A guide to metacognitive strategies in the classroom

9 mins read
Chris Woods

What are metacognitive strategies, and why are they important?

Metacognition is a form of higher-order thinking involving awareness of the processes at play when we are learning. When students become aware of the learning process, they gain control over their learning.

Awareness of how we learn allows us to discriminate between different approaches to solving a problem to select strategies best suited to our prior experiences, abilities, and knowledge of the problem.

Metacognition involves knowledge of cognition and metacognitive regulation.

Knowledge of cognition

Knowledge of cognition is a learner’s knowledge about how they learn, including:

  • Content knowledge (declarative knowledge): Conscious, usually explicit knowledge, and awareness of their strengths and weaknesses (e.g., “knowing that the digits in multiples of 9 add up to 9 in Maths.”)
  • Task Knowledge (procedural knowledge): Their implicit knowledge of how to perform actions, exercises, and skills (e.g., “comprehension of the texts we read in English.”)
  • Strategic Knowledge (conditional knowledge): Assessment and use of strategies available to them as they learn new information (e.g., “enjoying reading and preferring a textbook to study.”)

Metacognitive regulation

Metacognitive regulation refers to a learner’s ability to control their learning by:

  • Planning: selecting appropriate strategies to facilitate learning based on learning goals, task difficulty, resources, and prior experiences (‘What am I being asked to do?’; ‘Which strategies will I use?’; ‘Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?’)
  • Monitoring: tracking their level of comprehension and the effectiveness of the strategies they have selected to complete the task (‘Has this improved my understanding?’; ‘Is my strategy working?’; ‘Should I try something different?’)
  • Evaluating: determining the success of their strategies for completing the task (‘How did I perform?’; ‘What worked/didn’t work well?’; ‘What changes could I make?’; ‘Could this strategy be applied to other problems?’)
Source: thirdspacelearning.com

Regardless of age, background, or achievement level, teaching our students metacognitive strategies affords them benefits, including:

  • Enhancing control over their learning
  • Enhancing capacity for self-regulation
  • Extending learning for higher achieving students
  • Supporting lower achieving students
  • Providing a platform to practice new knowledge and skills
  • Increasing student independence, agency, and confidence
  • Building resilience and perseverance
  • Encouraging collaboration in their learning process
  • Managing their motivation for learning

Students will develop an increasingly sophisticated repertoire of learning strategies during their schooling. These strategies will reflect their educational experiences, learning preferences, enjoyment of different subjects, and resonance with content.

Guide to effective metacognitive strategies for teachers

Research shows that metacognition plays a critical role in successful learning. This article outlines effective metacognitive strategies to teach in your classroom to foster better educational outcomes for your students.

Explicit teaching strategies

Setting our students a task and telling them to complete it can cause frustration if we have neglected to teach them the knowledge and skills they need to accomplish it properly. Metacognitive teaching methods work by making the implicit learning processes explicit as you share with your students what they need to do to achieve learning outcomes.

Classroom teaching activities to assist students in learning metacognitive strategies include:

1. Modelling metacognitive skills

Your students look to you as the expert in the room. From a metacognitive perspective, you are also an expert learner. Explicitly modelling your thinking skills and problem-solving strategies while working with your students demonstrates best practices they can try out for themselves.

Skills that you can model to your students may include:

  • Working through examples allows you to set clear expectations for students and demonstrate the skills used to complete the activity.
  • Using visual aids such as videos and handouts accommodates different learning styles and allows learners to rewatch or use the graphic as many times as they need to complete a task successfully.
  • Breaking down a complex problem into smaller components helps students focus on working through one step at a time, reducing the cognitive load and anxiety.
  • Assisting communication skills by incorporating plenty of social interactions in your lesson plans provide students ample opportunity to clarify ideas, express them more clearly, and develop a deeper understanding of content.
  • Sharing your thought processes or mental model involved in decision-making demonstrates critical thinking skills and facilitates reflecting on the learning process.

With any new skills you teach, students will need time to practice. Providing opportunities to work with their classmates when trying new tasks and providing timely feedback will help them quickly build confidence.

