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Teaching Opinion

Response: Metacognition Helps Students ‘Understand Their Gaps & How To Close Them’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 12, 2016 26 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series on the topic of metacognition in the classroom. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is metacognition and why should teachers be concerned about it?

In Part One, Laura Robb, Teresa Diaz, Matt Renwick, PJ Caposey and LouAnne Johnson shared their responses.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Laura, Teresa and Matt on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dan Rothstein, Mark Estrada, Diane Friedlaender, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, and Amy Benjamin answered the question.

Part Three featured commentaries from Erik M. Francis, Pam Ferrante, Frank Lyman, Kathy Dyer, and Amber Chandler.

Today’s final post - a long one - in the series includes answers from Howard Pitler, Tan Huynh, Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire, John Larmer, Mike Janatovich, Matt Townsley, Thomas Armstrong and Anna Crowe.

Response From Howard Pitler

Howard Pitler has been a facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach over four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website:

Metacognition is one of those expensive words you can use in a conversation and people will think you are pretty smart. Like Inigo Montoya from the 1987 romantic comedy film The Princess Bride implied however, I am not sure we all know what metacognition really is and why teachers should be concerned about reinforcing metacognitive still in their students. Simply put, metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking. It includes thinking about one’s thinking and also thinking about oneself as a thinker and learner. Metacognition asks the question, “what do I know about how I learn and think that will help me with this new situation?” Metacognitive strategies help people adapt to new situations and new contexts or tasks.

How often have you heard colleagues lament in the teachers’ lounge, “these kids just don’t know how to think.” or, “I wish they would just have a bit of motivation.” I have overheard and even participated in those types of conversations more times than I can count. These are just a few examples of why intentionally teaching and practicing metacognitive skills is important for educators and parents in general.

There are a few relatively small tweaks in our instruction we can put in place tomorrow that will make a difference for our learners. Here are just a few:

  • Use pre-assessments not just as a survey tool for the teacher but also encourage the learner to reflect on what they already know about the current subject that can guide their thinking. In Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd ed. we talk about his as activating prior and background knowledge.
  • After teaching for a bit, pause and ask students what they have found confusing or didn’t make sense. It is important to create an environment of trust in the classroom so students will confortable in responding to those questions. All questions need to be honored.
  • Use reflective journals and include prompts like

    • How well prepared was I for this test/quiz? How might I have prepared more effectively?
    • What did I do to try to get help myself when things got a bit confusing?
    • How did I try to help a peer when they were struggling?
    • Use a KWHL chart, anticipation guide, or SQ3R process to structure the learner’s thinking.
    • Review the chart (p. 3) in Kimberly Tanner’s article Promoting Student Metacognition from CBE-Life Sciences Education

The declarative knowledge - factual knowledge and information - we impart to students is necessary but not sufficient to guide them through life after K-12 school. Learning and practicing metacognitive strategies will help them well into the future.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog, EmpoweringELLs.com:

Meta-cognitive strategies (MCSs) develop the ability to independently solve problems, construct meaning, and express ideas because they prompt students to think about how they learn. MCSs are particularly effective in empowering English learners (ELs) because they illuminate how literacy skills can be transferred between classes. By using the Q-PIC framework to create MCSs, for example, teachers can create a simple strategy like What-How Sticky Noting that can be used for any subject.

Q-PIC: A Framework for Creating MCSs

Quick: Compose a short prompt - just a sentence or two - that elicits a quick student response. An MCS should be a gentle pause in learning.

Process-driven: The prompt should ask students to think about the steps they took to solve the problem or describe the strategies they used to learn the content. Reflecting on the process develops transferable skills that empower ELs to be independent learners.

Integrated: Consciously look for opportunities to integrate MCSs within the lesson cycle, not just at the end of class. For example, ask ELs to pause and think about the process after they read a complex section of text, write an introductory paragraph, or experience an important breakthrough. Using MCSs when students show progress praises the process rather than the students.

Collaborative: Having ELs share their processes with the class provides other students with more strategies with which to experiment. Additionally, it cultivates a classroom culture that honors how students learn as well as what they learned.

