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Don't just think outside the box, think about the box: Unlock the magic of metacognition

Have you noticed your student struggling with setting goals, self-correcting their work, or reflecting on their understanding?

Do they say “I understand,” but cannot show or explain their knowledge? If so, your student may struggle with metacognition.

Put simply, metacognition is thinking about your thinking, or intentional thinking about how you think and learn. Essentially, it is how you monitor, plan, and assess your understanding.

Metacognition is a type of self awareness or self-regulation. It is an executive function skill that can be directly taught and developed.

In this article, we will teach you about metacognition, why it is important, and how you can help your students develop these mental processes so they feel empowered and confident when facing any challenge.

This is a colorful drawing of a person with gears for her brain, with the message "Metacognition: Intentional thinking about how you think and learn""
Metacognition: Intentional Thinking About How You Think And Learn

Table of Contents:

What is metacognition and why is it important?

Metacognitive knowledge refers to the mental process involving awareness of thoughts and how one learns.

It is the understanding of strengths and weaknesses and one's own learning abilities.

When you gain this knowledge, you can also begin to identify cognitive strategies needed to improve your weaknesses.

This knowledge can be applied in the classroom or even in social scenarios.

Imagine if you struggled with remembering people's names. You might notice feelings of hurt or annoyance, especially if you have met them more than once.

This is an image of a person with a sticky note on his brain reminding him "don't forget"

These awkward moments might be motivating enough to begin making a plan to address the issue.

You might change your behavior by:

  • Focusing your attention on what they're saying and repeating the name in your brain

  • Writing their name down in your phone to visualize spelling

  • Saying their name aloud three times after walking away (but not so loud that they hear you 😂)

If you don't realize you have this weakness, or cannot identify tools, this challenge will continue to be a problem.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. -Albert Einstein

By noticing the issue and honing in on specific strategies and tools that can develop the metacognitive process, you will be able to solve problems as they come, rather than feeling shame or annoyance at your struggles.

Why are metacognitive skills important?

Metacognitive knowledge helps students to accurately judge their level of learning and make realistic estimates about their present abilities.

Individuals with well-developed metacognitive skills can:

  • Think through a problem or approach a learning task

  • Select appropriate strategies

  • Make decisions about a course of action to resolve the problem or successfully perform the task

Another term that may be used to describe metacognitive regulation is self-efficacy. Having confidence in your own thinking and abilities determines the actions needed for positive learning outcomes.

Students who believe they are capable to learn and to do their academic tasks are more effective in adopting meta-cognitive strategies than students who do not maintain such optimistic beliefs.

Students who develop these cognitive strategies tend to be more independent learners and have better school outcomes.

In fact, John Hattie, the author of the Ranking list of 256 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement, found that "self-efficacy" had an effective size of .92, meaning that when this ability was well-developed in students, it could account for being more than two years ahead of their peers.

Image of different effect sizes from the research study done by John Hattie with a green arrow focused on self-efficacy
What effect size does self-efficacy have on student achievement?

You can learn more about this research and other ground-breaking studies related to executive function skills by reading the article, What is the science behind executive function?

Strategies that target students’ metacognition—the ability to think about thinking—can close a gap that some students experience between how prepared they feel for a test and how prepared they actually are.

When does metacognition develop?

Do you remember when your child began saying "I don't know?" when you would ask a question?

A typical 2-3 year old begins exhibiting metacognitive development as they recognize what they do and do not know.

Children under the age of 12 are encouraged to use these cognitive processes at home and school, but metacognition research shows that the height of metacognitive learning occurs from the ages of 12-15.

So what happens around the age of 12?

Particular strategies are used during the adolescent years to bring awareness of metacognitive control to increase successful learning of new and more challenging concepts.

These include:

  • Negotiating deadlines and feedback from a range of teachers, adults, coaches

  • Navigating more complex peer dynamics that require a higher level of self-awareness

  • Increased awareness of gender norms and social roles that must be evaluated and acted upon

These things can be helpful and harmful, causing increased self-awareness and reflection in many students, but also spiking anxiety and in turn, self-soothing or self-destructive behaviors.

What are the main metacognitive skills?

Students who exhibit strong metacognitive processes have the following skills:

  • Planning

  • Questioning

  • Mental scripting

  • Positive thinking

  • Self-monitoring

  • Problem solving

Metacognitive skills can be organized as follows:

Metacognitive Skills

Understanding the Problem

Identifying the problem and verbally or visually explaining it.


