Metacognition – Being an Effective Learner

  • On 2016-02-10
  • learning, metacognition, thinking

“If I wanted to become a better carpenter, I’d go find a good carpenter, and I’ll work with this carpenter on doing carpentry or making things. And that’s how I’ll get to be a better carpenter. So if I want to be a better learner, I’ll go find somebody who’s a good learner and with this person do some learning.”

Seymour Papert


Last year I was asked to create a presentation unpacking metacognition for a school. Given that I had been talking around and about this topic in one way or another for several years I thought I had a fair idea of what I wanted to talk about. However I decided to dig a little deeper and expand my understanding of the topic.

My usual research routine when I am deepening my understanding about particular concepts is to gather information from a range of sources into one folder on my computer and then to read through and extract the key ideas and concepts. My goal during this phase is to gain a clear enough picture of the ideas and concepts so I can build a narrative for teachers that they can easily grasp the concept. This strategy of reading broadly and narrowing down ideas and concepts until I have clarity was something I found worked at high school and its value was reinforced at university due to the amount of reading we had to do.

As I read and gathered the ideas and concepts I had one of those “Ah ha” moments that transformed the way I thought about learning and teaching. Let me take you through a quick summary of some of what I put together for the presentation



Metacognition is broadly defined as “thinking about thinking” and includes activities such as:

  • Learning about how people learn
  • Developing an awareness of one’s own learning processes
  • Monitoring one’s learning strategies and assessing their effectiveness
  • Consciously managing one’s own motivation and attitudes toward learning
  • Making adjustments to one’s learning strategies when appropriate

Attribution Theory research indicated that high academic achievers had particular beliefs and habits. They were clear that it was the application of strategies and effort that lead to success, that failure was the result of the incorrect application of a strategy or lack of effort, and high achievers formally used many strategies. Low academic achievers on the other hand attributed success to luck and failure to lack of ability (fixed mindset), and either were quite informal or didn’t use any specific learning strategies.

This led me to explore what were the habits of effective self-regulated learners.


Two strengths of Self-Regulated Learners

Two of the habitual strengths of self-regulated learners are that that are able to self-monitor and self-modify their behaviour to achieve their goals.

Self-Monitoring Learners know what they are trying to achieve (they are clear what they are working on), they have identified a strategy they are going to use to achieve that goal (and can transfer these strategies across learning areas), and they monitor their progression towards that goal.

Self-Monitoring learners ask themselves questions such as:

  • “Am I making my points clear and understandable?”
  • “Am I getting closer to a solution or farther away?”
  • “Have I convinced my reader?”
  • “Does this solution make sense?”
  • “How can I keep track of what I know?”
  • “How do I decide which paths to go down?”
  • “How long should I try this approach?”
  • “When should I switch to another strategy?”
  • “What should I try next?”

Self-Modifying Learners:

  • Monitor their progression towards a goal
  • Use self, peer and teacher feedback to adjust their strategies to more effectively progress towards their goal
  • Self-modification behaviours can be taught in minimal class time (literally a matter of minutes over the course of a semester) and can improve students’ performance in the short term and long term
  • Once the behaviours are internalized, students continue to use them but focus their attention on the content they are learning.


What this means

What my reading of the research implied to me is that we can teach meta-cognition and develop all our students’ capacity to be effective learners. My “ah ha” moment actually was that this is exactly what WE SHOULD BE DOING in every class. My thought was …

Where else in your life do you learn to be an effective learner if not at school?


What teachers can do in their classes to develop meta-cognitive, effective learners includes:

  • Clearly articulate the student learning goals and success criteria (and support students to set their own personal goals and success criteria)
  • Support students to identify their fundamental beliefs about learning (growth versus fixed mindset) and shift their beliefs
  • Discuss and highlight to students the range of strategies to achieve those goals, and
  • Provide students with sufficient opportunities to monitor their progress, receive feedback and, modify their strategies

If a school took on the above aspects in a consistent, coherent and progressive way, rather than hope the students gain these skills by osmosis or do it naturally (as they high academic achievers mostly do anyway) then the overall learning performance of the learners (students and teachers) within the school will improve.

Other worthwhile articles to read (and videos to watch) include:



Leave Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This

Share this post with your friends!