In What-How Sticky Noting, ELs recall what they learned during a particular activity on one side of a sticky note. On the other side, they reflect on how they learned the content. This Q-PIC strategy is quick, process-driven, can be used at any time, and can be easily implemented across the disciplines.

Closing Thought

Teaching any student to think metacognitively is about growing the capacity to learn. But for ELs, it equalizes educational opportunities because reflective thinking enables ELs to participate in all content areas while developing their abilities to be on par with their native English-speaking peers. MCSs shift ELs’ self-perception from one of “limited” abilities to one of endless potential.

Response From Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire

Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire is the Director Emerita of the nationally acclaimed Center for Academic Success and Retired Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. She has presented widely acclaimed workshops on metacognition and student learning in 43 states and 8 countries. Her latest book, Teach Students How to Learn, was released by Stylus Publishing, LLC in 2015. This response is an excerpt from her book, along with a short video commentary:

What Is Metacognition?

Metacognition, a term coined by John H. Flavell (1976), is thinking about your own thinking. I always say to students, “It’s like you have a big brain outside of your brain looking at what your brain is doing.” When students employ metacognition, they become consciously aware of themselves as problem solvers, which enables them to actively seek solutions to any problems they may encounter, rather than relying on others to tell them what to do or to answer their questions. As they make the transition from being passive learners to proactive learners, students gain the ability to monitor, plan, and control their mental processing. In other words, instead of staggering through a maze, using instinct alone to look for cheese, they become aware that they need to plot a course and search systematically for cheese, keeping track of what works and what doesn’t. Metacognition also gives students the ability to accurately judge how deeply they have learned something, whether they have only a superficial understanding or the ability to widely apply their knowledge. For example, they might begin to ask themselves, “Am I understanding this material, or just memorizing it?” When students use metacognition, they become tremendously empowered as learners because they begin to be able to teach themselves.

Metacognition, Schmetacognition. Students Just Need to Work Harder

How do we know our students need metacognition, that they aren’t already aware of themselves as problem solvers and are simply not working hard enough? I wonder whether the following scenario is as familiar to you as it is to me: A student excitedly turns in an exam, essay, or research paper, beaming with pride, telling you they just know they’ve done well. Then when you sit down to grade their work, you begin to mark most of the problems wrong or cover the essay with red ink. And you wonder: How on earth could they have thought they did well? Similarly, when I ask faculty during workshops what grade their students believe they’re on their way to making at the beginning of their courses, I hear a chorus of “A!” And when are our students typically divested of their fanciful notions? Usually, a splash of cold water comes after their first test. Some students start to understand they are in trouble while they’re taking the exam, whereas others think that everything is hunky-dory until they get the exam back with D or F at the top. When their work is returned to them with a much lower grade than expected, most students cannot process the cognitive dissonance. If our courses are telling these students that they’re not the smart, competent individuals they believed themselves to be, what do they do? Their normal psychological self-defense mechanisms activate. They begin withdrawing psychologically; they might sit further back in the classroom or lecture hall; worse, they might start missing class. Then their performance on the next test is worse than their performance on the first. The downward spiral continues until they’ve flunked the course or barely passed it. Clearly, students like these are not able to accurately judge their own learning. And the discouragement of thwarted expectations prevents them from working harder. Moreover, even if they are able to rally and work harder, doing more of what they already know how to do is not likely to help. They need to learn a different way. When students learn about metacognition and implement metacognitive strategies, their performance turns around.

From Skeptic to Convert

When I first started sharing metacognitive learning strategies and study skills with students, particularly students having trouble with subjects other than chemistry, I didn’t think it would work. I thought the ideas were too straightforward, and I didn’t think the students were going to follow my suggestions. Then students began to report remarkable results. “Thanks, Dr. McGuire! That stuff was so helpful. Now I’m making an A in thermodynamics, and I was flunking it before.” Students on the verge of failing returned triumphant with Bs and As. I was flabbergasted. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d said that had made such a dramatic difference. I hadn’t explained any difficult content or translated confusing lecture jargon into more easily digestible language. Although I had always had a great degree of teaching success, my effectiveness with students skyrocketed after I started incorporating principles of metacognition into my teaching.

