Metacognitive skills

Metacognition refers to learners’ automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes.2 Metacognitive skills are important not only in school, but throughout life. For example, Mumford (1986) says that it is essential that an effective manager be a person who has learned to learn. He describes this person as one who knows the stages in the process of learning and understands his or her own preferred approaches to it – a person who can identify and overcome blocks to learning and can bring learning from off-the-job learning to on-the-job situations.

As you read this section, do not worry about distinguishing between metacognitive skills and some of the other terms in this chapter. Metacognition overlaps heavily with some of these other terms. The terminology simply supplies an additional useful way to look at thought processes.

Metacognition is a relatively new field, and theorists have not yet settled on conventional terminology. However, most metacognitive research falls within the following categories:



  1. Metamemory. This refers to the learners’ awareness of and knowledge about their own memory systems and strategies for using their memories effectively. Metamemory includes (a) awareness of different memory strategies, (b) knowledge of which strategy to use for a particular memory task, and (c) knowledge of how to use a given memory strategy most effectively.

  2. Metacomprehension. This term refers to the learners’ ability to monitor the degree to which they understand information being communicated to them, to recognize failures to comprehend, and to employ repair strategies when failures are identified.

    Learners with poor metacomprehension skills often finish reading passages without even knowing that they have not understood them. On the other hand, learners who are more adept at metacomprehension will check for confusion or inconsistency, and undertake a corrective strategy, such as rereading, relating different parts of the passage to one another, looking for topic sentences or summary paragraphs, or relating the current information to prior knowledge. (See Harris et al., 1988; – add more)

  3. Self-Regulation. This term refers to the learners’ ability to make adjustments in their own learning processes in response to their perception of feedback regarding their current status of learning. The concept of self-regulation overlaps heavily with the preceding two terms; its focus is on the ability of the learners themselves to monitor their own learning (without external stimuli or persuasion) and to maintain the attitudes necessary to invoke and employ these strategies on their own. To learn most effectively, students should not only understand what strategies are available and the purposes these strategies will serve, but also become capable of adequately selecting, employing, monitoring, and evaluating their use of these strategies. (See Hallahan et al., 1979; Graham & Harris, 1992; Reid & Harris, 1989, 1993.) 

In addition to its obvious cognitive components, metacognition often has important affective or personality components. For example, an important part of comprehension is approaching a reading task with the attitude that the topic is important and worth comprehending. Being aware of the importance of a positive attitude and deliberately fostering such an attitude is an example of a metacognitive skill.

In the preceding paragraph, metacognition has been described as a conscious awareness of one’s own knowledge and the conscious ability to understand, control, and manipulate one’s own cognitive processes. This is not quite accurate; but it’s difficult to define metacognition more accurately. (It’s easier to point out examples of metacognitive activity than to define what it is.) It would be more accurate to say that metacognitive strategies are almost always potentially conscious and potentially controllable (Pressley, Borkowski, & Schneider, 1987). For example, good readers automatically (unconsciously) employ metacognitive strategies to focus their attention, to derive meaning, and to make adjustments when something goes wrong. They do not think about or label these skills while performing them; but if we ask them what they were doing that was successful, they can usually describe their metacognitive processes accurately. In addition, when serious problems arise – as when there is a distraction, when they encounter extremely difficult or contradictory text, or when they have to advise someone else regarding the same skill – they slow down and become consciously aware of their metacognitive activity.

While it is occasionally useful to consciously reflect on one’s metacognitive processes and while it useful to make learners aware of these processes while they are trying to acquire them, these skills become most effective when they become overlearned and automatic. If these skills were not automatic and unconscious, they would occupy some of the effort of the working memory; and this would have the result of making reading, listening, and other cognitive activities less efficient. Therefore, like any other skill that becomes automatic and requires minimal activity in the working memory, metacognitive skills work best when they are overlearned and can operate unconsciously.

Learners with good metacognitive skills are able to monitor and direct their own learning processes. Like many other processes, metacognitive skills are learned by applying principles from almost every other chapter in this book. When learning a metacognitive skill, learners typically go through the following steps (Pressley, Borkowski, & Schneider, 1987):

  1. They establish a motivation to learn a metacognitive process. This occurs when either they themselves or someone else points gives them reason to believe that there would be some benefit to knowing how to apply the process. (Motivation is discussed in chapter 5).

