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Metacognition and Self-Regulation

We love thinking about learning and identifying better ways to learn and make progress in life skills.

Metacognition helps students to become independent learners

Metacognitive practices help learners to monitor their own progress and take control of their learning as they read, write and solve problems in the classroom.

Metacognition has a positive impact on learning

Metacognition makes a unique contribution to learning over and above the influence of intellectual ability. Learners who use metacognitive strategies are likely to be able to achieve more. Research shows that improving a learner’s metacognitive practices may compensate for any cognitive limitations they have.

“Too often, we teach students what to think but not how to think.” - OECD Insights (2014)

Metacognition is useful across a range of ages and subjects

Metacognitive practices are useful for all learners from primary level upwards. Using metacognition improves students’ academic achievement across learning domains. Metacognitive skills help students to transfer what they have learnt from one context to another or from a previous task to a new task. This includes reading and text comprehension, writing, mathematics, reasoning and problem-solving, and memorising.

A metacognitive approach typically involves students applying metacognitive strategies to respond to clear and explicit learning goals which have either been set by the teacher or identified by the student themselves. The student uses their metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their own progress towards achieving the learning goals.

In order to apply a metacognitive approach, learners need access to:
1. A set of strategies to use.
2. A classroom environment that encourages the learners to use, explore and develop their metacognitive skills.


Clear learning goals are necessary for students to effectively apply their metacognitive strategies. With clear learning goals, students can plan strategies that will help them to achieve the goals and will also monitor their progress towards achieving these goals.

What is the research behind metacognition?

Educational psychologists have long promoted the importance of metacognition for supporting student learning and it continues to be a rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary research. American developmental psychologist, John Flavell, is most commonly recognised for introducing the term 'metacognition' as a result of his research in the 1970’s which focused on children’s knowledge and control of their memory processes.

However, Flavell was not the first to study metacognitive processes. Since the beginning of the 20th century researchers focusing on reading have identified the importance of monitoring and control in the reading comprehension process. Since the 1960s, researchers examining memory have been investigating how we monitor the contents of our memories. From the 1970s, theoretical models describing how we process information included a ‘central executive’ which controls basic cognitive processes.

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) theorised processes that would be regarded as metacognitive. Vygotsky developed the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development. This zone lies between what a learner can achieve alone and what a learner can achieve with expert guidance. The expert, a teacher for example, initially takes responsibility for monitoring progress, setting goals, planning activities and allocating attention for example. Gradually, the responsibility for these cognitive processes is given over to the learner. The learner becomes increasingly capable of regulating his or her own cognitive activities. This transition described by Vygotsky would now be considered metacognitive development.

A key challenge for teachers is being able to recognise how well their students understand their own learning processes. David Perkins (1992) defined four levels of metacognitive learners which provide a useful framework for teachers:

  1. Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept if they know something or not.

  2. Aware learners know about some of the kinds of thinking that they do such as generating ideas, finding evidence etc. However, thinking is not necessarily deliberate or planned.

  3. Strategic learners organise their thinking by using problem-solving, grouping and classifying, evidence-seeking and decision-making etc. They know and apply the strategies that help them learn.

  4. Reflective learners are not only strategic about their thinking but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or not of any strategies they are using and then revising them as appropriate.

Once teachers have identified where their learners are on this continuum of ‘tacit’ to ‘reflective’ they can plan their support accordingly.