Response From John Larmer

John Larmer is editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He is co-author of the book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction.:

In our model of Gold Standard Project Based Learning (PBL), one of the seven Essential Project Design Elements is “Reflection.” We included this element because we agree with John Dewey, the grandfather of PBL who promoted learning by doing. He said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” PBL represents a deeper kind of learning compared to many traditional teaching methods that emphasize recall of information and procedures. In a well-designed, rigorous PBL project, students gain not just academic content and skills but 21st century success skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and creativity/innovation. To gain such skills, students do not learn about them and remember the information; they must practice them - and then reflect on the experience.

So when we think about metacognition in the context of Project Based Learning, we usually talk about students reflecting on their use of the cognitive skills involved in thinking critically, solving problems, working well as a team, and creating new things. We emphasize the need for students to be aware of and reflect on the process they use to answer a project’s driving question or create a product. During a project, we suggest teachers pause regularly to have “meta-moments” with students, to surface their thinking process, work process, and learning process. Such moments could be discussions as a whole class or, for older students, discussion in project teams. Students can also keep a journal or log to record how they are using critical thinking skills, solving problems, or talking in their teams about how to collaborate effectively. When students make their project work public, a key component is to explain their thinking and answer questions about their process. And at the end of a project, PBL teachers have students look back and reflect on their learning and growth in their ability to demonstrate success skills.

Another part of our Gold Standard PBL model is a set of seven Project Based Teaching Practices, one of which is “Build the Culture.” A classroom with a “PBL culture” would emphasize student independence, inquiry, and reflection. One of my colleagues, teacher and BIE National Faculty member Jim Bentley, recently wrote a blog post about building a PBL culture by promoting student self-assessment. I’ll end by quoting Jim, who offers good advice to teachers about the importance of metacognition and returns us again to John Dewey:

“If we want to foster academic self-sufficiency, we must inculcate the notion within our students that they are their own first assessor. That means educators must establish a classroom culture and offer tools to foster metacognition and student self-assessment. As the Dewey quote below suggests, we must reshape “educative growth” as more than students generating correct answers.”

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”
― John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is the assistant principal of Harmon Middle School in Aurora, OH, and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

Metacognition is a term that is very powerful but sometimes is often misunderstood. In simple terms, metacognition is knowing about your thought process. As educators, we must be concerned about this because currently there is a shift taking place in education. Thankfully, (but still slowly) we are moving away from a multiple choice/recall mindset and are allowing for our students to think. This shift is exhilarating for students, but can be scary for our teachers. It is scary because it is not easy. It is scary because it is not clear. We need to put our fears behind us so students can think about how they came to a conclusion or an answer. Through the process of metacognition, we can allow students to make a stronger connection with the content and will lead to deeper authentic learning for students. If we do this for our students, it will impact their learning for the rest of their lives.

Why else is it scary? Because there is not an answer key for it. Student metacognition will put teachers on the spot because the student might present the “wrong answer”, but if we have a discussion about what the student was thinking, we really can understand that the student had deep knowledge of the content. So why did the student get the “answer” wrong? That is up to the educator and learner to figure out collectively. This will allow students and educators to identify misconceptions that form. If as educators we can get students to identify a misconception and explain why it formed, we have made a great impact and the kids will be prepared for the next phase of their lives.

When I say that metacognition is misunderstood, I am speaking to teachers that try to grade it. How do we put a value on what students are thinking? We can’t. We must use metacognition as an opportunity for reflection and conversation so students can understand where their gaps are and how to close them. As classroom teachers, we need to allow kids to think. We need to allow them to change their thinking. We need them to explore and investigate their thinking. This is different to what some educators are used to. “Show your work” is what some educators think metacognition means. “Show your work” just means - “Copy down what I want to see”. This is not metacognition; this is regurgitation. As an educational system, we must move away from this. In order to truly develop a growth mindset, we need to understand what caused us to change. The only way to understand the cause, is to think about the change, and what steps you did to make it occur. We must get our teachers to this point in their classrooms because this is where education and learning begins and “teaching” ends.