Thinking about what you need to learn and what prior knowledge you have. Deciding what your focus should be, and how much time is needed to learn it.


Asking questions during the learning process. Acknowledging how well you're retaining information and identifying if more help is needed.


Reflecting on your ability to learn and if knowledge can be used in other ways. Identifying weak areas and deciding if more work is needed. Recognizing what could be done differently next time.


Using skills and new understanding with different and new problems or situations.

Is metacognitive thinking impacted by ADHD?

Many students with ADHD struggle with metacognition as it involves higher order thinking strategies that are difficult to teach. Students with ADHD often lack self-awareness and are not self-regulated learners.

Lack of confidence or self-efficacy limits their independence in the learning process. Students with ADHD often need more time and effort to develop their self-concept and metacognition skills.

For students with ADHD, sometimes mental health struggles and negativity in their own thinking needs to be addressed before they can exhibit successful metacognitive regulation.

What are the top metacognitive strategies?

Metacognitive strategies help student learning. Metacognitive strategies can be taught or students can gain them through everyday experiences.

By empowering students to increase their metacognitive skills, they become their own teacher and capable of learning almost anything.

Metacognitive skills are the ultimate in transferable skills – they can be used in any subject, career or workplace.

The metacognitive process can be visualized as a cycle:

This is an an image with a cycle of pictures describing the process of metacognition: assess the task, evaluate strengths and weaknesses, plan the approach, apply strategies and reflect.
Metacognition cycle

Here are some particular strategies that can help student learning for both parents and teachers:

  1. Provide students with a list of simple questions they can ask themselves throughout a task to make sure they can self-monitor and stay on track.

  2. When using explicit instruction, focus on learning strategies that activate prior knowledge, introduce new knowledge and skills, model their application, and provide ample opportunity for independent practice and reflection.

  3. Encourage learners to plan, monitor, and evaluate their work during the learning process. Explicitly teaching skills in these areas, and structuring work around these steps. This will give students the opportunity to gradually internalize these techniques and use them when learning.

  4. Create rubrics and teach students how to use them.

  5. Help with their cognitive monitoring by having them set individual learning goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.

  6. Verbalize the thought processes used to consider, analyze and solve problems. This may be as simple as doing a 'think aloud' where you model the thinking processes you used to solve a problem or accomplish a task.

This is a yellow and red image with a picture of a brain and 5 strategies for teaching metacognition
Strategies for teaching metacognition

How can you encourage metacognitive practices during independent learning?

In order to introduce metacognition, you can start with talking about its benefits. The essence of metacognition is to teach students how to learn when the teacher is not around.

People who think about their thinking can control their own learning processes by:

  • Reflecting

  • Self-regulating

  • Creating new strategies for problem solving

  • Developing new study skills

Prompt learners to think of a time when they had to reflect on an approach they were doing and develop specific strategies to overcome a challenge.

Situations might include:

  • Failing the drivers exam

  • Not getting into a high school or college they applied for

  • Getting in argument with a close friend that was not easily resolved

Ask them, how did you use this challenge to improve your own learning process and find success?

Metacognitive awareness can also be developed through small group activities. Conversing with and hearing from others while problem solving can stimulate independent cognitive and learning processes.

Students that exhibit metacognitive skills in the classroom are able to recognize when they do not understand something and will find strategies to fill in the gaps of their learning.

These learning strategies can be explicitly taught and developed by teaching metacognition.

Next steps

Talk to your child's teacher about the metacognitive skills they are exhibiting in comparison to his or her peers. Utilize our free resources to support your child at home. Click here to access our printable worksheets for reflection during and after learning.

Do you feel your student still needs improvement in metacognition but you simply don't have the time or ability to address it? An executive function coach may be a great next step!

Check out our article: Executive Function Coaching -The definitive guide, and sign up for executive function coaching to make sure you get the help you need.

Further Reading

About the Authors

Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She completed her masters degree in Education with an emphasis on educational therapy to support students with executive functioning deficits. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides support to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.

Kathy Balboa is an executive function specialist at EFS. She has worked in education for over 20 years in different capacities such as curriculum design, teaching, test design, proctoring, test scoring for the college board, and as a reading coach. She have two masters degrees: one in Educational Leadership and one in Reading. She believes that one never should stop learning and that everyone has something to offer.


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