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How metacognition and self-regulation can boost students’ learning


The Education Endowment Foundation, in their guidance for schools on metacognition and self-regulation, highlight these strategies as great ways to boost learning at a low cost. Naturally, schools are eager to foster these effective skills in their students.

However, to do this successfully, we must first understand the nature of both metacognition and self-regulation

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What are the accurate definitions of the two concepts?

Metacognition and self-regulation seem to have become interchangeable synonyms. This is a problem as there is a difference between the two terms. It is therefore crucial to define these concepts carefully.

Self-regulation

Self-regulation is defined as the process by which students activate and sustain their cognitions, emotions, and behaviours to help them attain goals.

It refers to how aware students are of their strengths and weaknesses, whether they can motivate themselves to engage in learning, and if they can develop strategies and tactics to enhance their learning.

Metacognition

In comparison, metacognition refers to the ways students can monitor and purposely direct their learning, such as their ability to select an appropriate learning strategy, monitor it in action and then change it if necessary.

This means that metacognition is a part of self-regulation – but that it also has a cognitive and motivational component.

What are the benefits of metacognition?

There are many benefits that come with developing metacognitive skills. These include…

Higher achievements for students

Metacognitive strategies have been positively associated with academic performance, helping students improve their learning, leading to better marks in reading comprehension, Science and Mathematics.

This is supported by a new study which found that students who had undergone metacognitive training scored 4% higher on their final exams than those who did not.

Increases ability to learn independently

Being able to monitor their own progress helps students develop independence because they take ownership of tasks, instead waiting for someone else to tell them what to do next.

Improves decision-making

Enhancing metacognitive skills makes students more aware of when they are making suboptimal choices. This identification then encourages students to change their mind to make choices that encourage a higher level of learning and performance.

Improves interactions with others

Strong metacognitive skills facilitate better communication between students. Students who develop metacognitive thinking are in control of their cognitive processes, making them better at communicating their thoughts. This means they are more likely to share their ideas in class, enhancing classroom discussion and debates surrounding the topics being taught.

Gaining awareness of their own mental states also allows students to better understand their peers’ perspectives, which boosts a sense of relatedness in the classroom. This in turn, can increase students’ motivation to learn.

Application to different settings

Developing metacognitive skills gives students tools that are not only useful inside the classroom, but that can also be transferred to life outside and beyond it.

Every decision made in everyday life often requires careful thought. Metacognition allows students to quality-control their thinking, preventing them from falling into biases when making decisions.

For example, students who practice metacognition and ask themselves “What would this belief look like if it were untrue?” would be less likely to commit Confirmation Bias (i.e., the concept that people pay more attention to ideas that they had previously agreed with). This means that they’ll be able to make better decisions and be more likely to achieve their goals.

Aids disadvantaged students

According to a recently published report, teaching in a way that supports metacognition is beneficial for students at a social or economic disadvantage to their peers. This is becoming increasingly important, as the academic performance gap has widened again due to COVID-19.

The 7 recommendations for implementing metacognition in the classroom

As we’ve seen, metacognition is an important skill for students to possess. But how can teachers implement it in the classroom? The good news is that the Education Endowment Foundation has identified seven recommendations to help teachers foster metacognition (and subsequently self-regulation) in the classroom.

Let’s take a look at these together…

  1. Develops students’ metacognitive knowledge

Many define metacognition as “thinking about thinking”, which is too vague. It is important for you to emphasise to your students that monitoring and evaluating form the basis of metacognition. This will encourage them to develop a greater understanding of their own abilities and attitudes (knowledge of themselves as a learner) along with which strategies are effective and available (knowledge of strategies).

  1. Teach students how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning

Teaching your students to approach a learning task by planning, monitoring, and evaluating will help them develop metacognition – this is often referred to as the Plan, Do, Review process. Here is what students should be considering at each stage:

  • Planning encourages students to think about the goal of their learning and how they will approach the task. This includes ensuring that they understand the task, activate relevant knowledge, and choose suitable strategies.
  • Monitoring encourages students to assess their progress – this can be through self-testing or self-questioning.
  • Evaluating gets students to judge the effectiveness of their plan and its implementation and learn from it for the next task they encounter.
  1. Model your own thinking

Teachers can verbalise their metacognitive thinking (e.g., “What do I know about problems like this? What strategies have I used to solve them before?”) as they approach a task to reveal a step-by-step process for students to follow. Displaying the thought processes of an expert learner helps to develop students’ metacognitive skills.

  1. Set an appropriate level of challenge

Set challenging tasks to allow students to develop useful strategies and reflect on their learning. However, ensure you don’t make tasks too difficult as this can overload your students’ cognitive process, making it hard for them to apply new strategies.

  1. Promote and develop metacognitive talk

Ask students to discuss with their peers what they found hard and what might go wrong before approaching a task. You can guide and support the conversation by asking further questions to ensure students are engaged and responsive.

  1. Teach students how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently

Provide quality feedback and help students to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning. Students need to direct their attention to their tasks and avoid distractions to stay on top of their work. Try encouraging your students to set goals so they can get organised and complete tasks efficiently.

  1. Schools should support teachers to develop their knowledge

There is a plethora of research giving advice on how to promote metacognition. However, teachers often lack the training to translate this research evidence into the classroom. It is therefore important for senior leaders at school to provide teachers with support, such as Metacognition Teacher CPD workshops ongoing mentoring to ensure metacognitive approaches can be implemented consistently.

Final thoughts

Encouraging metacognition in the classroom is a way to ensure that your students can engage in self-regulation. By using tips above, we hope that you can bring the benefits of metacognition to your classroom, giving your students the best chance of success.

For even more information on metacognitive strategies, take a look at our complete guide to metacognition.

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