Using metacognitive strategies in the classroom
Traditional classrooms are often associated with students passively receiving information from their teacher.
While this sometimes has a place, in the modern classroom most educators would argue that great teaching and learning forces the student into a more active role. After all, this not only helps to boost engagement, motivation and performance but limits some of those pesky behavioural issues as well.
As a high impact teaching strategy, metacognition is a great tool for helping students think about their learning and develop a deeper awareness and understanding of the learning process (Victorian Government, 2021).
In this article, we look at what metacognition is, how it can positively impact students, and suggest some simple tips for how to incorporate it into your daily classroom practice.
What are metacognitive strategies?
The word itself sounds unnerving, however, metacognitive strategies are used every day in a whole host of different scenarios.
By definition “metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning” (Livingston, 2003).
Some examples of metacognitive activities that learners do daily include planning how to tackle a project, or checking for understanding while reading (Livingston, 2003). While it can often be simply defined as “thinking about thinking” we shouldn’t underestimate its impact in the classroom.
Livingston discusses John Flavell’s (1979) work on metacognition and argues that it is a combination of both metacognitive knowledge and experiences. What does this mean for educators?
First, it’s important to understand that students have varying levels of metacognitive knowledge which exists in three parts:
- Knowledge of person variables which is general information about how students learn and digest information.
- Knowledge of task variables which is information about the type of task students may be required to undertake.
- Knowledge of strategy which is information about how to process and approach learning (Livingston, 2003).
In addition to this, students need metacognitive regulation. It would be no use to arm students with strategies and then not teach them how to decide if they’re successful or not (Livingston, 2003).
With this in mind, educators need to make sure students have the ability to check in and determine if their learning goal has been achieved, or if further steps need to be taken.
Benefits of metacognitive strategies
Metacognition and performance
Let’s start with academic achievement.
The Australian Teaching and Learning Toolkit (2021) reports that metacognition and self-regulation strategies have an incredibly high impact on student achievement. They suggest that when used appropriately an additional seven months of progress can be added to a student's overall achievement, in comparison to other students not using this strategy over one year (Evidence for learning, 2021).
Baliram and Ellis (2019) also found that there was a moderate impact on student achievement in mathematics when using metacognitive strategies, which could be of interest to those subjects which involve calculation-based tasks.
In terms of the broader high-impact teaching strategy body of evidence, Hattie (2009) found that it had an effect size of 0.69. Meaning that the results of the average learner in the test group were 0.69 standard deviations higher than the average learning in the control group (Balow, 2017).
This is because it helps students develop an awareness of their learning, and therefore helps to sustain and drive their willingness to continue seeking understanding and new knowledge.
There is also a large amount of evidence on the impact metacognition has on reading comprehension. Literacy ability has a profound effect on human lives and can impact how individuals post-school approach work, relationships, daily life and further education (Australian Government, 2022).
Currently, 44% of Australian adults only read at a literacy level of 1 or 2, which is very low, with only 15% reading to a level of 4 or 5 which is the highest level possible (Australian Government, 2022).
When it comes to our students it doesn’t look any better. The latest Programme for International Student Assessment data from 2018 looked at 14,000 students and found that around 20% of 15-year-olds were illiterate, with approximately 40% of Australian students not being able to read at the necessary level to engage effectively and productively in general life (OCED, 2018).
So where does metacognition fit into all of this? Mohseni et al. (2020) found that students that were armed with metacognitive training had significant improvements in general reading, understanding of argumentative texts, and further improvement with cause and effect.
In addition, the Canadian Center of Science and Education (2018) found that the use of these strategies helped improve the writing performance of students, which is another component of developing sound literacy skills in students.
What does this mean for educators? Well, we know that literacy is a huge issue for our students and that all teachers need to be addressing it within their key learning areas. So if including metacognitive strategies helps not only on a classroom content level but also to improve literacy skills, it seems like an easy yet impactful win.
Motivation and engagement
It’s also worth discussing that as educators empower students with metacognitive tools they can gain more control over their learning. This can lead to improved self-regulation, increased motivation, and more independent learners. Learners with a strong sense of agency typically work more effectively and have higher levels of focus, more interest, resilience, improved concentration levels and therefore also greater academic outcomes (Victorian Government, 2022).
This has been corroborated in many studies, including Sarraf and Biswal’s Impact of Metacognitive Strategies on Self-Regulated Learning and Intrinsic Motivation (2020) work which showed that metacognitive strategies had a significant impact on both self-regulated learning and intrinsic motivation.
Teachers often report that asking students to be engaged and motivated about learning can be like drawing blood from a stone. So rather than focusing on ways to engage students, switching the focus to helping them develop some metacognitive strategies might mean that engagement and interest follows without effort.
Metacognitive strategies in the classroom
Here are some ways to incorporate and teach students how to use metacognitive strategies in the classroom.
“Do your best.” It is a phrase we've all heard before. And while that may work for some students, setting challenging goals is a far superior way to motivate and engage students, meaning they are more likely to achieve their highest potential (Victorian Government, 2022).
