Activate your students’ metacognitive skills

Thomas Courtley, ex teacher and LessonUp education specialist

Thomas Courtley

Education Specialist

Cover image blog Activate your students’ metacognition

Metacognition is related to self-awareness. It is the process of thinking about one's own thinking and learning. It comprises the self-regulating processes involved when we plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes. It helps us become more self-regulating, independent and successful.

What does metacognition mean for students?

For students, having metacognitive skills means they are able to recognise their abilities, direct their own learning, understand what causes their successes or failures, and learn new strategies. You can guide them towards learning how they can learn at their best, what works for them, and what needs to change for them to perform better. 

For practical reasons, metacognition can be divided in two distinct dimensions: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.


Metacognitive knowledge

Metacognitive knowledge indicates what learners know about learning:

  • Students’ awareness of their own cognitive abilities 👉 ’I have difficulty purely memorising capital or river names in geography’, or ‘I am really good at writing an essay, but I am not so skilled at summarising or quoting.’

  • Students’ knowledge of particular tasks 👉 ‘The concepts in the chapter we are reading are complex and difficult to apply”, or ‘This paragraph is unclear.’

  • Students’ awareness of appropriate strategies they can apply to the task 👉 ‘I will scan this chapter and add questions to the parts I don’t understand. Then I will ask my teacher to help answer my questions, or provide other resources.’


Metacognitive regulation

Metacognitive regulation indicates what learners do about their learning. 

It describes how learners monitor and control their learning process. If a student notices that a particular strategy is not working for her, for example, she could independently (or with your support) decide to try out a different learning strategy. 

The cycle of metacognitive regulation can be divided into 3 interconnected phases, with 'reflection' always at the centre. Each phase requires students to work on distinct areas of self-awareness and self-regulation. This might not come automatically: there is a lot you can do to help them become self-aware, and gradually more in control of their learning.

Phase 1: planning


What is it?

During this phase, students think about the learning objective set by their teacher, how to approach the given tasks, and about which strategies they are going to use.  

At this stage, it is helpful for learners to ask themselves targeted questions: 

  1. What am I being asked to do?
  2. Which strategies should I use?
  3. Are there strategies that I have used before that might be useful?

How can you help as their teacher? 

As their teacher, you can support students by reminding them to take some time to think about planning their approach to a new chapter, topic, or learning objective. In order to do so, remind them of the 3 questions here above by writing them on a digital board, or on a simple whiteboard. You might want to ask students to write them down too.

If you use LessonUp, you could start your lesson with 3 digital open-ended questions that your students could reply to in the privacy of their digital learning environment. You could decide to keep their answers to yourself, share them with the rest of the class or among smaller groups, and give students specific feedback in person or via LessonUp.

You could decide to put the ‘what am I being asked to do?’ question at the centre of a mind map, and ask your students to answer it in their own words. Once every one has answered you could discuss the responses together, give comments and suggestions, and group answers in different categories. In LessonUp, you can do so by dragging and dropping them with your touchpad or mouse. Make sure your students fully understand the learning objective before they start thinking of strategies to help them achieve it.

Phase 2: monitoring


What is it?

During this phase, students implement their strategy plan and self-monitor their progress towards achieving ‘their’ learning goal. Thanks to metacognition your learning objective becomes also their learning goal, towards which you are all working together.

Some learners might decide to make changes to the strategies they are using, if they notice that these are not working for them. As students work through all the tasks, it helps to ask themselves: 

  1. Is the strategy that I am using working?
  2. Do I need to try something different?
  3. What should I do next?

How can you help as their teacher? 

Support your students and help them understand if the strategy they are using is working. For example, before learners begin a new task, encourage them to identify where the task might go wrong, and how they could prevent this from happening. If you are using LessonUp, a digital open-ended question or mind-map are the perfect ways to remind students to take some time to formulate what could go wrong. 

When they are busy with the task, encourage them to focus on the learning objective/s, and, in LessonUp, make sure you always indicate them above each slide.  Remind them to think about how they can maintain a constant focus on the learning objective/s. This will encourage students to reflect actively on where they are now, where they are going, and how to get there. It is important to support your learners’ progress by providing them with valuable feedback on the specific strategies they are using. To do so, make sure you also use effective questioning to check for student understanding. 

How can you apply effective questioning with LessonUp?

quiz pictogram

Open-ended questions

In LessonUp the answers to open-ended questions can be made anonymous. Students work in a safe digital environment, without the pressure of having to raise hands to answer a question in front of the class. The wait time could be as long as you like.

The spinner

The digital spinner can be used to completely randomise participation. As the spinner decides whose turn it is to be questioned, there are no arguments about anyone being singled out. It gives students a fair opportunity to speak out, and share what they know.

3 squares and a plus pictogram

Quiz questions

Targeted clusters of well-thought quizzes are a great tool to quickly assess student learning. In a quiz question you can simplify things and indicate the correct answer within the mix. They give you an instant opportunity to establish what your class knows.

Phase 3: evaluation


What is it?

During this phase, students evaluate how successful the strategy they used was in helping them to achieve their goal. Students could ask themselves:

  1. How well did I do? 
  2. What didn’t go well? What could I do differently next time?
  3. What went well? What other types of tasks can I use this strategy for?

How can you help as their teacher? 

As their teacher, you can support students by reminding them to take some time to evaluate if their strategy worked for them. In order to do so, remind them of the 3 questions here above by writing them on a central digital board, or simply on the classroom's whiteboard.

If you use LessonUp, create a simple, straightforward exit tickets with 2 or 3 open-ended questions at the end of your lesson: "Write down 3 things you could do differently next time", and “write down 2 things that went really well using this strategy”. This brings your lesson cycle back to the initial learning objectives. Check if your students have hit their own target. If not, discuss what isn’t clear and help them out.

It might be interesting to help your students evaluate their learning by working with clear success criteria related to your main learning objective. Let your students ponder on whether they can match the indicated criteria, and to what extent. With LessonUp you could create a really nice slide with 3 clear success criteria, and ask your students to drag & drop a minimum of 1 star to a maximum of 5 stars to each criteria, based on how well they can match it. You might prefer to  give them feedback privately, via LessonUp, or one-to-one in the classroom.

Interested in trying out 10 proven learning techniques to improve learners' metacognitive skills?