2. Guiding self-reflection

Your students should be encouraged to reflect on their learning throughout the process to develop their ability to self-regulate as a learner. As you work through problem-solving activities as a class, pause to break down the learning process during each stage.


Self-questioning to guide reflection:

Planning Stage: Monitoring Stage: Evaluating Stage:
‘What am I being asked to do?’
‘What resources do I have available?’
‘What is my preferred learning style?’
‘What are my group members strengths and weaknesses?’
‘Which strategies will I use?’
‘Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?
‘How much time will I need?’
‘What section/s can I easily do?’
‘What section/s look difficult?’
‘Is this too challenging for me?’
‘Has this improved my understanding?’
‘Are there any gaps in my knowledge?’
‘Do I need more assistance/instruction with this part?’
‘How are my classmates performing?’
‘Is my strategy working?’
‘Should I try something different?’
‘Am I remembering what I’ve learned?’
‘Am I motivated to complete the task?’
‘How can I stay focussed?’
‘How did I perform?’
‘What did I find easy?’
‘What did I find challenging?’
‘What worked/didn’t work well?’
‘What changes could I make?’
‘How has my thinking changed?’
‘Could this strategy be applied to other problems?’

These self-questioning techniques encourage students to be cognizant of the different strategies used while learning new skills.

3. Scaffolding activities

Scaffolding learning experiences by providing and gradually withdrawing instructional support helps bridge the gap between learner ability and learning goals. The concept springs from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, with the teacher as an expert breaking down skills to help students acquire and master them.

How you choose to scaffold classroom activities will reflect your students’ proficiency at each stage.

Initial stages:
(Students as spectators)
Developing stages:
(Students participating)
Mastery stage:
(Students work independently)
  • Assessing prior knowledge
  • Modelling tasks
  • Thinking aloud
  • Brainstorming/Mind maps
  • Questioning/prompts
  • Learning aids/resources
  • Providing finished examples
  • Using group work/collaboration
  • Integrating edtech
  • Quizzing/reviewing
  • Journaling
  • Checking-in and feedback
  • Supporting peers
  • Performing self and peer assessments
  • Critically reflecting on learning
  • Setting learning goals
  • Practically applying new skills
  • Taking ownership of learning

Scaffolding allows students to achieve at ever-increasing levels, facilitates inclusion and participation, and encourages independence.

4. Formative assessment and self-reporting

Assessing students’ metacognitive development and gauging the success of your metacognitive teaching strategies is essential. Research indicates that it’s difficult for students to accurately measure their metacognitive skills upon the conclusion of a task. Teaching your students to actively assess the success of their strategies during activities should be part of the process.

Adding the following activities to your teaching toolkit can help students identify what is working:

1. Think aloud protocol:

  • Slow down the problem-solving process so that students work step by step towards the solution.
  • Ask the students to verbalise details about the problem, their decisions, and why they have made these decisions at each step.
  • The aim is to increase comprehension of the problem, focus on key elements, clarify ideas, and improve reasoning and thinking skills.

2. Self-reporting scales:

  • Develop a Likert scale to measure students’ metacognitive awareness. You can use this before and after a unit of work or stand-alone activity.
  • Adjust the language and number of items so that it is suitable for your learners.
  • Teach them how to score their scales to help determine strengths and weaknesses and areas to target for intervention.
  • Metacognitive scales for teachers can also help improve your teaching practice and professional development.

These strategies are designed to teach students how to prepare and study better to foster greater independence, ownership, and enjoyment of learning.

Motivational strategies

Motivational strategies aim to increase student engagement and willingness to apply cognitive and metacognitive skills to their learning. Motivation is a key component of self-regulation in education, underpinning perseverance during challenging tasks, the likelihood of repeated practising new skills, and applying new strategies to facilitate learning.

Strategies to motivate your students should involve:

1. Setting an appropriate challenge

If you set an easy or meaningless task, students will likely become bored and disengaged. If the task is too difficult or students don’t feel supported, they may become frustrated and give up. Setting the right level of challenge for your class requires comprehensive knowledge of the subject and a deep understanding of your learners.

