What is Metacognition?

If you have ever declared you are a “hands- on learner,” or knew that you learn by reading, doing, writing, or discussing with someone, congratulations, you have taken part in metacognitive thinking! Essentially, metacognition is having an awareness of how you learn. It is when someone takes the time to think about how they think.

By taking the time to think about how you learn and then utilizing strategies that are most effective for your learning style, you are setting yourself up for a more successful learning experience than someone who doesn’t use metacognitive skills.

If you are looking to improve your metacognition skills, there are three areas that you can focus on: planning, monitoring, evaluating. (Teal, 2012) For the sake of this article, we will use the activity of researching a new topic as a guide for implementing these three steps.


Metacognitive planning means to identify the task at hand as well as the resources, tools or strategies needed to complete it. One technique is to ask questions to confirm understanding. For example, in order to identify the task at hand, ask yourself, “what exactly does my teacher, manager, coworker or teammate need from me?” Ask for confirmation if you aren’t certain you understand what is being asked. It seems like a simple step, but making sure you understand what is asked of you will save you from wasting time working on unnecessary tasks. Sometimes I employ this question before asking any other questions. Make sure you know your objective.

The next stage of planning is identify what process needs to be completed in order to accomplish the task or similarly what tools are needed to meet an objective. Sometimes this understanding may be immediate. For example, a student proficient at locating information in a textbook will use headings and subheadings to quickly identify information asked of them. Similarly, an HR admin may automatically know which programs to use to pull an employee time report without giving it too much thought. Other times, the process or tools needed to meet an objective are not so apparent.

If you are presented with a new situation and aren’t sure how to proceed, go down the checklist of questions below.

1. Confirm the intended outcome.

2. Identify the best processes and tools needed to accomplish the outcome.

3. If you are having trouble with step 2, solicit assistance from your classmates, coworkers, teacher or managers.

So, if you were tasked with writing a paper – and you never wrote a paper, nor do you know anything about the topic at hand, your first step would be to 1. write down all the questions you have about the topic and 2. write down all the resources you may want to consult in order to find answers to your questions. The list of resources you create may look something like this:

  1. Library -physical or digital
    1. section of library that’s relevant to your paper topic
  2. Websites – usually ones ending in .gov or .org
  3. Peer-Reviewed Journals
  4. Individuals to interview
  5. Associations dedicated the topic.


Monitoring can be challenging step in the metacognition process because one has to objectively record what takes place during the process of completing the task at hand.

As you work through your project, either keep a mental note or actually record the steps you take while completing the project, along with the results of each step. This can be done with journal-style entries or with a form specifically created to record data.

If you have ever participated in the scientific process, this step is exactly the same as recording the results. The only difference is you are the basis of the science project, which can make it difficult if this is the first time you are observing yourself.

It may be helpful to create a data recording sheet, that outlines objective questions and outcomes, prior to commencing the project. This will help keep assessments objective.

In the case of writing a paper, a way to monitor what is working in your research approach would be to record how useful each resource is in answering the questions you have about your topic. You could create an excel spreadsheet, word document or a learning journal that records the outcome of each resource used. The notes you take could be as detailed as you would like, however the more detailed the notes are, the better off you will be when you work on your next paper.


Finally, once your learning project is complete, it is time to review your notes and reflect on the process as a whole. You can evaluate by answering some basic questions, as outlined below, or reflect in a journal-style entry. After reviewing the results of this learning project, you may want to conclude with how you can improve your learning process next time.

1. Were you successful on the first try?

2. Did you understand the task at hand?

3. Did you choose the correct tools/ resources to accomplish your task?

4. Were you partially successful? In other words, if you were to do this project, would you keep some of the strategic steps you used, while changing others.

5. Did you have to change your method or strategy mid-project?

Specifically, as it relates to researching a topic, evaluating the notes taken in the previous step can help guide the next research project. For example, did any resources lead to a dead-end? Did one type of resource prove to be more useful than originally thought? Was interviewing someone more stressful than originally thought? Take the time to review how each resource helped or hindered your research process.

All in all, taking the time to think about how you think will save you time in the future and refine your thought process on future learning projects.

Being conscious about the way you learn is a skill that you will employ each and every time you tackle a new learning project. By consistently honing your skill of learning, you will become a better learner.

But don’t just take my word for it, there are plenty of books out there that explain the learning journey of individuals as well as the mechanics of how learning occurs. Sometimes, when we read how other people worked through their learning journey, it can inspire us to take up our own.

This awesome book teaches children about the pliability of their brain with the focus of maintaining a growth mindset. This book teaches readers what their brain is capable of and tips on how to learn. Hint – it involves asking yourself questions!

If you are ready for a book with a little more substance, with techniques that dive a little further than what the tips in this article provide, this is the book for you. In this book, Saundra Yancy McGuire delves into the tried and true techniques she has used as an educator over the past decade or so. She has an entire chapter dedicated to Metacognition.

If you prefer to read about someone else’s learning journey, “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin is an excellent read. Josh was known the world over as a chess wiz kid and his story was told in the movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” In this book, he details specifically how he was able to learn about chess to become a national champion, and how he applied similar strategies to later study martial arts.

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