Response From Matt Townsley

Matt Townsley is the Director of Instruction and Technology for Solon Community Schools in Iowa. Matt is also a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader whose areas of expertise include assessment, curriculum development, and professional development. Connect with Matt on Twitter @mctownsley:

As I reflect on my undergraduate days, I recall learning about metacognition in Psychology 101. Metacognition was defined for me as simply “thinking about one’s thinking.” Dictionary.com defines the term:

noun. higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning”

I have to admit I viewed metacognition as one of the many theoretical terms we were required to memorize and regurgitate for the purpose of passing classes within the teacher education sequence of courses. After all, I thought to myself, do teachers actually have time to help students think about their thinking?

Over a decade later, my perspective has changed. Teachers should be concerned about metacognition for two reasons: checking for understanding and improving learner independence.

Metacognition as checking for understanding

“Class, please take a look at the quiz I have handed back to you. What questions do you have?” Inevitably, one of the most motivated students in the room usually asks to review one of the questions in great detail. Meanwhile, the remaining twenty-six adolescents sit back and enjoy an opportunity to check their cell phones, catch up on last night’s high school gossip, or space out entirely for a few minutes. One year, my student teacher suggested we consider a different approach: requiring students to self-asses prior to turning in a quiz. Students completed a continuum in pencil such as the one below.

Prior to returning the quiz, we wrote narrative comments on the responses to each math problem. Next, we circled where each student was along the continuum related to the standard. For example, if Jane was close to getting to understanding “write ratios and solve proportions” based on his/her work on problems 1, 2 and 5, I would circle “Almost there” in ink. Jane could then read the narrative comments and compare her pencil circles with our ink. Furthermore, students with relative strengths and weaknesses (i.e. Joe understands standard 8, but not standard 9; and Miquel understands standard 8, but not standard 8) were paired up once the quizzes are returned to compare their thinking and responses, for the purpose of peer tutoring. Engaged in their own learning through thinking about their thinking!

Metacognition can improve learner independence

I wish I would have counted how many times I drove home from work as a high school math teacher wondering how deeply students understood the day’s lesson. Too often, I was in a rut of reviewing the previous day’s practice assignment (formerly known as homework), lecturing or facilitating activities based on the day’s learning objectives and assigning new practice problems. Through reading Dylan Wiliam’s articles and books such as Embedded Formative Assessment, I was encouraged to try out a new strategy called traffic lights. After going over the previous day’s practice assignment, each student was required to annotate his or her paper with the word red, yellow, or green. Red communicated, “I am lost!” and the learner needed additional follow-up to understand the concept. Yellow communicated, “I think I still need help in one or more areas” and the math student often pointed out a specific exercise or idea that was unclear. Green communicated, “I get it!” and intent to move on. Prior to requiring traffic lights, the pressure was 100% on me as the teacher to scan each student’s paper for common errors and synthesize next instructional steps. Through student’s metacognition, they started to become more independent by identifying their next step in partnering with me to understand math concepts. It was a win for me as their teacher, too; because students traffic lighting their practice problem sets assisted me in discerning individual and collective areas of growth relative to the standards of our course.


Whether you’re a new teacher this year or a seasoned educator, consider the value of metacognition in your classroom. Applying the theory of metacognition all educators learned as part of undergraduate or teacher prep programs has the potential to assist in checking for understanding and improving learner independence.

Response From Thomas Armstrong

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of 16 books including The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016). His book is available through ASCD, on Amazon, or through his website at: www.institute4learning.com:

Metacognition is a word that was first used by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s greatest American disciple John Flavell in the 1970’s. It essentially means ''thinking about thinking’’ or the capacity of the mind to reflect on its own working operations. While a great deal of emphasis has been placed on metacognition at all grade levels over the past couple of decades, I believe that from a developmental perspective its use is most appropriate in middle school and high school. Piaget’s model of cognitive development specifies that around the age of 11 or so children begin to move into the ''formal operational stage’’ of thinking. A key feature of that stage is the ability of the mind to reflect on itself and to operate on purely abstract ideas. Curiously, the advent of this stage coincides with a brief ''spike’’ in the growth of gray matter in the brain as measured by neuroscientists. The reason why metacognition is so important in education is that if students are able to understand their own working minds, they have the ability to transform their mental processes through planning, goal-setting, reflecting, being self-critical, self-monitoring, self-assessing, and self-regulating. Here are a few practical ways in which teachers can incorporate metacognition into their classrooms:

