Metacognition: a fancy word for something we all do every day

Brendan Conway-Smith is a PhD candidate at Carleton University, who teaches cognitive science to undergraduates. He is an expert on metacognition and has a number of peer-reviewed publications on the subject. Brendan firmly believes that one of the most important ideas in history involves the human ability to understand our own mind and direct it beneficially. Our education specialist Thomas Courtley interviews Brendan on what metacognition really means.

1. How can you explain metacognition to a teacher who might not know what it means?

Despite what people might think, metacognition is incredibly simple. It’s a fancy word for something we all do every day. It’s like saying “respiration” instead of just “breathing”. It’s something natural that we all do, but it has been labelled with a big technical name.

Every day we are aware of our own mental states, like if we are tired, distracted, or focussed. When we wake up, the first thing we do is become aware that we are awake. Being aware of our mental states is entirely natural and part of being human. That’s metacognition. 

Let’s start with an example: everyone knows what it’s like to read a book. While you are reading you may notice that you don’t quite understand something. That feeling of not fully understanding something will make you go back and reread a certain section. As your feeling changes from not understanding to understanding, you feel free to move on down the page. These metacognitive feelings or "feelings of knowing" as they’re called, guide our behaviour.


2. What can teachers do to make sure they encourage metacognitive feelings in the classroom?

The science is really clear on this: all humans are born with metacognition. Most people know whether they know something, or whether they don’t. Even if you ask a child, they almost always know if they understand something or not. That’s the simplest level of metacognition, or “System-1 metacognition”, which is based on feelings of knowing.  

System- 2 metacognition is the conceptual kind that we can educate and improve by getting wiser about our System-1 metacognitive feelings. We can teach pupils to spend more time studying what they have difficulty with, instead of just going over the concepts they find the easiest. We can help students become wiser about listening to their metacognitive feelings that tell them whether they really understand something.

One of the reasons why schools all over the world are teaching metacognition is because all students can (and should) make the most of their natural ability.
Brendan Conway-Smith

3. How relevant are metacognitive practices for teachers in the classroom? How can teachers integrate them in their lesson plan?

Metacognition should be taught in 2 ways: within a teacher’s lesson plan, but also by  increasing students’ general awareness of their own metacognitive feelings. A teacher can end their lessons with targeted metacognitive questions, such as: “grade on a scale from 1 to 10 how well you understood that”, or “try to pick out things you didn’t understand so well”. This is one thing the Ontario school system in Canada is doing now: they are integrating metacognitive questions and sections at the end of every lesson plan.

Metacognition may be the most important subject taught to students, especially in modern times. It has shown to be the best predictor of successful learning.

Metacognitive skills help people to learn information more quickly and easily. It is especially relevant to teachers today because the educational system in most Western countries was set up in the 1800s. At that time, there were no mobile phones with access to the world’s knowledge in their pockets. This is why students were made to memorise so many facts. Nowadays, teachers need to educate a public who swims through an ocean of information on how to search and select information effectively. In this information age, the world needs self-controlled learners, or “meta learners”. We can teach students to make better choices about what they learn, when they learn, and how they learn. Without these instructions students might make poor choices such as getting distracted, becoming overwhelmed, or not working on the most important things first.

Nowadays teachers need to educate a public who swims in an ocean of information to search and select information effectively. The modern world requires self-controlled learners, or ‘meta learners’.

4. When it comes down to different levels of attainment, do you think it would be dangerous or unfair to only target pupils who have higher outcomes?

Teaching metacognition would benefit everyone, including the kids who struggle the most. In fact, it might even benefit the struggling students the most. In that sense, it could be considered unfair toward the more successful kids, although I wouldn’t go that far. Research shows that metacognition can be a greater predictor of higher grades and performance than IQ. Students with higher IQs may be overconfident that they already know everything, while kids with lower IQs but higher metacognition can be more aware of what they don’t understand and need to spend more time learning. The truth is, everyone can benefit from metacognition. It’s an egalitarian strategy for student success.

Research shows that metacognition can be a greater predictor of higher grades and performance than IQ.

5. Do students who are neurodivergent, have ADHD, or other special needs, benefit as much from metacognitive instruction?

Actually, neurodivergent students benefit more from metacognitive education. Explicit instructions are among the most valuable guidance you can give them. Often, neurodivergent learners don’t pick up implicit rules or instructions as easily as others, especially when it comes to social norms, or rules of behaviour. One of the most valuable things you can do is to give them clear rules on how to act, how to follow instructions, and how to engage with their own thoughts and feelings.

