You may have heard this term before, or it might be completely new. Regardless, it is important that we go through what metacognition is and how integrating metacognitive learning strategies is critical in enhancing your overall learning experience.
To put it simply, metacognition means that you are thinking about how you think. The prefix meta- may sound Greek to you (since it does come from a Greek root), but its literal translation is simply ‘beyond’ or ‘after’. Adding ‘cognition’ — which refers to ‘the mental process of acquiring knowledge through thought, experience, and senses’ — to the mix, you can see that metacognition is the process that goes beyond basic comprehension of knowledge.
The concept of metacognition existed even before it was given a name. In the 1970s, psychologist John Flavell commenced the study of metacognition. He observed children and adolescents and studied how their understanding of executing various tasks gradually became more refined. He noticed that different fields, such as developmental and educational psychology, along with concepts like the “Social Learning Theory,” were intertwined with metacognitive thinking.
Flavell separated metacognition into four different areas, which he called the ‘four classes of phenomena’: a) metacognitive knowledge, b) metacognitive experiences, c) goals/tasks, and d) actions/strategies (Flavell, 1979). He then split metacognitive knowledge into three subdivisions. One of the three categories focuses on the individual (“Knowledge of Person” variables) as the one who acquires knowledge and uses experience to guide oneself through tasks. The other two categories are the “Knowledge of Task” variables and the “Knowledge of Strategy” variables (Flavell, 1979). Let’s go through each category one by one.
“Knowledge of Person” variables refer to general knowledge about how human beings learn and process information, as well as individual knowledge of your own learning process. For example, you may be aware that your study sessions are more productive in a library rather than at home. “Knowledge of Task” variables refer to the knowledge about the task itself, and the fact that you may need to take different approaches for different tasks. An example of this is your awareness that you need to switch strategies when dealing with different subjects, such as Maths or English. “Knowledge of Strategy” variables include knowledge about the strategies to achieve your goals and knowing when and where to use such strategies. For example, you may be aware that you will need to use flashcards to help with memorising the events of World War II.
By gaining an acute level of awareness above the subject matter itself, metacognitive practices can increase your abilities to adopt new ways of gaining knowledge and performing tasks (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). This higher order thinking enables you to understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie. One of the key skills in metacognition is to recognise the limit of your knowledge and extend it. Don’t be discouraged when you do find your limit. This information will serve you well when you’re coming up with the most effective and strategic plan for your learning goals. You’ll study smarter, not harder. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be more likely to ‘actively monitor [your] learning strategies and resources’ to make sure you’re ready (How People Learn, 2000).
In case you’re still unsure about the distinction between cognitive thinking and metacognition, here are a few examples:
Task: Reading through an extract for comprehension
Cognitive Task/Strategy: Interpreting the underlying message that the author is saying
Metacognitive Task/Strategy: Thinking whether annotating the extract worked to reach the goal
Task: Learn about photosynthesis in biology
Cognitive Task/Strategy: Understanding the steps of how plants respire via photosynthesis
Metacogntive Task/Strategy: Asking yourself what you already know about photosynthesis
Basically, cognitive strategies are processes that help you learn, while metacognitive strategies are processes to assess how you learn. For cognition, the depth of your knowledge will often determine how far you can take your understanding. For metacognition, behaviours like planning, monitoring, evaluating, and self-regulating are key.
Metacognition can be one of the most effective tools to aid your studies at school, or any other place that requires you to learn something new. Implementing metacognitive strategies in your own learning shifts the focus from assessing your abilities based on results, to monitoring and evaluating the process. If you’re keen to delve deeper with understanding metacognition and various practical strategies to use such as time management, motivation, and memorisation, read some of the other articles like this one or this one.
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911.
How People Learn. (2000). National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853