  • engage your students in critical thinking (e.g. show them how to challenge received opinions, how evaluate sources for their reliability, and how argue both sides of a question)

  • show students how to use metacognitive tools such as graphic organizers (e.g. mind-mapping, charts, Venn diagrams), think-alouds (where one’s internal problem-solving is externalized as speech), thinking journals (where students write down reflections and ideas that occur to them as they are learning), and heuristics (simple ''rules of thumb’’ useful in solving problems, such as ''understand the problem, make a plan, carry it out, evaluate it’’)

  • teach students how their brains work; this is especially important in the teen years when so much is going on in their bodies and minds that may seem confusing to them

  • explain to students about the importance of a ''growth mind-set’’ - how intelligence and success have more to do with personal effort than innate ability

The real significance of metacognition is that by giving students the tools to enable them to ''think for themselves,’' teachers are providing them with a gift they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.

Response From Anna Crowe

Professionally, in her early career Anna Crowe (PhD) practiced as a scientist and then moved into science education. She has migrated between employment as an educator at high school level and at university level because of her particular research interest in the interface between these two levels education, especially in South Africa (Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Anna’s longer response, which you can read here):

Many years ago, I started teaching high school Biology, as a practising scientist with some content knowledge and little formal education training - because of this, I always had to analyze how I understood what I wanted to teach before I taught a class. I then framed my lessons according to how I made sense of the knowledge or skills I needed to teach. On reflection sometimes my students learned what I hoped they would learn, and sometimes I was less successful - then, I had to think again, and differently - metacognition in action. From this perspective I consider metacognition to be knowing (awareness of) when and how to use what (relevant/appropriate) knowledge. Metacognition is therefore an integral part of learning and is both personal and contextual. I think we teach metacognition by modelling it when and how we teach and interact with our students - provided we are explicit about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

One of my favourite ways of modelling metacognition is using Socratic questioning which challenges the accuracy and completeness of students thinking/ reasoning/ arguments. This method not only engages students metacognitively, it helps teachers to identify and address misconceptions their students might have. Socrates asked his students six different types of questions, all of which can be easily included in most science classes. These Socratic questions and examples of some questions a teacher could ask her/his students follow below.

1. Conceptual clarification questions which get students to think more and deeply about what they are thinking about and the concepts behind their argument or reasoning. For example: What does this mean? Why are you saying that? What do you know about this? Can you explain what this means? How does this relate to what you know?

2. Questions which probe assumptions makes students interrogate the beliefs which premise their argument of reasoning. For example: What are your assumptions? How can you verify or disprove your assumptions? Explain how you arrived at these assumptions? What would happen if ... were true?

3. Questions which probe rationale, reasons and evidence guide students towards supported arguments or reasons. For example: How do you know this? What is the cause of this? Is this good enough reason? How might this be contested? What evidence do you have?

4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives gets students to argue/reconsider with their position. For example: What would be an alternative? What are other ways of looking at this? Are these alternate ways reasonable? Why is it the best? What are the strengths and weaknesses of...? What is a counterargument for...? How could you look another way at this?

5. Questions that probe implications and consequences help students to determine if their argument/reasoning has logical outcomes and if they make sense or are desirable. For example: Then what would happen? What generalizations can you make? What are you implying? How does ... affect ...? How does ... tie in with what we learned before? Which is the best, and why?

6. Questions about the question can get students thinking about the original question. For example: What was the point of this question? Why do you think I asked this question? Am I making sense? Why not? How does ... apply to everyday life? What else might I ask?

To model critical (self) awareness students need to see it in action. It must be made obvious that the teacher actually uses such metacognition in real life, and that it is both a useful and used set of techniques/methods when she/he addresses issues or solves problems. Explicitly teaching students how to become openly and consciously familiar with the methods (like questioning) they use to learn, why and how they use them, and when and how to apply them can help them think more like experts. With practice and guidance students can become better thinkers. Good thinkers regularly ask questions in order to clarify their thinking so that they understand and effectively interact with the world around them - I like to think that this is why I teach.

Thanks to Howard, Tan, Saundra, John, Matt, Mike, Matt, Thomas and Anna for their contributions!

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