By helping students create their own learning goals they can monitor their progress and assess for areas of weakness and strength. This helps students learn accountability and stimulates intrinsic motivation. SMART goals help students set an intention that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (Victorian Government, 2022).
Be sure to also create space in your learning environment for students to reflect on their goals, so that they are not created in isolation.
Creating a goal along with your students is not only a great way to model the skill but also helps to build rapport between educators and their learners.
Providing students with some insight into what your goals are for the class and how you would like to achieve them can help build relationships, particularly at the beginning of the year.
As a bonus, not reaching your goal is never a bad thing as you can model great reflective skills and teach students how to re-adjust expectations!
Here's a handy SMART Goals worksheet we've created to help save you time.
It sounds simple, but giving students time to reflect both before, during and after work will help you incorporate metacognition into the classroom. By allowing students to take time before a task to plan out their course of action, during a task to reflect on the learning intentions and success criteria, and after a task to look at potential areas for growth, you may find that you end up with better products and learning outcomes.
It’s important to explicitly teach these skills at first so that students are tackling the activity from the right perspective, but over time they will normalise these techniques and take control moving forward with other tasks (Victorian Government, 2021).
It can also be very useful to provide reflective time after a content-heavy session. This allows students time to think about what they’ve just learnt, formulate any questions, seek clarification, and link ideas together. Simple ways to do this are by asking students to create a mind map of key terms from the lesson. Or use pictures and diagrams to summarise new content rather than regurgitating notes.
Sometimes educators can forget that learning is a process and that this process takes time. We often give students instructions for a task, say start, and off they go.
However, if we pause and verbalise our thinking process to students, not only are we arming them with more information on how to successfully meet the learning intentions and success criteria, but we’re more than likely going to receive a better academic outcome as a result.
Before, during and after a task teachers can model their thinking by talking through the thought processes used to plan, reflect and solve problems (Victorian Government, 2021). Educators may also find they need to do this less and less as students become more skilled in approaching different types of tasks.
To start using this, simply pause a task mid-way and use student work to model mark in front of the whole class, identifying areas of weakness and strength against the success criteria. Here, students can follow along and assess their work, making the relevant changes before submission. Another win here would be to tackle mistakes early, meaning fewer additional corrections and marking for teachers.
Introducing learning journals
If you’re finding time is an issue you might like to introduce your class to learning journals.
These journals help students develop an awareness of their progress and improve their planning abilities. In their journals, you may ask students to reflect on a set of questions weekly and submit either a hard copy or on an online forum (such as a blog) which allows other students to also see, view and comment.
Questions could include:
- What did I love learning this week?
- What was the easiest concept for me to understand and why?
- What did I find most challenging and why?
- What strategies did I use this week, which ones worked well and why?
- What am I proud of this week?
- What could I improve on for next week?
- What is my SMART goal for next week? (Sword, 2021)
These are great at-home tasks and can be used in addition to, or instead of, homework.
While teachers may be primarily focused on teaching their classroom content, they also care about preparing students to leave the classroom and become a successful and happy member of society.
While these strategies and skills will assist in the acquisition of knowledge, they'll also help develop students' self-awareness and self-regulation, which will serve them well beyond the classroom. Starting small and consistently is key to ensuring this high impact teaching strategy does its job.
We suggest selecting one idea that would work for both you and your students and using it weekly, before building it up into almost every class. You might like to use that as your first SMART goal and share it with your students, so they get some insight into why you’re including some new activities in your classroom.
Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?
Discover the ultimate guide to HITS—an exploration of ten high impact teaching strategies, condensed into short chapters and paired with practical tips, tricks and templates to embed into your teaching instruction.
Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.
The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government
The Department of Education and Training, 2021, HITS: Using metacognitive strategies, Victorian Government
The Department of Education and Training, 2021, Teacher tip: Use metacognitive strategies to empower your students, Victorian Government
Livingston, J, 2003, Metacognition: An Overview, US Department of Education
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, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Evidence for learning, 2021, Metacognition and self-regulation, Australian Teaching and Learning Toolkit
Baliram, N and Ellis, A, 2019, The impact of metacognitive practice and teacher feedback on academic achievement in mathematics, School of science and mathematics
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning, Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Australian Government, 2022, Literacy and access, Style Manual
OCED, 2018, PISA 2018 results, Programme for International Student Assessment
Mohseni, F, Seifoori, Z and Ahangari, S, 2020, The impact of metacognitive strategy training and critical thinking awareness-raising on reading comprehension, Cogent Education
Al-Jarrah, T, Mansor, N and Rashid, R, 2018, The Impact of Metacognitive Strategies on Jordanian EFL Learners’ Writing Performance, Canadian Center of Science and Education
Sarraf, S, Tripathi, M. and Biswal, R, 2020, Impact of Metacognitive Strategies on Self-Regulated Learning and Intrinsic Motivation, Journal of Psychological Research
The Department of Education and Training, 2022, Using metacognitive strategies to support student self-regulation and empowerment, Victorian Government