanding of metacognition is teacher understanding of metacognition (Wall and Hall, 2016, Wilson and Bai, 2010, Perry et al., 2018, Branigan and Donaldson, 2020, Calderhead, 1987, Ozturk, 2018). The EEF guidance report (Quigley et al., 2018) indicated that for metacognitive instruction to be successful in increasing student attainment, it needed to be explicitly taught to students, listing both the explicit teaching of metacognition and teachers modelling their thinking to students as two of their seven recommendations for helping schools embed metacognition successfully into students’ learning. The report compared teachers to masters who need to show novice learners how to work through a task and describe their own thought processes in planning and completing the task and also proposed a practical seven-step model that teachers could adapt to explicitly teach metacognitive strategies to students in different year groups and curriculum areas.

As expert learners, teachers are well-placed to share not only their high-level subject knowledge, but also the different cognitive and metacognitive strategies they would use when completing an assessment themselves. Cognitive strategies are the methods that students use to help them to acquire new knowledge and undertake learning tasks. In contrast, metacognitive strategies are those used to facilitate the metacognitive process, such as self-questioning to reflect on how well new information is being learned and if the chosen cognitive strategy is working effectively. The EEF’s Guidance Report (2018) recommended that teachers should teach both categories of strategy in the classroom so that students know how to learn effectively as well as what to learn. Furthermore, it advocated for teachers to explicitly demonstrate how to use these strategies by verbalising and explaining their own thinking when modelling how to approach task. In doing so, they pass on their expertise as learners so that novice learners can better understand and develop how to use cognitive and metacognitive strategies in their own learning. In addition to helping students develop the characteristics of expert learners, this approach helps to demystify the learning process so that learners know exactly what they need to do to be successful in an academic task.

The complexity of understanding and applying the metacognitive process in the classroom  was  posited as one of the possible reasons for the lack of progress made by students in the recent ReflectED trial (Gascoine et al., 2022). Following the efficacy trial, an extended ReflectED randomised controlled trial (RCT) was run between February 2018 and July 2019 with 112 participating schools (Gascoine et al., 2022). However, despite other studies into metacognition, including the ReflectED efficacy trial (Motteram et al., 2016), suggesting promising results in increasing student attainment, generally students receiving the intervention made no additional progress compared to those not receiving the intervention. The evaluation report hypothesised that the lack of student progress may be in part impacted by both the difficulties in establishing a theoretical consensus in how to define metacognition, as a complex concept, and the challenges of translating this complexity into classroom practice. Participant responses in pre-randomised surveys found that 82 per cent of control group teachers and 75 per cent of intervention teachers either agreed strongly, or somewhat agreed that metacognition was an important concept in their classroom and teaching. This belief was strengthened, post-intervention, to 94 per cent of teachers in the intervention group; however, it declined to 68 per cent in control group teachers, perhaps demonstrating that, despite the lack of progress made by students, the intervention increased teacher understanding of how it could be applied in the classroom. A thematic analysis conducted using participant responses found two dichotomous strands in relation to teacher understanding of metacognition. Some teachers frequently stated that metacognition was new to them and they had either had no formal training in it, or were unsure how to define metacognition or what metacognitive practice looked like in the classroom. In contrast, other teachers offered accurate definitions of the term and could identify specific strategies used in their classrooms and their schools to develop this approach.

The role of teachers

The role that teachers play in helping students articulate and develop their thought processes was explored in a study by Branigan and Donaldson (2020), investigating how Structured Thinking Activities (STAs) supported students to think using the metacognitive process. Structured Thinking Activities are designed to help students reflect on their own thinking and include resources, such as learning journals and logs. The study tracked a class of primary pupils as they were introduced to STAs and monitored the way they were used throughout the academic year. Although students generally appeared unenthusiastic about engaging with their learning journals and metacognitive reflection  recorded in journals  was often superficial, Branigan and Donaldson theorised that this may because the pupils (aged between 7-8) had not begun to learn metacognitive language. Despite this, they observed that the class teacher conducting the intervention was able to support students to think using the metacognitive process modelling examples for students and explicitly explaining their thought processes. They concluded that while teachers should offer students opportunities to consider and regulate their own thinking, the explicit modelling of how to do this by teachers was fundamental in facilitating students to be able to do this. If this is the case, it suggests that verbalised, or live, teacher modelling of the metacognitive process by teachers can be effective  in helping students utilise the metacognitive process in their own learning. Consequently, it appears vital that teachers not only have a theoretical understanding of metacognition, if they wish to adopt a metacognitive approach in the classroom, they also require  clear guidance so they know both that they need to do this and how to do it.

Teacher understanding of metacognition matters. A clear educational understanding of the concept and how to adopt in the classroom not only impacts student understanding of the concept and how to use it to benefit their learning, it also reduces the possibility of lethal mutations in the classroom. Despite this, there currently remains  little research conducted into how much teachers in the UK know about metacognition and the factors that may influence this, such as targeted metacognition training and the length of time in service. Given the potential impact teacher understanding of metacognition can have on teaching students to develop their metacognitive skills, more research into the impact of targeted professional development in this area would be of benefit.


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