Unpacking Meta-Cognition

Last week Samuel Ward Academy Trust shared the following image, a snapshot from Dr Jonathan Sharples’s presentation on their Trust PD Day:

metacog definition

So, this week, a little more elaboration on such a promising approach within teaching and learning.

A glance at the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit will highlight meta-cognition’s low cost (single ‘£’), high evidence strength (four padlocks) and high impact (+8 months)As seen below, when plotting toolkit strategies using cost per pupil and effect size, meta-cognition is clearly highlighted as one of the most promising set of approaches and interventions that we should consider for pupils’ learning.

source: J Sharples, EEF Presentation, Jan 2018

So what is involved?

With the help of extracts from the printable EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit summary and a couple of other useful sources, here we go …

Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ approaches) aim to help learners think about their own learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.

Dylan Wiliam describes and explains it with clarity and precision in this short linked YouTube clip.

As broken down in the image at the start of this post, successful meta-cognition requires knowledge of task, strategies and yourself as a learner. Applying this knowledge through planning, monitoring and evaluating learning is something that we as teachers, parents and carers should take every opportunity to actively encourage and model.

This can often be done by encouraging pupils to ask themselves questions such as these from this Inner Drive poster below; the simple act of modelling this to pupils by verbalising your own thinking as a teacher, can be a powerful influence and illustrates the teacher as ‘model learner’.

At this point I would add that meta-cognition is not ‘achieved’ through a plethora of posters or checklists within lessons, rather by it being embedded within learning and instruction in the classroom. Hearing yourself and your pupils say things like these further question stems below would tend to indicate meta-cognition is ‘in progress’.


source: Pinterest

Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months’ additional progress. The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older pupils.

These strategies are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion.

A final example of how we can model and encourage meta-cognition, courtesy of the dual coding of Oliver Caviglioli, illustrates how just a few words/prompts can be all that is required:


source: Oliver Caviglioli, teachingHow2 library

However, a word of caution …

The potential impact of these approaches is very high, but can be difficult to achieve as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.

There is no simple method or trick for this. It is possible to support pupils’ work too much, so that they do not learn to monitor and manage their own learning but come to rely on the prompts and support from the teacher. “Scaffolding” provides a useful metaphor: a teacher would provide support when first introducing a pupil to a concept, then reduce the support to ensure that the pupil continues to manage their learning autonomously.

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit summary

So, what should we consider?

Before we implement meta-cognition in our learning environment, we should consider the following:

1. Teaching approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning have very high potential, but require careful implementation.

2. Have you taught pupils explicit strategies on how to plan, monitor and evaluate specific aspects of their learning? Have you given them opportunities to use them with support and then independently?

3. Teaching how to plan: Have you asked pupils to identify the different ways that they could plan (general strategies) and then how best to approach a particular task (specific technique)?

4. Teaching how to monitor: Have you asked pupils to consider where the task might go wrong? Have you asked the pupils to identify the key steps for keeping the task on track?

5. Teaching how to evaluate: Have you asked pupils to consider how they would improve their approach to the task if they completed it again?