Keeping up to speed with metacognition and self-regulation

Author: John Medlicott
Published: 21/10/2019

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It’s hard to keep up with the pace of change in the teaching profession. New research findings, new statutory requirements, new inspection frameworks, new examination procedures, and new approaches for teaching and learning all emerge at an alarming rate. We are all left playing catch up, and for those new to teaching this can be a real sprint.

What is metacognition?

To understand this fully, it is more helpful to see metacognition as just part of a routine of self-regulated learning performance. This sequence begins with understanding cognitive strategies. So, a better first question would be 'What is cognition?'

What is cognition?

Significantly for teachers, cognition is the mental process of using and gaining knowledge, i.e. learning. Cognitive strategies support this learning process to form a great wealth of methods we use to get to grips with, grasp and grapple with any given concept. They furnish our classrooms, from mnemonics, to ordering paragraphs, to rhymes to order Henry's wives. Our students perch their learning on any number of cognitive strategies and for the most part without appreciating or perceiving them, by reciting the thinking presented by their teachers.

Yes, but surely the content of the lesson should be more important than teaching about cognitive strategies?

To answer this, try to identify a set of cognitive strategies you know would support your students' learning. How many of these strategies do your students effectively use? Of your set, which strategies do you develop, which are required prior to learning in your subject, and which ones are essential? Do you communicate these expectations to your students? If so, how do they fare? Are your strategies as effective as you would hope? Strategies such as scan reading a text for important content or linking to previous learning can be so routine they become implicit or indistinguishable from the content. Equally, students' understanding of learning methods can be limited by assumptions: as 'the way' we learn in a particular subject.

Is 'metacognition' having a range of cognitive strategies up my sleeve?

Metacognition is simply the awareness of your thought processes, the thinking about your thinking, and knowing that different cognitive techniques will better suit content, constraints, purposes and personal preferences. The value of metacognition arises in planning to use the strategies that will best support learning and being able to monitor and review to evaluate your choices. It is not just being aware that there are a lot of strategies to choose from.

Is directing different students to the strategies I think will best help them to learn a form of differentiation?

Spotlighting distinct cognitive strategies can often provide a directness and clarity for students, but it is important not to be too prescriptive with a pre-defined set you may have matched to their performance so far. Our objective is to have metacognitively able students, and this involves the skills to select suitable strategies and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. It is gaining a sense of control that results in our students becoming active rather than passive learners.

Does metacognition really turn students into active learners?

In essence, students are encouraged to think 'How can I do this?' and generate strategies for themselves, rather than 'I can’t do this' and generate excuses. Metacognitive development provides motivational drive, particularly to those that have lost theirs, as it has the potential to unlock learning and to provide lost students with a roadmap they did not have before. For the disconnected it fosters a sense of purpose, both to the context of tasks as part of a learning process, but also to the use of prior knowledge, as it becomes a useful bank of experience to draw on. For many, the central assertion that you can learn, you can improve and you can do it yourself is an important message that may have been lacking in their previous educational experience. It allows learning to be seen as a product of what you do, not who you are.

But does it work?

We have a growing bank of supportive evidence that suggests that metacognition and self-regulation approaches consistently have large positive impacts on student progress. The Education Endowment Foundation study, ‘Improving Writing Quality’, found these approaches added nine months of progress on average, while other studies highlighted the benefits for both low achieving and older students. The Visible Learning laboratories graded a range of influences on school achievement and found metacognition approaches had an effect size of nearly 0.7 on their scale. This is a huge effect, given that 0.3 on their scale was the gain in learning noted on average and 1.0 was gain of a year.

So where do I start?

It's important to state that these gains have been found through self-regulation approaches rather than the generic teaching of 'thinking skills' or 'learning about learning’. You have already made a start by identifying strategies required by your students. Teach strategies directly, modelling your own thinking and asking prompt questions such as 'What strategies have I used before?'. Develop a metacognitive language in your classroom for peer discussions. Motivate with appropriate levels of challenge, and guide students through learning processes that begin with planning and end with reviewing until they become independent. Most of all, develop your own knowledge. Your students are more likely to see themselves as learners if they know that's how you see yourself.

To find out more about metacognition, other active learning strategies and in-school training, visit @johnmedlicott.


John Medlicott

John Medlicott is Director of JMC Education, an educational consultancy group that specialises in providing CPD for schools and colleges across the UK and globally.