Metacognition – Learning How to Learn

As instructional designers, what is it we are trying to improve in our world? Learning? Teaching? Application of knowledge? Or some ideal state combining all three?

I would venture to guess that very few of us design instruction focusing on only one aspect of learning. But how do we convince our learners to approach learning the same way? How do we get them to think about their learning at a higher level, and better understand the implications of their newly gained knowledge?

Metacognition is a cognitive state that goes beyond knowing. In fact, meta literally translates to “beyond.” More importantly, it is gaining traction as a design tool in educational circles around the world.

What is Metacognition?

In its simplest form, metacognition emphasizes the importance of an individual learner’s understanding of their own thinking processes. It is the ability of the learner to understand how their thought processes work, and how to regulate those thought processes to maximize learning potential. I like to think of it as learning how to learn.

In 1979, John Flavell, a developmental psychologist, thrust metacognition into the public eye. He defined metacognition, and broke it down into three components (1979):

  • Metacognitive Knowledge
  • Metacognitive Regulation
  • Metacognitive Experiences

Let’s look at the first two. Metacognitive knowledge is simply the awareness that an individual has about their own learning. Metacognitive regulation takes this one step further, involving the learners active awareness of their own cognitive processes, and utilizing specific activities that help them take advantage of these processes to control their own learning.

In a study of 5th and 6th grade students, Swanson (1990) found that metacognition can even the playing field between students of differing IQ when concentrating on problem solving tasks. Students who displayed higher levels of metacognition (i.e those who were more aware of their own learning processes) utilized fewer learning strategies in solving problems, and solved those problems more effectively. As designers, we want to harness this effectiveness across all of our learning materials. Through a corporate lens, you could view the enhancement of metacognition as maximizing your outputs while minimizing your inputs, resulting in higher “net learning.”

To simplify metacognition even further in the eyes of an instructional designer, you could think about it as a personal understanding of learning style. What tools and learning strategies work best for each individual learner, and how does the learner consciously understand these strategies? This is especially important in the evolving world of eLearning where self-regulation is a key component of the learning environment.

How Does Metacognition Influence Instructional Design?

Although the above discussion is an oversimplification of the science behind metacognition, it is clear that we can create more successful learning environments if we are cognizant (metacognizant if you will) of the potential benefits that metacognition can have on our learners.

Our end goal when designing instruction is to enable learners to meet a set list of learning objectives. Those objectives likely span the entirety of Bloom’s taxonomy, involving identification tasks, application tasks, and tasks involving evaluation and synthesis that demonstrate higher forms of thinking. Metacognition will help learners more effectively acquire this knowledge, and apply this knowledge to real world scenarios.

But how can we, as instructional designers, implement metacognitive strategies into the learning environment? Isn’t metacognition contingent on the learner understanding their own strengths and weaknesses of their own thought processes? Yes, but we can certainly provide an environment that encourages metacognitive strategies.

5 Ways to Implement Metacognition in Your Learning Environment

1. Provide a way for learners to monitor progress and allow for self evaluation

A key component of metacognition is self regulation; the ability of a learner to effectively plan and engage with materials throughout the duration of the learning experience. Building a way to monitor progress into your environment can help students stay on track, and more importantly, help them evaluate how far they have come, and how much more there is to learn.

An easy way to enhance self evaluation is to provide periodic formative assessments. If the learning is watching an instruction video, pause the video and ask a question about it. Start with simple recall questions, and throughout the learning module add more difficult questions, climbing up the rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy until the learner is participating in higher thought processes and critical thinking. Make sure you are giving feedback as well, so the student knows if they are making progress, and to correct any potential misconceptions. Not only does occasional formative assessments keep the learner engaged, it will help them monitor their own progress, encouraging them to build a foundation of metacognitive practices.

Another example of progress monitoring can be found in the emerging field of Gamification. The use of achievements or “badges” can give the learner a sense of where they are in the learning process, and where they need to go next. It also plays a big role in our next recommendation:

2. Provide built-in motivation

Why should the learner actively engage with the material? What will motivate them to concentrate on the material, and stick with the learning process? Self Evaluation is not always enough to keep a learner engaged and on the right path. Many learners need additional motivation.

