Brain-Based Learning

How Metacognition Can Improve Learning Outcomes

Teachers can empower students to recognize their strengths by offering them activities that guide them to reflect on their learning.

September 18, 2023
VladSt / iStock

Metacognition, the higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning—or more simply put, evaluating how one thinks and learns—helps students develop an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and the strategies that are most useful in specific situations. This self-awareness promotes knowledge and optimizes understanding, memory, and independent learning skills.

Students learn more efficiently and sustain motivation to persevere through setbacks when they understand and use strategies that brought them prior success. They recognize and avoid those that were previously unproductive. Metacognition can build these learning skills and empower students to be their own guides in subsequent learning and in life beyond school. 

There are a few things teachers can do to foster metacognition:

  • Provide multiple opportunities to practice the metacognitive processes, making the unconscious conscious, as they examine their learning experiences. 
  • Explain to students why you’re teaching them a new strategy or having them use a previously practiced one. Students can learn more independently and confidently when aware of strategies used to bring them success. 
  • After a successful activity, especially if it was in an area where they hadn’t been successful previously, ask what they did differently and have them write down the strategy they used.
  • Create a journal of successful strategies, including predictions about when these might be used for future challenges and applied to other subjects. 
  • When reading or reviewing their notes, have students predict the information they think will be on the test. After the test, have them revisit their predictions and note what they specifically considered when their predictions were accurate. How will they apply these prediction guides when preparing for future tests?

Questions to Guide Self-Evaluation and Reflection 

Guide students to consider the questions below when they succeed in an assignment or learning goal. Provide encouragement when they recognize success accomplished by reviewing, revising, or relearning instead of being satisfied with just “getting it done.” 

  • What was easy and what was most difficult?
  • What strategies or experiences were most helpful to my understanding of the topic?
  • What did I do that was the best use of my time? 
  • What outcome improvement did I notice?
  • What approaches were most valuable to my understanding and test success (e.g., rereading, study groups, practice tests, rewriting notes in a different way)?
  • What did I try that I’d do again?
  • What would I do differently next time?

Metacognition to Prevent Distractions

Provide guidance and opportunities for learners to build their top-down attention focus skills. Attention focus metacognition is promoted by self-awareness—recognizing the pulls on attention. This involves prioritizing the array of sensory information as to what is most important and using blocking strategies to resist the distractions. 

Attention focus requires distraction inhibition. Guided practice can help students build their control of what information is accepted through their attention filters and block their impulses to attend to distracting information. Use activities that build distraction inhibition and incorporate guided metacognition, so that students recognize how to apply these strategies to enhance their attention focus.

  • Do slow observations and actions: have a balloon-toss, examine an object considering how it might impact multiple senses (how might this leaf, cube, map location… sound, smell, feel, move?).
  • Do a web search, homework, or research without following distracting tangents. Guide students to copy and paste the attractive links they want to follow into a separate list to visit later. This relieves their feelings of needing to do it now for fear of missing out. 

Students can self-evaluate their distraction response. Provide them with opportunities to do the following:

  • Participate in noncredit, self-corrected timed quizzes under a variety of conditions to recognize their attentive strengths and challenges. 
  • Self-evaluate their attention outcomes doing defined tasks in optimal conditions versus a range of distracting noises—turn on a radio, keep dropping books, have a colleague come in and talk about “students,” or interrupt with jokes. 
  • After students have formed an awareness of the impact of distractions, they can develop and share strategies to inhibit their effects. 

Applying Metacognition to Math 

For a practical example, teachers can incorporate in lesson plans a time and place for students to create and build a metacognition list of strategies they found beneficial in their learning and understanding. 

Opportunities for this self-evaluation can include having students use metacognition to recognize best approaches to solving word problems. This isn’t the same as students finding different approaches to manipulate the numbers in a specific problem, such as whether they used a decimal or a fraction to calculate a percentage. In math strategy metacognition, students consider and share the overall approach they took to assess and arrange the information in a word or situation problem to yield success. 

Their different approaches and the respective problems can be collected in a class list called “Our Math Strategies.” 

Metacognition Regarding Errors

After students receive their homework or tests back with the errors noted, consider not putting a grade on the paper initially, but rather giving students time to evaluate their errors and consider future alternatives. Following their self-evaluations, invite class discussions of the same questions, such as these: 

  • Did you leave questions unfinished at the end? If so, do you think you knew the answers to some of them? Did you skip more difficult questions along the way so that you could’ve gotten to the last questions (and gone back to the others as time allowed)? In other words, did you get the most points for their time spent? 
  • Were any of your errors due to not following instructions? What could you do next time, such as underlining key words in instructions and rereading them before answering the questions? 
  • Were mistakes made because you didn’t review sections of the test material, didn’t focus on the information you were given about what the test would cover, or didn’t ask for help to understand items you knew would be on the test but were confused about? 
  • What predictions did you make about the test that were correct?

Unless students are given time to go over their test results and read your comments, they may never do so. To assure that process, ask students to respond to your comments in writing, remark on the patterns of their errors, and then return the assignments or tests to you. 

Tests or corrected assignments returned soon after they’re completed are especially valuable when students recognize what they were confused about before going too far into the next unit that builds on this preceding information.

To move beyond a process that might cause students to feel criticized or defensive, you can ask them to first respond to your positive comments, recognize their own successes, and write down what they did to achieve these. Then, your written responses or discussions will be enhanced when you respond to their insights about what didn’t work, what promoted their successes, and how they will apply these strategies to their goals in the future.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.