Science of Learning: Metacognition in Education

Learning is a process, and it is something that requires patience on the part of the instructor as well as students. Students will, and should, make mistakes. They will fail. They are supposed to make mistakes. The teacher’s job is to give them the tools to learn from those failures and improve.

Most university professors assume kids have these skills when they enter college.  Learning from failures and trying new strategies is a huge part of the growth that happens during post-secondary education. However, many students do not possess these skills because formal education does not always encourage independent thinking or metacognition.

What is metacognition, you ask?

Metacognition: Thinking about Thinking

Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own thinking. It is central to the development of other important skills, like critical thinking and problem-solving. It is an extremely useful tool to enhance student learning and help them master and internalize information and subject matter.

Reflective thinking is a part of metacognition and is the capacity to reflect on learning experiences. This type of critical thinking allows students to process their experiences.

Metacognition is a broad and somewhat abstract concept, but there is plenty of evidence that it can be taught. 

Why Teach Metacognitive Skills?

Constructing understanding and gaining mastery over subject matter requires both cognitive and metacognitive work. The building blocks of knowledge are stacked and built to create real learning.  Metacognition helps students build confidence and help students gain independence as learners, which will create lifelong learning outcomes. 

Students who possess strong metacognitive skills can think through a problem. They approach a learning task and make decisions, taking time to think about and learn from their failures and mistakes. Some instructors teach students to have “metacognitive conversations” with themselves. During these “discussions,” kids can “talk out” challenges, self-correct and continue their learning and growth toward mastery.

Metacognitive skills help students to perform well on exams and efficiently complete tasks. These learners…

  • Use the right tool for the job
  • Modify learning strategies when necessary
  • Identify roadblocks to learning
  • Change up strategies to ensure goal attainment.


One of the most important facets of metacognitive growth is divergent thinking. Divergent thinking simply means that an individual takes the time to think of different ways to reach a goal or solution. This requires flexibility in one’s thinking. However, traditional education often focuses on convergent thinking, which is the exact opposite of divergent thinking.

Teaching these skills takes planning and commitment but is not hard. Teachers should set tasks at an appropriate level of difficulty so they can challenge their thinking but not frustratingly difficult. Instructors should not do the thinking for learners.

Teachers who tell students what to do are at risk of making students dependent upon them. Metacognition requires practice on the part of the student. The most effective instructors’ prompt learners, encourage them to think, and are always asking…

 “What should you do now?”

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