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  • Writer's pictureJenni Donohoo

Promoting Metacognitive Awareness

The key to successful learning lies in a learner’s knowledge of various strategies, how they can be used, and when and why to employ them. Success also depends on the self-regulatory skills of planning, monitoring, and evaluating learning. Metacognitive awareness encompasses these two components: 1) knowledge of cognition and 2) regulation of cognition.

Knowledge of cognition refers to what learners know and understand about the way they learn. It includes declarative knowledge about the factors that influence performance (e.g. knowing one’s capacity limitations). It includes procedural knowledge about how to execute different procedures (e.g. how to chunk and categorize new information). And finally, it includes conditional knowledge about when and why to apply various cognitive strategies (e.g. knowing when and why to create or use a mnemonic device) (Schraw & Moshman, 1995).

Regulation of cognition refers to how well learners can regulate and therefore have the ability to adjust or correct their learning. These sets of activities include planning (e.g. allocating appropriate amounts of time and resources to learning). It also includes monitoring one’s comprehension and task performance (e.g. engaging in self-testing). And finally, it includes evaluating (e.g. appraising products and outcomes of one’s learning) (Schraw & Moshman, 1995).

Metacognition is a trait that distinguishes expert from novice learners (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000). Students who are metacognitive are able to consciously focus attention on important information, accurately judge how well they understand something, use intellectual strengths to compensate for weaknesses, and employ fix-up strategies to correct errors. Most importantly, they are their own best self-assessors; this is what is referred to as assessment as learning.

Unfortunately, not every student possesses these traits. Many do not create plans for approaching learning tasks, struggle when they get confused, and are unaware of the purposes strategies serve in learning. Therefore, there is a need to help students know themselves as learners, be able to recognize when they have or have not acquired sufficient understanding, identify what needs improving and how to improve it, and reflect on the efficiency of the processes and strategies used. Teachers can help students develop self-regulation as a “powerful mechanism for improving learning” (Hattie, 2012, p. 161). When my friend and colleague, Chris Hickman introduced metacognition to his grade 5 class, one student exclaimed, “You’re blowing my mind!” Thinking about thinking is a novel concept to some learners. We can help students become more metacognitive – learning how to learn can be taught.

How do we promote metacognition in the classroom? Below are 3 suggestions that teachers can put into practice to encourage metacognitive habits of mind.

#1. Explicitly teach students study skills.

One of the best things we can do for students is to help them uncover strategies that lead to successful learning. In his synthesis of the factors relating to achievement, Hattie (2009) classified study skills as cognitive, metacognitive, and affective. Examples of cognitive interventions include note taking and summarization – where the focus is on task-related skills. Metacognitive interventions include self-regulatory skills of planning, monitoring, and evaluating (e.g. setting goals, estimating and budgeting use of time, tracking performance, setting standards and using them to self-assess). Affective interventions focus on motivation and self-concept.

Hattie (2012) noted how important it is “to understand a student’s strategies for thinking, so that he or she can be helped to advance his or her thinking” (p. 38) and suggested that teachers can become more aware of the levels at which students process information by listening to students as they think aloud. These metacognitive study skills (self-verbalization and self-questioning) have an effect size of 0.64 (Hattie, 2009). Hattie (2012) also noted that “it is not feasible to teach self-regulation outside the content domains” (p. 102). In order to have an effect on deeper levels of understanding, it is necessary to combine study skills with the content.

#2. Structure opportunities for students to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies.

One important step in explicitly teaching students study skills is ensuring that they understand the utility and significance of using various strategies. Studies show that better learning results when students are provided with explanations of the reasons why various strategies aid in understanding (Duffy et al., 1987). Paris, Newman, and McVey (1982) found that when students receive explicit instruction regarding the usefulness of the strategy and feedback in their use of it, they behave differently – maintaining higher levels of effective strategy use and decreasing ineffective learning behaviours.

Schraw (1998) suggested a Strategy Evaluation Matrix (see Figure 1) to aid in promoting explicit declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge about different strategies.


Schraw (1998) also suggested that students complete, share, discuss, and revise their SEMs as a way to promote strategy use and metacognitive awareness.

#3. Target feedback at students’ appropriate instructional level.  

Hattie and Timperley (2007) designed a structure for giving feedback that identifies properties and circumstances that make feedback effective. The four major levels: self, task, process, and self-regulation are described below.

Self – When feedback is directed to the ‘self’ (e.g. “You did you a great job!”) it is unrelated to the student’s performance on the task.

Task – When feedback is about the task or product – such as whether work is correct or incorrect, it may include directions to acquire more, different, or correct information (e.g. “You need to include more about the Battle of Vimy Ridge”).

Process – The third level of feedback, process level, is more directly aimed at the processing of information or learning processes requiring understanding (e.g. “You need to edit this piece of writing by attending to the topic sentences and paragraphs so that the piece has a better flow”).

Self-Regulation – Finally, feedback to students can be focused at the self-regulation level, including greater skill in self-evaluation (e.g. “I think you should refer to the last time you completed a plot diagram. What did you need to change then?”). Hattie and Timperley (2007) note that feedback at the self-regulation level can have major influences on self-efficacy, self-regulatory proficiencies, and self beliefs about students as learners, such that the students are encouraged or informed how to better and more effortlessly continue on the task.

Hattie and Timperley (2007) emphasized that the effectiveness of feedback is directly influenced by the level at which it is directed noting that:

  • – if a student is a novice at something, his/her feedback should be at the task level;

  • – if a student has some degree of proficiency, his/her feedback should be at the process level;

  • – if a student has a high degree of proficiency, his/her feedback should be at the self-regulation level.

To promote regulation of cognition, teachers can mindfully target feedback to students’ appropriate instructional level. This further underscores how important it is for teachers to listen to students’ thinking aloud as it provides a way to determine which level to target feedback in order to ensure its effectiveness.

The underlying idea in promoting metacognition is to develop independent, self-regulated learners. Hattie (2012) noted that “the ‘learning’ aim of any set of lessons is to get students to learn the skills of teaching themselves the content and understanding – that is, to self-regulate their learning. This requires helping students to develop multiple strategies of learning, and to realize why they need to invest in deliberate practice and concentration on the learning” (p. 96).

As you consider embedding metacognitive activities in the daily process of teaching, keep the following in mind: #1. Do not treat metacognitive activities as separate or isolated activities. They are best taught in context across all disciplines. #2. Appreciate what is required to achieve effective strategy instruction. It takes time.


Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School – Expanded Edition. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Duffy, G., Roehler, L., Meloth, M., Vavrus, L., Book, C., Putnam, J., & Wesselman, R. (1986). There relationship between explicit verbal explanation during reading skill instruction and student awareness and achievement: A study of reading teacher effects. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(3), 237-252.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.Routledge, Abingdon, OX.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational  Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Paris, S., Newman, R., & McVey, K. (1982). Learning the functional significance of mnemonic actions: A microgenetic study of strategy acquisition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 34, 490-509.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1-22), 113-125.

Schraw, G., & Moshman, D. (1995). Metacognitive theories. Educational Psychology Review, 7(4), 351-371.

Originally Published:

Donohoo, J. (2015). Promoting Metacognitive Awareness. Corwin-Connect, June 1st 2015.

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