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A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Metacognition refers to one's awareness of and ability to regulate one's own thinking. Some everyday examples of metacognition include:

  • awareness that you have difficulty remembering people's names in social situations
  • reminding yourself that you should try to remember the name of a person you just met
  • realizing that you know an answer to a question but simply can't recall it at the moment
  • realizing that you should review an article you read last week because you have forgotten many of the key points
  • realizing that there is something wrong with your solution to a problem

These types of mental events are common for all of us. Metacognition may not seem to be an especially important skill until you consider how central it is for effective learning. For example, research demonstrates that good readers monitor their comprehension as they read and poor readers do not. Specifically, good readers notice when they don't understand something and then do something about it (e.g., re-read, stop and think it through, take note that something doesn't make sense and decide to come back to it later, ask a question about it, etc.). Good readers are strategic, and it is metacognitive skill that makes them so. Weak readers fail to monitor their understanding. Some studies show that weak readers simply plow through a reading from beginning to end with little recognition of what made sense and what didn't.

So, metacognition is like an internal guide that notices when your attention wanes, when your comprehension and memory fail or succeed, when your thinking is faulty, when you haven't learned something, and so forth. And, the internal guide takes action, whether that involves refocusing attention, re-reading, mulling over an idea, asking questions, or other mental moves to deal more effectively with the situation. Metacognition makes you smarter--or at least better able to take advantage of your abilities. Fortunately, students can improve their metacognitive skills and teachers can help them do so, like the elementary school teacher who always admonished the class to, "check your work!" Teachers can improve student learning by engaging students in metacognitive activities associated with their learning.      


  1. Exam wrappers. An exam wrapper is a short assignment in which students analyze their exam performance and identify ways to improve their learning for future exams in the course. Students may identify their own individual areas of strength and weakness to guide further study; reflect on the adequacy of their preparation time and the appropriateness of their study strategies; and characterize the nature of their errors to find any recurring patterns that could be addressed.

  2. Planning assignments for long term projects. Ask students to describe the tasks, resources and steps in completing major projects in the course. Give quick feedback or have students compare their plans with other students to evaluate their plans. The intent is to cultivate greater awareness of how to plan and organize major tasks.

  3. Judgments of Learning. An important metacognitive skill for students is being able to accurately judge whether they know the things they have been studying and trying to learn. Weaker students are notoriously bad at this and tend to greatly overestimate their competence. To develop more accurate judgments of learning: 
    • Before a quiz ask students to rate their confidence in being able to answer questions about the topics. 
    • On the quiz ask students to estimate the quality/accuracy of their answers. 
    • After the quiz ask students to reconcile their confidence ratings and estimates of their performance with their actual performance on the quiz.
This strategy focuses students on identifying and using appropriate criteria to judge their learning and performance. 

Tips to Implement Metacognitive Skills Effectively

  • There is no top 10 list or tidy taxonomy of metacognitive skills. Some skills, like comprehension monitoring, are sufficiently general that they apply to all of us in every situation. But, there are likely to be many metacognitive skills specific to learning the subject that you teach, e.g., metacognitive skills for writing an essay, learning to play a musical instrument, reading a journal article, doing a lab experiment. As an instructor, think about the specialized tacit metacognitive knowledge you have and try to share it with your students when it is relevant to their learning. 

  • Planning fallacy. Every student should be told more than once about the planning fallacy, which is the tendency for people to underestimate the amount of time it will take to do a task.

  • Metacognition consists of awareness and regulation of one’s thinking. Students may be aware of gaps in their understanding or other difficulties but not know what to do about it. Their response to poor performance may be to redouble their effort, even if that effort involves ineffective learning. The breakdown in metacognition may be lack of knowledge about effective ways to learn. Research shows that students tend to use weak learning strategies, e.g., rereading, highlighting, rote memorization. Your students may benefit from sessions about how to study and learn in your course.       


Cerbin, W. (2015). Metacognition. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from