When designing challenging learning activities, considerations to help motivate learners should include:

  • Avoiding information overload
  • Breaking down tasks into smaller parts
  • Scaffolding challenging tasks
  • Teaching new skills independently (not at the same time)
  • Allowing ample time for practice
  • Rewarding effort (as well as achievement)
  • Giving feedback on personal progress
  • Avoiding social comparison

This will help prevent cognitive overload and promote your students’ perseverance as they encounter challenges and try different strategies to overcome them.

2. Activating prior knowledge

Drawing connections between what students already know and what they will be learning about in the classroom is integral to making their education meaningful and, therefore, their motivation. Eliciting background knowledge provides insight into approaching a topic to allow students to best access new content and build on what they already know.

Activities recommended to activate prior knowledge beyond a superficial level include (as a whole class and in groups):


Concept mapping: make a visual representation of the solar system, mapping out students’ concepts and ideas and using lines and arrows to show relationships between them.

Video: The Solar System:


Perspective-taking: ask students to take a particular perspective, such as refugees, asylum seekers, coastguards, governments, and UN agencies, to create different contexts for learning and enhance retrieval of information relating to each perspective.


Brain dumps: give the students a short period (2-5 minutes) to write down anything, and everything they know about computers, the internet, and ICT, then collate ideas as a class on the whiteboard/smartboard.

Video: How Do Computers Think?

Visual arts

See-Think-Wonder charts: display a painting by Picasso for the students before asking them to detail “What do I see?”, “What do I think?”, and “What do I wonder?” about the image in separate columns. Providing prompts can help them flesh out each section.

These ideas value student voice and experience beyond the usual question/answer and group brainstorming activities that they’ve become accustomed to.

3. Promoting good study habits

With so many distractions, motivating our students to study independently is problematic. Regardless of age, explicitly teaching them practical study skills can help to encourage them when they’re outside of the classroom. This can be coupled with setting academic and personal goals to motivate students to continue improving as they work towards and achieve those goals.

Promoting good study habits

Researchers have ranked the effectiveness of different study techniques as follows:

Highly effective
  • Practice testing: Taking practice tests on the material to be learned.
  • Distributed practice: Scheduling practice to space out study activities over time.
  • Elaborative interrogation: Forming explanations for why explicitly stated facts and concepts are true.
  • Self-explanation: Linking new information to prior knowledge and explaining steps taken during problem-solving.
Moderately effective
  • Interleaved practice: Scheduling to study a mix of different content and problems during a study session.
  • Summarising: Writing summaries of texts studied.
  • Highlighting: Marking potentially important text while reading.
Least effective
  • Keyword mnemonic: Associating verbal material by using keywords and mental images.
  • Imagery for text: Forming mental images for texts while reading or being read to.
  • Re-reading: Re-reading a text after the initial reading.

Remember, you need to teach, model, and allow your students to practice any new techniques. You can experiment with your students in class by giving small groups a different study technique for the same content and then a short quiz. See which methods were most effective for learning.

4. Differentiation

Differentiated lesson designs are an ideal teaching strategy to motivate students, increasing their access to content by giving them agency and choice when completing assigned classwork. Allowing your students the opportunity to engage in a way that resonates with their learning style, challenges them, and nurtures their competency will broaden their horizons for achievement and enjoyment of learning.

To illustrate, see how incorporating ICT, in this case, video, increases student choice and flexible learning opportunities:


Students are tasked with exploring the themes of George Orwell’s 1984. They can choose animated features, documentaries, or a discussion panel to help them study. These choices deliver the same content but in different formats.

George Orwell Resources

Whether they like documentary and news-style programmes, animation, parodies, or films, students can filter content to find resources that work for them as a learning tool to study and comprehend material more effectively.

Giving students this type of control in their learning experiences makes them think about how they best learn. After viewing, active inquiry, shared problem-solving, and discussion-based activities will help consolidate knowledge with their classmates.

Of course, the scope for differentiation moves beyond this example. Learn how to differentiate interactive video content and find further advice here.

Finally, although this may seem like a lot, take your time implementing new strategies and testing out ideas. Be mindful that overload goes for you, too. Metacognitive pedagogy requires practice, but you should approach it with excitement to help your students become motivated to think about how they can learn most effectively throughout their education and take ownership of it.