George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How do children gain a deeper understanding of how they think, feel, and act so that they can improve their learning and develop meaningful relationships? Since antiquity, philosophers have been intrigued with how human beings develop self-awareness -- the ability to examine and understand who we are relative to the world around us. Today, research not only shows that self-awareness evolves during childhood, but also that its development is linked to metacognitive processes of the brain.

Making Sense of Life Experiences

Most teachers know that if students reflect on how they learn, they become better learners. For example, some students may think and process information best in a quiet library, while others may focus better surrounded by familiar noise or music. Learning strategies that work for math may be different from those applied in the study of a foreign language. For some, it takes more time to understand biology than chemistry. With greater awareness of how they acquire knowledge, students learn to regulate their behavior to optimize learning. They begin to see how their strengths and weaknesses affect how they perform. The ability to think about one's thinking is what neuroscientists call metacognition. As students' metacognitive abilities increase, research suggests they also achieve at higher levels.

Metacognition plays an important role in all learning and life experiences. Beyond academic learning, when students gain awareness of their own mental states, they begin to answer important questions:

  • How do I live a happy life?
  • How do I become a respected human being?
  • How do I feel good about myself?

Through these reflections, they also begin to understand other people's perspectives.

At a recent international workshop, philosophers and neuroscientists gathered to discuss self-awareness and how it is linked to metacognition. Scientists believe that self-awareness, associated with the paralimbic network of the brain, serves as a "tool for monitoring and controlling our behavior and adjusting our beliefs of the world, not only within ourselves, but, importantly, between individuals." This higher-order thinking strategy actually changes the structure of the brain, making it more flexible and open to even greater learning.

Self-awareness is part of The Compass Advantage™ (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because it plays a critical role in how students make sense of life experiences. Linked by research to each of the other Compass abilities, particularly empathy, curiosity, and sociability, self-awareness is one of the 8 Pathways to Every Student's Success.

Illo of a compass surrounded by Empathy, Curiosity, Sociability, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, and Creativity

Self-awareness plays a critical role in improved learning because it helps students become more efficient at focusing on what they still need to learn. The ability to think about one's thinking increases with age. Research shows that most growth of metacognitive ability happens between ages 12 and 15 (PDF, 199KB). When teachers cultivate students' abilities to reflect on, monitor, and evaluate their learning strategies, young people become more self-reliant, flexible, and productive. Students improve their capacity to weigh choices and evaluate options, particularly when answers are not obvious. When students have difficulty understanding, they rely on reflective strategies to recognize their difficulties and attempt to rectify them. Improving metacognitive strategies related to students' schoolwork also provides young people with tools to reflect and grow in their emotional and social lives.

7 Strategies That Improve Metacognition

1. Teach students how their brains are wired for growth.

The beliefs that students adopt about learning and their own brains will affect their performance. Research shows that when students develop a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, they are more likely to engage in reflective thinking about how they learn and grow. Teaching kids about the science of metacognition can be an empowering tool, helping students to understand how they can literally grow their own brains.

2. Give students practice recognizing what they don't understand.

The act of being confused and identifying one's lack of understanding is an important part of developing self-awareness. Take time at the end of a challenging class to ask, "What was most confusing about the material we explored today?" This not only jumpstarts metacognitive processing, but also creates a classroom culture that acknowledges confusion as an integral part of learning.

3. Provide opportunities to reflect on coursework.

Higher-order thinking skills are fostered as students learn to recognize their own cognitive growth. Questions that help this process might include:

  • Before this course, I thought earthquakes were caused by _______. Now I understand them to be the result of _______.
  • How has my thinking about greenhouse gases changed since taking this course?

4. Have students keep learning journals.

One way to help students monitor their own thinking is through the use of personal learning journals. Assign weekly questions that help students reflect on how rather than what they learned. Questions might include:

  • What was easiest for me to learn this week? Why?
  • What was most challenging for me to learn? Why?
  • What study strategies worked well as I prepared for my exam?
  • What strategies for exam preparation didn't work well? What will I do differently next time?
  • What study habits worked best for me? How?
  • What study habit will I try or improve upon next week?

Encourage creative expression through whatever journal formats work best for learners, including mind maps, blogs, wikis, diaries, lists, e-tools, etc.

5. Use a "wrapper" to increase students' monitoring skills.

A "wrapper" is a short intervention that surrounds an existing activity and integrates a metacognitive practice. Before a lecture, for example, give a few tips about active listening. Following the lecture, ask students to write down three key ideas from the lecture. Afterward, share what you believe to be the three key ideas and ask students to self-check how closely theirs matched your intended goals. When used often, this activity not only increases learning, but also improves metacognitive monitoring skills.

6. Consider essay vs. multiple-choice exams.

Research shows that students use lower-level thinking skills to prepare for multiple-choice exams, and higher-level metacognitive skills to prepare for essay exams. While it is less time consuming to grade multiple-choice questions, even the addition of several short essay questions can improve the way students reflect on their learning to prepare for test taking.

7. Facilitate reflexive thinking.

Reflexivity is the metacognitive process of becoming aware of our biases -- prejudices that get in the way of healthy development. Teachers can create a classroom culture for deeper learning and reflexivity by encouraging dialogue that challenges human and societal biases. When students engage in conversations or write essays on biases and moral dilemmas related to politics, wealth, racism, poverty, justice, liberty, etc., they learn to "think about their own thinking." They begin to challenge their own biases and become more flexible and adaptive thinkers.

