How to unlock the learning potential of metacognition

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teachers are offered practical advice for using metacognition, which the research evidence suggests can boost pupils’ progress by seven months. Pete Henshaw takes a look

Schools should abandon “learning to learn” or “thinking skills” sessions and instead aim to teach metacognition in conjunction with subject-specific content.

New guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – curators of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit – aims to bust the myths around metacognition and offer teachers practical advice.

Metacognition teaching and learning strategies are among those considered most effective in terms of pupil progress, particularly for disadvantaged children.

Metacognition and “self-regulated learning” strategies are those which get pupils to think about their own learning, and the EEF’s evidence shows that these approaches can boost pupils’ learning by the equivalent of an additional seven months of progress.

These kind of approaches might mean, for example, that secondary pupils are given the skills to be able to develop effective revision or independent learning strategies or to keep track of the subject areas they need to work on.

The report has recommendations in seven areas and “myth-busts” common misconceptions teachers have about metacognition. The seven areas are:

  • Teachers acquiring the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge.
  • Explicitly teaching pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.
  • Modelling your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills.
  • Setting an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition.
  • Promoting and developing metacognitive talk in the classroom.
  • Explicitly teaching pupils how to organise, and effectively manage, their learning independently.
  • Schools supporting teachers to develop their knowledge of these approaches and expecting them to be applied appropriately.

A key problem, the guidance warns, is that schools often think such skills need to be taught separately in specific sessions, often branded “learning to learn” or “thinking skills”.

However, the report warns that metacognitive strategies should be taught in conjunction with specific subject content as pupils find it hard to transfer these generic tips to specific tasks. It also busts the myth that metacognition is a higher order skill and therefore more important than subject knowledge.

It states: “Metacognition is specific to the task being undertaken and stronger where learners have a thorough grounding in subject knowledge. It is, for example, very hard to have knowledge about how one can learn in a subject without solid subject knowledge.

“There is little evidence of the benefit of teaching metacognitive approaches in ‘learning to learn’ or ‘thinking skills’ sessions. Pupils find it hard to transfer these generic tips to specific tasks.

“Self-regulated learning and metacognition have often been found to be context-dependent. This means that a pupil who shows strong self-regulated learning and metacognitive competence in one task or subject domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may or may not be effective, depending on the specific task, subject, or problem tackled.

“This does not, however, mean that metacognitive knowledge and skills will automatically develop through content knowledge teaching.”

The guidance also refers to research from 2013 (Dunlosky et al) analysing the learning techniques that prove most effective. These include:

  • Practice testing: Self-testing or taking practice tests on material to be learned.
  • Distributed or “spaced” practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out activities over time.
  • Elaborative interrogation: Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  • Self-explanation: Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem-solving.
  • Interleaved practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, said: “On a very basic level, metacognition is about pupils’ ability to monitor and direct their learning. Effective metacognitive approaches get learners to think about their own learning more explicitly, usually by teaching them to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic progress.

“But teaching metacognition is easier said than done. It’s not just about ‘thinking skills’ and there’s certainly no simple method or trick. We know that learners will develop some of these skills naturally, and most teachers will be supporting metacognition in their teaching without realising it.

“But with a large body of international evidence telling us that, when properly embedded, these approaches are powerful levers for boosting learning, it is clear that we need to spend time looking at how to do this well.

“This is why we’ve produced this report. It offers seven practical, evidence-based recommendations to support teachers to develop metacognitive skills in their pupils. It brings clarity to an area of teaching and learning that holds so much promise, but that can be difficult to implement.”

The report is aimed at teachers and leaders in primary and secondary schools, as well as in early years and post-16 settings. The EEF and its network of research schools will be producing supporting resources, tools and training to help schools implement the recommendations.


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