As mentioned before, Gamification can be used to simulate an achievement structure, where students earn “badges” that show their progress. These achievements can be used to build a friendly competitive environment where learners compete against each other to obtain more badges, motivating them to climb the leaderboard. Does this improve learning? Maybe or maybe not, but it does keep the learner engaged, and without engagement, it becomes very difficult to encourage self regulation.

You do not have to use Gamification to motivate learners, though. Activities like group projects can motivate one to stay engaged in order to live up to the expectations of their peers. An end-of-course presentation can motivate learners who want to appear competent to their peers, instructors, or the outside world.

3. Build familiarity through pre-assessment and planning

In order for learners to be able to plan their instructional strategies, they need to know where the learning module will take them. They need to have a sense of direction.

Many instructors use learning objectives to dictate what the learner will be expected to know or do by the end of the course, but many learners ignore these. They are often written in academic speak, or do not provide a sense of application to real world scenarios.

So in addition to identifying learning objectives (they are, after all, still good study tools), try utilizing pre-assessments. Short, simple tests at the beginning of a learning session can help students measure what they understand before starting, and what kind of effort they will need to put in to get to where they need to be. Be sure to provide instructor feedback any time you use formative assessment to ensure learners understand why they got something wrong!

Also, give students a real world scenario to think about while they dive into the content. Use storytelling to keep their minds focused on higher order thinking skills like synthesis and analysis. Storytelling can help students make connections between content that may seem unimportant and how that content relates to the bigger picture. In terms of metacognition, the story keeps the learners in a familiar state of mind, which will help them (perhaps subconsciously) plan their ongoing learning strategies.

4. Utilize Constructivism

Yes, constructivism is a learning theory, but don’t let that scare you off! Constructivism is essentially a learning philosophy that focuses on learners connecting new and previously-held ideas to their experiences. For this discussion, we are going to focus one piece of constructivism: putting the process of learning in the hands of the learner.

Many have probably heard the distinction between “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the Side” teaching practices. In Constructivism, the instructor takes on the role of facilitator and coach, guiding students in a general direction and scaffolding instruction as needed. This is a great way to insert metacognition into your learning environment as it encourages learners to be more aware of their environment, putting them in charge of their learning experience.

Some simple constructivist activities that enhance metacognition include using discussion boards, peer-led training sessions, hands-on activities (think science labs), and mind mapping. Speaking of mind mapping:

5. Utilize graphical representation

Since you are now framing your instruction with Constructivism, let’s put that to work! Give your learners an opportunity to draw or “construct” some sort of graphical representation of their own understanding of a topic. This is a great pre-assessment strategy if you or your learners are bored of the traditional multiple choice assessment!

Many instructors know this as mind mapping or concept mapping. In its simplest form, mind mapping involves allowing learners to assess their understanding of a topic through the depiction of objects and the relationship between objects. They can draw their maps on paper, or use online tools like xMind ( to build their ever-growing webs of knowledge.

Constructivism puts the power of learning in the hands of the learner, so keep these graphical representation activities simple and open, and see where your learners take it!



Flavell, J.H. (1979). “Metacognition and cognitive monitoring. A new area of cognitive-development inquiry”. American Psychologist 34 (10): 906–911.doi:10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.906

Swanson, H.L. (1990). “Influence of metacognitive knowledge and aptitude on problem solving”. Journal of Educational Psychology 82 (2): 306–314.doi:10.1037/0022-0663.82.2.306

Kegan Remington, an Instructional Designer from NAU, specializes in Active Learning Pedagogy and the development of dynamic, collaborative, technology-enhanced learning environments. With a decade of experience in education, Kegan’s career is focused on developing high-fidelity learning materials, integrative learning environments, and promoting effective instructional techniques for the 21st century learner.

Check Also

Creating Online Software Training for Adults

Creating Online Software Training for Adults Creating any type of training for adult learners is …

Bigger isn’t always better

For some reason society seems to be obsessed with the notion that things need to …