What other ways do you help students reflect on their thinking in your classroom?

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Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kellie's picture

I love these strategies. I cannot wait to use them in the fall. I think it is very important to teach students to be reflective. I teach at the elementary level. I have tried several strategies to slow students down during the writing process. I provide checklists, questions, and conferences notes to increase their writing skills. I still have students that do not use them. Do you have any strategies to use for reflection during writing lessons? Thank you for your help.

Kellie's picture

I also teach third grade. I feel like I need more assessments that dig deeper into the thinking process and asking the "Why?" questions as well.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Thanks for your comments and questions, Kellie. One strategy for teaching reflective practices through writing is a technique called proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf, Ph.D. If you do a search for it, you'll find some great ways to get children started on a path of personal exploration in their writing. Hope this helps.

Rian Sid Oncog's picture
Rian Sid Oncog
a rebel with a halo

This blog is actually great!!! It was very helpful especially for me since I'm a future educator. I could not wait till the day that I could actually get to apply the strategies aforementioned! Thank you so much and it really means a lot. More powers!

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Thanks, Rian. Your kind comments mean a lot to me. My philosophy as a researcher is that research needs to be applied in the real world! Please come back and share your experiences. And best wishes in your first year as a teacher!

Joachim's picture


I'd like to know if we can use these strategies at primary school, even if most growth of metacognitive ability happens between 12 and 15. According to you, metacognition must to be learn at the primary and the secondary school, but where is it easier?

Yours sincerely.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Joachim, your question is an excellent one. While metacognitive growth accelerates between 12 and 15 years of age, children begin developing self-awareness from infancy onward. The strategies in this article can be used and adapted for children in primary grades. Use your knowledge in teaching at particular grade levels to determine best fit and ways of adapting. Reflecting on stories in books (#7) is a very useful strategy for younger children. The more practice younger kids get in metacognitive thinking, the better the foundation for higher levels when they get to teen years.

Rick Ackerly's picture
Rick Ackerly
Author, speaker, consultant

Three Cs

When a person focuses on collaborating, creating and contributing, they are drawn to and even sometimes forced into the frames of mind necessary for building more successful and happy brains.
For instance:
A decision to collaborate and a commitment to making that collaboration work requires that we not only contribute what we know and what we think to the group, we have to open up our minds to the contributions of other, i.e. allow our minds to be changed, think creatively about what others are saying and doing.
I. Working toward consensus (collaborating) is a creative act that uses the skills of metacognition in that it forces the brain to:
1) assume our brains are wired for growth (not necessarily being right all the time).
2) get practice recognizing what we don't understand (and working toward more understanding,
3) use opportunities to reflect on our work (See it from other perspectives).
4) to use reflective techiques like keep learning journals.
5) and use a "wrapper" for self monitoring skills.
6) focus away from simple answers toward sophitisicated, novel solutions. (No point in collaborating if the right answer is staring you in the face.)
7) working on our reflexive thinking skills, if we are going to be successful at it.

II. Creating:
1) requires assuming that our brains are wired for growth (not stuck in past assumptions, theories and knowledge).
2) requires practicing recognizing what we don't understand (and working toward deeper understanding,
3) requires reflecting on our work (See it from other perspectives and looking for something new).
4) might point us toward reflective techiques like keep learning journals (or going for long walks or meditating).
5) might get us to use a "wrapper" for self monitoring skills.
6) requires focusing away from simple answers toward sophitisicated, novel solutions. (No creativity involved in right answers.)
7) requires working on our reflexive thinking skills, if you are going to be successful at creativity.

III. Contributing
1) calls us to get out of our self-conscious brains and grow them toward that contribution (not stuck in past assumptions, theories and knowledge).
2) requires practicing recognizing what we increase our understand the other or the environment we are trying to change (and working toward deeper understanding),
3) requires reflecting on yourself from the other's point of view (See it from other perspectives and looking for something new).
4) might point us toward reflective techiques like keep learning journals (or going for long walks or meditating).
5) might get us to use a "wrapper" for self monitoring skills.
6) requires focusing away from simple answers toward sophisticated, novel solutions. (No creativity involved in right answers.)
7) requires working on our reflexive thinking skills, if we are going to be successful at contributing.

Therefore, whether you want to better yourself, help others grow, build a functional organization, or reform education, you will want to focus your attention, energy, activity, behavior and work on collaborating, creating and contributing.
Let's say you are the principal of a school and a teacher needs to improve his teaching, focusing him on increasing the amount of collaborating, creating and contributing in the classroom will make the education in the class improve. (These are necessary and sufficient conditions to improve what is going on in class.) If you want to help an employee to grow, you will get best results by collaborating with her to think creatively about the quality of her contributions to the organization, and collaborate with her to create new behavior. (These are necessary and sufficient behaviors for improvement.) If you feel you need to counsel someone out of the organization or get him to perform better, or else, what should you do? Ask him to tell you about his collaborations with others, his creative solutions to challenges, and what contributions he would truly like to make to the organization. (These are necessary and sufficient conditions for not getting sued for wrongful termination.)

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