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Metacognition: Examples, Definition, Strategies, and Skills

A Key Strategy in Education and Parenting:

As an educator and mother, one of the most important — and first — skills I teach kids is metacognition: examples of which we’ll discuss in this article. I also use the concept myself every day.

But WHAT does that long and gangly word even mean, and how does it work? Let’s define it.

Metacognition is important in every situation.
Metacognition is important in every situation.

What is Metacognition? A Definition:

Metacognition means: “Thinking about your thinking.” In other words, it’s that moment where you step back from whatever you’re doing and assess: How is my strategy working? What could I do to improve my understanding and progress?

Break Down the Word Parts:

Meta” is a Greek prefix that essentially means “about” (on a high-up, self-referential level), and “cognitionhas to do with brain function and thinking. When I teach the concept of metacognition to students, I guide them to visualize levitating above their body to peer into the gears and flashes of their fantastic brain to see the ways it is working and stuck!

To metacognitively reflect, ask: What is your mind doing and why in any given situation? How could that brain of yours be helped to work even more powerfully and effectively? Let’s look at an example.

Confused student cartoon
Is there hope if you’re stuck??? Yes!

An Example of Metacognition in Action

Imagine there is a boy named Stu (pictured above in my loving cartoon creation). Stu keeps getting low grades in math class, and is feeling like there’s nothing he can do to fix the situation. He’s inclined to declare, “I’m bad at math!”

Now, whenever you’re tempted to say “I’m stuck — I don’t see a way forward,” or “I’m bad at ____,” that is a glowing clue that it’s time to bring in the superhero known as METACOGNITION! By metacognitively reflecting — either alone or with the help of someone you trust — you’ll see that all is not lost! Let’s dive deeper into how this works, using Stu’s predicament.

Metacognition strategies definition and example
Metacognitive strategies help create success!

The Power of Metacognitive Reflection

Stu’s sister, Zinny, sees her brother’s frustration, and sits down with him to teach how to use metacognition to find a way forward. “Look at what strategies you’re using right now, Stu,” Zinny says, “and lay out the facts of what is actually happening.”

Stu reflects for a moment, then answers, “I’m getting low grades because I never remember to do the homework. I’m just bad at remembering.”

Zinny prods, “What strategy are you using to remember the homework?”

Stu responds, “I listen when the teacher says it.” Zinny gives him that sisterly look, and Stu takes a moment to think. “Hmm… maybe that strategy is not working. I wonder if I wrote each assignment down, if I would remember to do the homework? But I am always on the computer for school, so I might not remember to check a paper notebook. Ah — I could use a digital calendar instead, and set an alarm every day at 3pm to remember to update and check it! Zinny, will you help me set it up?”

HOORAY! A new strategy is born, focusing on specific skills, thanks to the power of thinking about one’s thinking!

“Wow,” muses Stu, “I guess it turns out I’m not ‘bad at math’ or ‘bad at remembering’ at all! I was just using strategies that weren’t effective. Let’s see what other strategies I can switch up to boost my math performance…”

(Side note: Like math? Check out my FREE Pi Day printables!)

Metacognitive strategies
Metacognition helps see which strategies work.

Metacognition Anchor Charts

I’ve had two metacognition anchor charts hanging on my English Language Arts classroom walls for years that you might want to recreate if you’re running a class where this concept would be helpful. Please excuse the somewhat worn nature of the posters — they’ve had a lot of love over the years!

Metacognition Definition Poster

The metacognition anchor chart, below, is what I move to the front of the room when I first introduce this concept. It reads:

Metacognition: Thinking about your thinking.

1.) “Am I understanding?” “Am I focused & paying attention?”

2.) “If not, what strategies will I use to fix my fractured comprehension?”

It’s all right not to “get it” as long as you take action to fix it!

Metacognition wall anchor chart
The metacognition anchor chart on my class wall.

Reading Strategies Anchor Chart

Learning metacognition is tightly connected to understanding reading strategies, because both rely on thinking about your thinking and choosing strategies to best understand and move forward. Therefore, after I teach metacognition, I usually use the anchor chart below to teach effective reading strategies — then have students do some silent reading and reflect afterwards (in writing, then discussion) about which strategies they used, how they felt, and which were most and least effective.

The reading strategies in the poster below include sentence starters to help show how to use them, and span the following reading “moves:” summarize, connect, visualize, react, question, reread, predict, infer, and determine importance.

Reading strategies anchor chart for wall
My reading strategies anchor chart.

Other Metacognitive Solutions

Now, in Stu’s example there are many other metacognitive strategies that could and should also be implemented. These include: arranging with the teacher (or a free school tutor) to get extra help, forming a study or homework group with peers, looking at time and space management (such as getting homework done directly after school instead of late), and body self-care (such as getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food and hydration).

Whatever the metacognitive strategies discovered and implemented, however, the most important thing is knowing that all is not lost. There is always a way forward. The power of metacognition is that it helps us stop and notice the current situation and skills, and thoughtfully reflect on how to improve them for the future.

Metacognition Video Lesson:

Metacognition Can Be Used EVERYWHERE!

Though it’s chiefly discussed in the context of learning, metacognition is a key tool to use in EVERY aspect of our lives. Learning does not just take place inside the walls of a school! Learning is everywhere, and thus so is metagocnition.

In particular, I urge both kids and adults to use metacognition in the realms of health, and relationships. For example: Are you always sleepy? Metacognitively reflect on what is going on with your bedtime schedule and routine. Are you always fighting with your sister? Metacognitively reflect on what strategies you are currently using in your relationship, and which to alter. (Hint: The strategy of stealing her raisins is likely not helping things.)

Shop Metacognition Posters:

Metacognitive Reflection is Power!

In closing, the technique of metacognition may be a skill that I teach to my middle school students and elementary age children, but — like the concepts of a liminal space, benefits of drawing, foreshadowing, and juxtaposition — it has direct and delicious applications to our daily lives, no matter what our age or situation.

So what about you? What has your experience with metacognition been? Do share! Want other fun and useful ELA lessons? Check these out: