Thinking About Your Thinking

Metacognition for the classroom – by Dr Nicolas Matthee


Metacognition is a scientific term that simply means “thinking about your thinking”, and refers to the concept of being critical of your own thoughts. In the context of this article, metacognition specifically refers to thinking about your learning. It may sound obvious and seem that we naturally think about what we are thinking, but in reality, it is a skill that we need to acquire and develop. John Hattie, an important educational researcher, found a strong correlation between the skill and use of metacognitive strategies and student achievement. His study is based on more than 1200 metastudies (studies that group and analyse large quantities of related research), suffice it to say that the research sample is comprehensive. The fact that metacognition and the related strategies consistently showed a strong correlation to student achievement only emphasizes its importance in learning environments.

Metacognition in the classroom

Matthew Rhodes[1] from Colorado State University tells the story of one of his students approaching him after an exam, very disappointed in her marks. He mentions that she was very confident before the exam,  sure that she has mastered the format of the exam and the content she had to study. She thought she only needed to focus on a few key points and then the exam would be relatively easy. At the end of the day, the mark for the exam was far below the mark she anticipated. Rhodes reflects on this situation and mentions that this is a student engaging in metacognition. By theoretically reflecting on this example, Rhodes then explores many of the key categories of understanding the role of metacognition, touching on important concepts such as control and monitoring as he goes along. Theory is extremely important in understanding any process or phenomenon, even more so when complex processes such as learning is involved. But the theory will have to wait for another day as this article discusses some of the practical implications for the classroom as identified in the work of Rhodes:

1.      American Idol and metacognitive awareness – Rhodes mentions that the popular TV show, American Idol (or any other variant of the show), can serve as a very effective tool for teaching metacognition. The idea is to show students remarkably poor auditions for these shows. Other than finding the video very amusing students will be primed for a lesson in metacognition. These cringe-worthy auditions serve as a fantastic basis to open up the question “Is it important for individuals to have accurate knowledge of their own skills and abilities?”

2.      Predicting exam performance – asking students to predict their performance allows them to make metacognitive judgments that can be reflected on in the context of the actual performance. When you hand students back their exams or tests, they can then reflect on the judgment they made earlier. Did they do better than they anticipated, or did they do much worse? These reflections open valuable discussions on a variety of levels to eventually lead the student to make better predictions in the future. It might be that they used the wrong methods or did not understand some of the concepts, and reflecting on this helps them perform better in the future.

3.      Delayed testing – students can easily fall into the metacognitive trap of thinking that they know their work very well right after a cramming session. As we already know, this is an illusion and very little of that knowledge is committed to long-term memory. When students fall into this trap, they can easily be led to believe that cramming is an effective strategy for studying. To help them develop the metacognitive skills and insight, have them write a short quiz right after new work was discussed in class and then have them write another quiz on the work a week later. Students should notice that they are activating their long-term memory and actively recalling the information. This should prove a good basis for understanding and judging their levels of knowledge.


It is evident that the implementation of metacognitive strategies in your classroom or learning environment does not take lots of money or effort. Simply reflecting on something as simple as a 3-minute YouTube video can do the trick. Rhodes concludes his article by saying:

“Metacognition fascinates students. Anecdotally, many students report having the experience described in the scenario that opened this article: feeling certain of being well prepared for an exam only to receive a score that disconfirms that expectation. Experiencing this discrepancy can be an important teaching moment and one that is well informed by research and in metacognition. Beyond the classroom, metacognition is critical in many areas of life, from assessments of our own health (“Should I go to the doctor?”), to understanding relationships (“Does this person like me?”), to evaluating our own skills (“Am I good enough to get the lead in this play?”). Accordingly, understanding metacognition provides a framework for better understanding of many of life’s decisions.”

If you would like to learn more about metacognitive strategies for your classroom or think that your school or students can benefit from this knowledge, consider enrolling for either the Learning Hacks or Brain-based Teaching for Learning courses.

[1] All Rhodes references in this article refers to Rhodes, M.G. 2019. Metacognition. Teaching of Psychology 46(2), 168-175.

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