That’s so Meta (cognitive)!

Metacognition is one of those terms thrown around education circles like tryptophan during Thanksgiving. It sounds good, and makes us seem smart, but we aren’t really sure what’s happening below the surface.

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to understand something is to compare it with something it’s not. Turkey is NOT chicken. Hitting the snooze button is NOT getting out of bed. Metacognition is NOT cognition.

Cognition is the way we organize and store new information. It’s how we think and process information.

Metacognition looks at how well we understand and can control these processes. 

Screenshot from the Good Thinking episode, That's so Meta(cognitive)!

John Flavell (1976), who first proposed the idea of metacognition along with Ann Brown, summarized the process below:

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 a fact;
  • If it occurs to me that I had better scrutinize each and every alternative in any multiple-choice type task situation before deciding which is the best one;
  • If I become aware that I am not sure what the experimenter really wants me to do;
  • If I sense that I had better make a note of D because I may forget it;
  • If I think to ask someone about E to see if I have it right.

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. (1976, p. 232)

Here are the three main implications for the classroom teacher:

Metacognition is a path to conceptual knowledge. All knowledge is not equal. Definitions and facts are examples of declarative knowledge (Chi, 2005). Think of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. Knowing how to do something with this knowledge, like drive a car or open an email attachment, is an example of procedural knowledge. Think of a driving test.

Conceptual knowledge puts it all together. It is the gold standard in education; it’s why we teach.

Screenshot from the Good Thinking episode, That's so Meta(cognitive)!

Understanding the interrelationships between definitions, concepts, and facts is conceptual knowledge (Graesser et al., 2005). We want our students to be creative with what they have learned and apply it to new situations.

Metacognitive strategies are methods or techniques used to help learners understand and control the ways they learn. These strategies help learners of all ages acquire, retain, and transfer new knowledge.  By asking students to articulate how they solved a problem or share why one study skill seemed to “work” for them, teachers make learning more meaningful. Metacognitive strategies also enhance content acquisition and motivate students to become active participants in their own learning processes (Zimmerman, 2000). If you want students to develop conceptual knowledge, incorporate a few metacognitive strategies into your instruction.

Metacognition develops over time. Flavell (1976) found that when you introduce a less effective strategy for memorizing two sets of nouns (repeating the words out loud) and a more effective strategy (imagining the two words doing something together), ten-year-olds are more likely than seven-year-olds to use the more effective learning method.  Without proper support, younger children just pick a strategy and go through the motions. Older children tend to be more reflective and strategic.

Metacognition can be taught. Arguably, the most important implication for classroom teachers is the idea that metacognitive skills and behaviors can be taught. With proper modeling, scaffolding, and practice, all students can improve their metacognitive skills.

For example, Ornstein, Grammer, and Coffman (2010) conducted a study that revealed the value of providing memory strategies and metacognitive feedback to students in lower elementary school. The memory strategies consisted of prompts such as, “to help you remember which number is in the tens place, write a T above it, and to help you remember which number is in the ones place, write an O above it.”  The metacognitive feedback asked students to describe how they solved certain problems or why select strategies worked for them. These strategies were reinforced, and nearly three years later these students were more likely to demonstrate these skills and behaviors compared to their peers.

So what?

The strategies that yield results are those where “students reach the state where they become their own teachers, they can seek out optimal ways to learn new material and ideas, they can seek resources to help them in this learning, and when they can set appropriate and more challenging goals. Students need to be involved in determining success criteria, setting higher expectations, and being open to experiences relating to different ways of knowing and problem solving” (Hattie, 2009).

How can you help your students become more metacognitive?

  • “Think aloud” while you walk them through a problem
  • Model coping strategies, make mistakes, and show them how you persevere in the face of adversity
  • Ask them to discuss how they approach problems
  • Develop concept mapping
  • Create reminder checklists
  • Engage in self-questioning
  • Generate annotated drawings
  • Participate in reciprocal teaching


Watch our Good Thinking! video: Thats so Meta(cognitive)!



  • Chi, M.T.H. (2005). Commonsense conceptions of emergent processes: Why some misconceptions are robust. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(2), 161–199.
  • Flavell, J.H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Graesser, A.C., McNamara, D.S., & VanLehn, K. (2005). Scaffolding deep comprehension strategies through Point & Query, AutoTutor, and iStart. Educational Psychologist, 40(4), 225–234.
  • Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Ornstein, P.A., Grammer, J.K., & Coffman, J.L. (2010). Teachers’ “mnemonic style” and the development of skilled memory. In H. S. Waters & W. Schneider (Eds.), Metacognition, strategy use, and instruction (pp. 23–53). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts et al. (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13–39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


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About the Author

Brian Mandell, PhD
Division Director of Curriculum, Digital Media, & Communications



Brian Mandell, PhD, is the Division Director of Curriculum and Communications for the SSEC. In this role, he provides support and direction for the talented Curriculum and Communication staff in the development of world-class print and digital curricular resources. This work includes our new curriculum, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom, which embeds objects and research from the Smithsonian Institution, is built to current science standards, asks students to design solutions to real-world problems, provides research-based support for common student misconceptions, and seamlessly integrates print and digital resources.

Brian joined the SSEC in 2014 as a Science Curriculum Developer, where he was responsible for developing print and digital curricular materials that were grounded in current scientific, educational and cognitive research, empowered teachers, and helped all students develop a deep understanding of science and engineering practices.

Prior to joining SSEC, Brian taught middle school science for 13 years in Virginia and Maine. In his free time, he is an adjunct professor at George Mason University teaching classes that focus on curriculum and instruction, learning theory, and instructional design. Brian earned his PhD in Educational Psychology with a secondary emphasis in Instructional Design from George Mason University in 2013. Brian also has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from the University of Delaware and a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Southern Maine.