Metacognition: Knowing, Understanding, and Managing your Thinking


Can you figure this puzzle out? It represents “I understand.” Music to a teacher’s ears! The student has advanced from one stage of learning to another. Most of the time, however, neither teacher nor, more importantly, student intellectually understands how the student mastered the material. Or, why the student failed to master the material. What if we asked the student to step out of his body and watch his brain at work? Analyze and monitor how he how he approached a problem from Point A to Point Z. That’s what metacognition is— actively thinking about thinking. To be aware of what we know and what we don’t know. And if we do know how to attack a problem, to be aware of the best way to do so. Is our response automatic, i.e. 6x7=42, or more complex. Understanding and controlling how we think enables us to move to even higher levels of thinking, i.e. Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I first encountered metacognitive thinking in law school. Not surprising since metacognitive theories can be traced back to Socrates. It took me awhile to understand the legal mind but I gradually became adept at analyzing fact patterns and comparing them to statutory law and common law precedents. Students shouldn’t learn metacognitive thinking at 21. Today, some preschools teach metacognition.

In graduate school, I had a professor who urged us to expose our elementary students to metacognitive thinking. He viewed metacognition as monitoring (understanding and controlling) the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. I found that an easy way to explain the topic to parents. He gave us many examples of metacognitive approaches for students. This acronym is a reading comprehension strategy he used with middle school students, called SCROLL.

S- survey headings


R-read text


L-look back

L-control learning

These steps give students something to hang their hat on, a way of organizing, processing, and embedding new material, hopefully leading to automaticity. He insisted that we keep many thinking tools in our “metacognitive instructional” arsenal: visuals, graphic organizers, and concept maps. He also cautioned that we check student anxiety levels, as stress can interfere with cognition.

I’d add two more considerations to the metacognition:  1.)What time of day do you work best? For me, it’s morning. 2.) How can my preferred learning styles help me efficiently process novel information? Since I’m a kinesthetic and interpersonal learner, I’d be sure to include movement and “think aloud” discussions with my peers. In contrast, a Visual Spatial thinker might draw a map or design a computer program. The beginning or end of class sessions or units is a great time to explore metacognitive thinking. Have students write reflections, evaluate their learning or mindset and debrief through discussion.

Bottom line, metacognition must be personal. If applied correctly, it leads to efficient mastery of material. Remember, the goal is to help students understand their style of task analysis, help them set goals, and help them implement action plans. One student was so proud of her analytical skills in math, that she called herself “Math Perkins.” Though in elementary school, she was able to solve complex algebraic problems.

Why is metacognitive thinking so important? Metacognitive skills boost learning. Remarkable learning advances have been made when gifted students are grouped together. They bounce ideas off each other and share their thinking processes. They can’t achieve this spirited interchange in mixed ability classes because aptitudes are discrepant. But with their gifted peers, they feel comfortable and productive, leading to boosts in self-esteem, confidence, and increasingly complex thinking. Evaluating their peers’ cognitive tools adds to their metacognitive strategies or arsenal.

Now that you understand metacognition, manage it. Use your confidence in your ability to see the big picture to control your emotions during tense negotiations on one issue. Motivate yourself to complete a tough task by telling yourself that you’ve dealt with similar challenges before. Make an important decision by setting goals and assessing the achievement of each goal. Just this week, a Tribune reporter interviewed Michael Lewis, the Author of Extreme Productivity on metacognitive strategies. “Extreme Productivity is not about working harder, it’s about working smarter…. you should focus your time on your most critical goals.” Chicago Tribune, 11/25/12.  Metacognition—don’t leave home without it.

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