  2. They focus their attention on what it is that they or someone else does that is metacognitively useful. This proper focusing of attention puts the necessary information into working memory (Chapter 6). Sometimes this focusing of attention can occur through modeling (Chapter 12), and sometimes it occurs during personal experience.

  3. They talk to themselves about the metacognitive process. This talk can arise during their interactions with others, but it is their talk to themselves that is essential. This self talk serves several purposes:

    • It enables them to understand and encode the process (Chapter 6).
    • It enables them to practice the process (Chapter 3).
    • It enables them to obtain feedback and to make adjustments regarding their effective use of the process (Chapters 3 and 12).
    • It enables them to transfer the process to new situations beyond those in which it has already been used (Chapters 3 and 6).

  4. Eventually, they begin to use the process without even being aware that they are doing so. 


This process usually represents a high-level implementation of the phases of learning and instruction described by Gagne and discussed in Chapter 3 of this book. When teachers intervene to help students develop a metacognitive process, they often use the scaffolded instruction strategies described in chapter 12. In addition, the techniques of cooperative learning and peer tutoring (discussed in Chapter 15) often provide opportunities for students to talk to others about their thought processes; and it is often the process of formulating thoughts in order to express them to others that leads to metacognitive development (Piaget, 1964).

Finally, it is interesting to note an important relationship between the higher order skills of metacognition and the basic or factual skills that may be a part of a specific unit of instruction. Students typically learn metacognitive skills while they are involved in learning something else. If they are to do this successfully, it is extremely important that the learners have overlearned the prerequisite content knowledge for the subject matter topic being studied. If that prerequisite knowledge has not been mastered to a sufficient level of automaticity, then the working memory of the learner will be overwhelmed by the subject matter; and the result will be no time for metacognitive reflection.

For example, when children who have largely mastered the prerequisite skills try to solve a word problem in arithmetic, they can afford to talk to themselves about what they are doing, because their working memory is not totally occupied with other demands. That is, well prepared children will have time for metacognitive practice. On the other hand, when children who are missing some of these prerequisite skills try to solve the same problem, their working memory is likely to be totally occupied with a frantic need to find the basic skills and facts needed to solve the problem. If this is the case, they not only have solved the problem less effectively; but they also have little or no time for practicing or developing metacognitive skills. 

When teachers and parents try to help students, it is important not to do too much thinking for them. By doing their thinking for the children they wish to help, adults or knowledgeable peers may make them experts at seeking help, rather than expert thinkers. On the other hand, by setting tasks at an appropriate level and prompting children to think about what they are doing as they successfully complete these tasks, adults can help children become independent and successful thinkers (Biemiller & Meichenbaum, 1992). In other words, it is often better to say, What should you do next?” and then to prompt the children as necessary, instead of simply telling them what to do.

The preceding paragraph describes how the intellectual rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Knowledge of factual information and basic skills provides a foundation for developing metacognitive skills; and metacognitive skills enable students to master information and solve problems more easily. If teachers hope to help low-performing students break out of their intellectual imprisonment, they must find a way to help them develop both an automatic grasp of basic skills and effective metacognitive skills to enable self-directed learning.

Misconceptions with regard to specific subject matter were discussed in Chapters 4 and 6. Wittrock (1991) notes that learners’ misconceptions about learning-to-learn skills and about metacognitive strategies are also a critical source of learning problems. For example, a student who adheres to a belief that the best way to learn scientific concepts is to repeat the definitions ten times each night before going to bed is not as likely to come to an understanding of these concepts as a person who has a more effective conception of how to master these concepts.

Finally, note that a major purpose of this book is to help you develop your metacognitive skills. In chapter 1 I suggested that you apply various strategies while reading this book. If you have done so, there is a good chance that by now you understand the rationale of many of these principles and can see how they contribute to your own learning. By becoming consciously aware of these strategies and how they work, you will not only be able to use these principles to teach others more effectively, you’ll also be able to use them to monitor and improve your own thought processes. That’s metacognition!



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