Fact Sheet: Metacognitive Processes
Metacognition is one’s ability to use prior knowledge
to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task,
take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and
evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed.
It helps learners choose the right cognitive tool for the
task and plays a critical role in successful learning.
What Is Metacognition?
Metacognition refers to awareness of one’s own knowledge—what one does and doesn’t know—and one’s ability to understand, control, and manipulate one’s cognitive processes (Meichenbaum, 1985). It includes knowing when and where to use particular strategies for learning and problem solving as well as how and why to use specific strategies. Metacognition is the ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed. Flavell (1976), who first used the term, offers the following example: I am engaging in Metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact (p. 232).
Cognitive strategies are the basic mental abilities we use to think, study, and learn (e.g., recalling information from memory, analyzing sounds and images, making associations between or comparing/contrasting different pieces of information, and making inferences or interpreting text). They help an individual achieve a particular goal, such as comprehending text or solving a math problem, and they can be individually identified and measured. In contrast, metacognitive strategies are used to ensure that an overarching learning goal is being or has been reached. Examples of metacognitive activities include planning how to approach a learning task, using appropriate skills and strategies to solve a problem, monitoring one’s own comprehension of text, self-assessing and self-correcting in response to the self-assessment, evaluating progress toward the completion of a task, and becoming aware of distracting stimuli.
Elements of Metacognition
Researchers distinguish between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation (Flavell, 1979, 1987; Schraw & Dennison, 1994). Metacognitive knowledge refers to what individuals know about themselves as cognitive processors, about different approaches that can be used for learning and problem solving, and about the demands of a particular learning task. Metacognitive regulation refers to adjustments individuals make to their processes to help control their learning, such as planning, information management strategies, comprehension monitoring, de-bugging strategies, and evaluation of progress and goals. Flavell (1979) further divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories:
Livingston (1997) provides an example of all three variables: “I know that I (person variable) have difficulty with word problems (task variable), so I will answer the computational problems first and save the word problems for last (strategy variable).”
Why Teach Metacognitive Skills?
Research shows that metacognitive skills can be taught to students to improve their learning (Nietfeld & Shraw, 2002; Thiede, Anderson, & Therriault, 2003).
Constructing understanding requires both cognitive and metacognitive elements. Learners “construct knowledge” using cognitive strategies, and they guide, regulate, and evaluate their learning using metacognitive strategies. It is through this “thinking about thinking,” this use of metacognitive strategies, that real learning occurs. As students become more skilled at using metacognitive strategies, they gain confidence and become more independent as learners.
Individuals with well-developed metacognitive skills can think through a problem or approach a learning task, select appropriate strategies, and make decisions about a course of action to resolve the problem or successfully perform the task. They often think about their own thinking processes, taking time to think about and learn from mistakes or inaccuracies (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995). Some instructional programs encourage students to engage in “metacognitive conversations” with themselves so that they can “talk” with themselves about their learning, the challenges they encounter, and the ways in which they can self-correct and continue learning.
Moreover, individuals who demonstrate a wide variety of metacognitive skills perform better on exams and complete work more efficiently—they use the right tool for the job, and they modify learning strategies as needed, identifying blocks to learning and changing tools or strategies to ensure goal attainment. Because Metacognition plays a critical role in successful learning, it is imperative that instructors help learners develop metacognitively.
What’s the Research?
Metacognitive strategies can be taught (Halpern, 1996), they are associated with successful learning (Borkowski, Carr, & Pressley, 1987). Successful learners have a repertoire of strategies to select from and can transfer them to new settings (Pressley, Borkowski, & Schneider, 1987). Instructors need to set tasks at an appropriate level of difficulty (i.e., challenging enough so that students need to apply metacognitive strategies to monitor success but not so challenging that students become overwhelmed or frustrated), and instructors need to prompt learners to think about what they are doing as they complete these tasks (Biemiller & Meichenbaum, 1992). Instructors should take care not to do the thinking for learners or tell them what to do because this runs the risk of making students experts at seeking help rather than experts at thinking about and directing their own learning. Instead, effective instructors continually prompt learners, asking “What should you do next?”