People who are neurodivergent often feel as if they are drowning in overstimulation. They often feel distracted, or emotionally overwhelmed. If you don’t give them instructions that help them engage with their own minds, likely they will keep falling behind. Having ADHD myself, I remained undiagnosed for a long time while growing up. The most beneficial thing I learned was how to focus, how to engage with my own emotions, and how to  become more skilful at directing my own mental states. Not only did this help me catch up with my peers, but it also helped me turn parts of my ADHD into an advantage.

With the right training, neurodivergent children can turn what feels like a disability into something like a superpower. Children with autism can turn their tendency to hyper focus into an asset. Students with ADHD can capitalise on their mind’s ability to make intuitive, creative leaps. Unfortunately, only about 5% of students with ADHD actually graduate from university, compared to 45% of their neurotypical peers. The 5% who graduate are often students who have learned to integrate metacognitive strategies into their routine. They have learned how to tackle procrastination, use schedules, and have developed habits of self-discipline.


6. What would be the main challenge for a teacher who wants to embed metacognition into their teaching and lesson planning?

The main challenge I’ve witnessed is people’s initial aversion to the scientific word “metacognition” and to how abstract it sounds. The best way of getting past people’s aversion is to give them examples of how we all “metacognise” every day. It’s all based on the simple principle that “understanding your mind helps you direct it better”. If metacognition sounds too abstract, and the benefits aren’t clear enough, then there will probably be some resistance from people. Make it familiar, and explain how valuable it is. You’ll find that people will warm to the subject when they hear that metacognition improves academic scores and empowers students to become more organised and capable.

It’s all just about the principle that ‘understanding your mind helps you direct it better’.

7. What if…after 10 minutes doing your best to explain a topic to your students one of them puts up his/her hand and says: "I don’t understand?"

That can be a challenging situation for every teacher, especially if you have the feeling that the student wasn’t paying enough attention. However, part of metacognition is not just representing your own thoughts and feelings, but learning how to represent the thoughts and feelings of others. This is called “social metacognition” and it is important for teachers to learn, and even teach to their students.

In this case, make sure you are not giving negative feedback as a result of a student asking questions. A poor reaction can make students feel that they can’t ask questions when confused, which leads them to build negative associations with verbalising metacognitive feelings. However, if you give them positive feedback when they express their metacognitive cues, they will associate them with positive results and be encouraged to rely on them in the future.

8. What are some simple steps that you can provide students with to encourage metacognition?

 🌟 One of the most important things is to teach children to become more aware of whether they understand something or not. As a teacher, you can direct students’ attention towards whether or not they feel confused. For instance, you might give students a sheet of paper allowing them to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how well they understand something. As you go through each part of your lesson, students can rate how well they understand it. This helps students become more aware of their level of understanding, and become more familiar with their natural metacognitive feelings.

With primary school students you could forget the numbered scale, because that might be too abstract for them, and instead use a range of happy to sad faces (emojis).

 🌟 Another step might be to ask them to make a list of the topics they don’t understand, go through it with them and allow them to ask questions about it. If the majority of students write down similar topics, then you’ll know these are the subjects to clarify or explain better.

🌟 You can ask your students to use highlighters to indicate which topics they find most difficult to understand. Or they can choose one colour for topics they don’t fully understand, and another one for things they find important and want to prioritise. Think of this as “metacognitive colour-coding”.

🌟 Some schools in Canada have actually gone a step further and added meditation practice to their schedule. For 10 minutes a day students close their eyes and focus on their breathing, and when their mind wonders they keep bringing it back. If they feel an emotion, they are encouraged to let it pass, and bring their attention back to their breathing. Schools that engage in mindfulness find that students are more focussed, and have less emotional and behavioural problems.

Metacognition is not just representing your own thoughts and feelings, but learning how to represent the thoughts and feelings of others. This is called ‘social metacognition’

To conclude: are there any aged-based scalings that you should look at while considering metacognitive practices?

In my opinion the answer is no, not really. You can teach both kids and adults to be aware of their own thoughts and feelings. “What emotion was that? Do you feel distracted? How focussed do you feel?” Teaching this to children or to graduate students would involve the same process, while using age-appropriate words. It can be as simple as asking a 6 year old: “How tired do you feel? How focussed do you feel? How well do you understand this?” You might have to use simpler wording, but that would be a good start for anyone at any age. There’s only one exception: children can’t fully “meta-represent” until about 4–5 years of age. Their still-developing brains have difficulty understanding their own beliefs, including the idea that they and others can have false beliefs.

The science of metacognition has generated a lot of public interest in recent years, and I think that will only grow. Just as meditation has moved from the fringe to become a mainstream practice, metacognition will likely become more commonly understood and applied in different fields. It’s hard to argue with decades of scientific support for metacognition, and its proven benefits.

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