What Exactly Is Metacognition? Part 1

What Exactly Is Metacognition? Part 1

We talk a lot about metacognition on this blog. And, while we love talking about why metacognition is so important and ways to promote metacognition in the classroom, it is essential to ensure that our discussion is rooted in a clear definition of what exactly metacognition is (and is not).

I recently came across this excerpt from “Four-Dimensional Education:
 The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed,” by Charles Fadel, Bernie Trilling, and Maya Bialik. Here’s a passage from the section titled, “Metacognition—Reflecting on Learning Goals, Strategies, and Results.”

Metacognition, simply put, is the process of thinking about thinking. It is important in every aspect of school and life, since it involves self-reflection on one’s current position, future goals, potential actions and strategies, and results. At its core, it is a basic survival strategy, and has been shown to be present even in rats.

What makes this definition so powerful is the concept of “the process of thinking about thinking” (bold is mine). Metacognition is not a static trait, nor is it a switch that can be turned on and off. It is a process developed through interaction with the challenges we face every day. What’s more, this process is an essential and inescapable part of our lives. Reflecting and learning from our experiences is key to our success—even our survival! The authors go on to say:

Perhaps the most important reason for developing metacognition is that it can improve the application of knowledge, skills, and character qualities in realms beyond the immediate context in which they were learned. This can result in the transfer of competencies across disciplines—important for students preparing for real-life situations where clear-cut divisions of disciplines fall away and one must select competencies from the entire gamut of their experience to effectively apply them to the challenges at hand. Even within academic settings, it is valuable—and often necessary—to apply principles and methods across disciplinary lines.

Transfer can also be necessary within a discipline, such as when a particular idea or skill was learned with one example, but students must know how to apply it to another task to complete their homework or exams, or to a different context. Transfer is the ultimate goal of all education, as students are expected to internalize what they learn in school and apply it to life.

The key takeway is that metacognition can improve your life by allowing you to apply the lessons you learned from one task to another, similar task. This sounds simple enough on paper, but transfer is often the stumbling block for many students, and their teachers. The solution, not surprisingly, is in how the teacher presents the material. We’ll cover this next week in Part 2 of this blog—stay tuned!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager


Charles Fadel is founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, Bernie Trilling is founder of 21st Century Learning Advisors, and Maya Bialik is a researcher at CCR.