McKeachie (1988) found that few college instructors explicitly teach strategies for monitoring learning. They assume that students have already learned these strategies in high school. But many have not and are unaware of the metacognitive process and its importance to learning. Rote memorization is the usual—and often the only—learning strategy employed by high school students when they enter college (Nist, 1993). Simpson and Nist (2000), in a review of the literature on strategic learning, emphasize that instructors need to provide explicit instruction on the use of study strategies. The implication for ABE programs is that it is likely that ABE learners need explicit instruction in both cognitive and metacognitive strategies. They need to know that they have choices about the strategies they can employ in different contexts, and they need to monitor their use of and success with these strategies.
Recommended Instructional Strategies
Instructors can encourage ABE learners to become more strategic thinkers by helping them focus on the ways they process information. Self-questioning, reflective journal writing, and discussing their thought processes with other learners are among the ways that teachers can encourage learners to examine and develop their metacognitive processes.
Fogarty (1994) suggests that Metacognition is a process that spans three distinct phases, and that, to be successful thinkers, students must do the following:
Instructors can model the application of questions, and they can prompt learners to ask themselves questions during each phase. They can incorporate into lesson plans opportunities for learners to practice using these questions during learning tasks, as illustratetd in the following examples:
Rather than viewing reading, writing, science, social studies, and math only as subjects or content to be taught, instructors can see them as opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning processes. Examples follow for each content area:
The goal of teaching metacognitive strategies is to help learners become comfortable with these strategies so that they employ them automatically to learning tasks, focusing their attention, deriving meaning, and making adjustments if something goes wrong. They do not think about these skills while performing them but, if asked what they are doing, they can usually accurately describe their metacognitive processes.
Biemiller, A., & Meichenbaum, D. (1992). The nature and nurture of the self-directed learner. Educational Leadership, 50, 75–80.
Borkowski, J., Carr, M., & Pressely, M. (1987). “Spontaneous” strategy use: Perspectives from metacognitive theory. Intelligence, 11, 61–75.
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906–911.
Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–236). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Flavell, J. H. (1987). Speculations about the nature and development of metacognition. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 21–29). Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Fogarty, R. (1994). How to teach for metacognition. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight Publishing.
Halpern, D. F. (1996). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Livingston, J. A. (1997). Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved December 27, 2011 from http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/CEP564/Metacog.htm
McKeachie, W. J. (1988). The need for study strategy training. In C. E. Weinstein, E. T. Goetz, & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Learning and study strategies: Issues in assessment, instruction, and evaluation (pp. 3–9). New York: Academic Press.
Meichenbaum, D. (1985). Teaching thinking: A cognitive-behavioral perspective. In S. F., Chipman, J. W. Segal, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills, Vol. 2: Research and open questions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (1995). Strategic teaching and reading project guidebook. Retrieved December 27, 2011, from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr1metp.htm
Nietfeld, J. L., & Shraw, G. (2002). The effect of knowledge and strategy explanation on monitoring accuracy. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 131–142.
Nist, S. (1993). What the literature says about academic literacy. Georgia Journal of Reading, Fall-Winter, 11–18.
Pressley, M., Borkowski, J. G., & Schneider, W. (1987). Cognitive strategies: Good strategy users coordinate metacognition and knowledge. In R. Vasta, & G. Whitehurst (Eds.), Annals of child development, 4, 80–129. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Schraw, G., & Dennison, R. S. (1994). Assessing metacognitive awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 19, 460–475.
Simpson, M. L., & Nist, S. L. (2000). An update on strategic learning: It’s more than textbook reading strategies. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(6) 528–541.
Thiede, K. W., Anderson, M. C., & Therriault, D. (2003). Accuracy of metacognitive monitoring affects learning of texts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 66–73.
Authors: TEAL Center staff
Reviewed by: David Scanlon, Boston College
About the TEAL Center: The Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) Center is a project of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), designed to improve the quality of teaching in adult education in the content areas.
The Teacher Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) Center is run by the American Institutes for Research and is administered by the Division of Adult Education and Literacy in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education through contract number ED-VAE-09-O-0060