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This lesson will define and explain in detail what metacognitive strategies are and how they can be used in the classroom to help deepen students’ thinking about content and develop students who are ready and willing to tackle new content.

Metacognition Defined

The simplest definition of metacognition is thinking about your thinking. A more complex definition that is widely cited within educational literature is an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the ability to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation and to do so efficiently and reliably. This definition was originally written by Shawn Taylor in the book Better Learning Through Better Thinking. In simpler terms, this means that metacognition is being aware of what you know and don’t know, understanding what you will need to know for a certain task and having an idea of how to use your current skills to learn what you don’t know.

What Are Metacognitive Strategies?

The definition above is a mouthful, which makes it seem like a difficult concept, but we as adults use metacognitive strategies all the time to succeed at tasks in our personal and professional lives. Imagine that you are a graduate student who needs to write a dissertation. You already have years of experience in academic writing and know how to cite sources, find research and write it up.

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But the format of the dissertation is different from the work you have previously done, and it’s a daunting task because it’s such a long paper. On the first day of your dissertation seminar class, you have a million questions for the professor. This is a perfect example of you using metacognitive strategies!First, you have already considered what you know how to do and acknowledged that you have some experience with similar tasks. Second, it’s clear in your head how you will apply your current knowledge to this new situation – the Works Cited page will be a breeze, you know which research search engines yield the best results, you know how to break big projects into manageable chunks and to create a timeline for this work. Third, you know how to fill in the blanks and where to turn to get the information you’re lacking. Thanks to your metacognitive strategies at work here, you have everything you need to get started and to troubleshoot when problems arise during the process.

This is how teachers want students to approach new learning, with students feeling empowered and not overwhelmed, armed with a toolbox of strategies that help them tackle new learning and easily make connections to what they already know. Because these strategies do not come naturally to a lot of students, we must explicitly teach them, and research shows it makes a big difference in their performance.

From Struggling Students to Expert Learners

Successful students use metacognitive strategies throughout a task and actually start thinking before they start the task itself. These four quadrants represent categories of metacognitive strategies that successful students and adults employ throughout their daily work:


Lesson Planning with Metacognition in Mind

One of the most effective ways to teach metacognitive strategies is the think-aloud strategy. This involves a teacher talking the class through her thinking as she tackles a task, like a piece of text with new vocabulary or a new math concept. She models her thinking for the class during the entire task, so students can model their own self-questioning on hers.

After modeling this a few times, teachers can prompt the class to explain their thinking when answering questions.Below is a list of metacognitive strategies that can easily be introduced into any lesson, based on the work of Kim Austin, Melissa Cheung, Linda Darling-Hammond and Daisy Martin:

  • Predicting outcomes – helps students understand which strategies would be appropriate
  • Evaluating work – recognizing strengths and weaknesses of their work helps students to improve
  • Questioning by the teacher – teacher prompts student thinking about their task and how they’re doing
  • Self-assessing – students think about how well they did learning this particular lesson
  • Self-questioning – students ask themselves questions to deepen their understanding during a lesson
  • Selecting strategies – students determine which strategies would be most appropriate for a task
  • Selective thinking – students follow only one determined line of thinking to solve a problem
  • Critiquing – students provide constructive feedback to classmates
  • Revising – students improve their own work after receiving constructive feedback

This list includes many items that skilled teachers do naturally on a daily basis. What metacognition research adds to the conversation about student success is an emphasis on the fact that teachers must show – not just tell – students how to perform these tasks. They need to see them modeled.

Students need to practice them in a variety of situations and until they can access these strategies on their own.

Lesson Summary

Students enter a school building with all manner of differences: experience, intelligence and background knowledge, just to name a few. Teaching metacognitive strategies is one way to even the playing field, giving all students access to the helpful and effective steps that successful students – and people in general – go through when faced with new tasks. By showing them how to think about their thinking, teachers change the dialogue in the students’ heads into a constructive, empowered and problem-solving mindset, and this is reflected in their increased success at school.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define metacognition
  • Describe metacognitive strategies
  • Explain how teaching metacognitive strategies in the classroom promotes success

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