Metacognitive thinking skills are important for instructors and students alike. This resource provides instructors with an overview of the what and why of metacognition and general “getting started” strategies for teaching for and with metacognition.

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Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2018). Metacognition Resource. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from

What is metacognition?

Metacognition, sometimes described as “thinking about your own thinking,” refers to knowledge about one’s own thoughts and cognitive processes as well as the cognitive regulation involved in directing one’s learning. Engaging in metacognition allows learners to recognize gaps in their knowledge or difficulty in acquiring new information, as well as to identify and integrate new knowledge into their existing cognitive framework.

The process of metacognition requires individuals to assess and monitor their learning, in addition to reflecting on their performance. Developing metacognitive skills can be as simple as asking students what they did to prepare for an exam, and whether, after seeing their exam performance, they would prepare differently for the next exam. This can encourage students to think about their preparation methods and whether those methods are appropriate or useful.

The terms used in the science of learning literature for the processes associated with metacognition are cognitive knowledge and cognitive regulation. Table 1 breaks down these two components of metacognition by naming attributes associated with each.

Table 1: Metacognitive Components and Their Attributes

Metacognitive Component
Cognitive Knowledge
Instructors/Learners know:

  • themselves as learners and factors affecting their cognition / how learning works.
  • learning strategies to manage their own cognition.
  • why and when to use a given learning strategy (e.g., space out studying over time).
How Learning Works
Cognitive Regulation
Instructors/Learners know:

  • assess the task.
  • plan for and use appropriate strategies and resources.
  • monitor task performance.
  • evaluate processes and products of their learning and revise their goals and strategies accordingly.
Adapted from Emily Lai,“Metacognition: A Literature Review,” Research Report for Always Learning, Pearson: Assessment & Information Group; and informed by Ambrose et al. (2010) and Dunlosky and Metcalfe (2009).

Why use metacognition?

The Center for Teaching and Learning encourages instructors to teach metacognitively. This means to teach “with and for metacognition.” To teach with metacognition involves instructors “thinking about their own thinking regarding their teaching” (Hartman, 2001: 149). To teach for metacognition involves instructors thinking about how their instruction helps to elucidate learning and problem solving strategies to their students (Hartman, 2001).

What are the benefits of metacognitive skills for learners?

Learners with metacognitive skills are:

  • More self-aware as critical thinkers and problem solvers, enabling them to actively approach knowledge gaps and problems and to rely on themselves.
  • Able to monitor, plan, and control their mental processes.
  • Better able to assess the depth of their knowledge.
  • Able to transfer/apply their knowledge and skills to new situations.
  • Able to choose more effective learning strategies.
  • More likely to perform better academically.
What are the benefits of metacognitive skills for instructors?

Instructors who teach metacognitively / think about their teaching are:

  • More self-aware of their instructional capacities, and know what teaching strategies they rely upon, when and why these use these strategies, and how to use them effectively and inclusively.
  • Better able to regulate their instruction before, during, and after conducting a class session (i.e., to plan what and how to teach, monitor how lessons are going and make adjustments, and evaluate how a lesson went afterwards).
  • Better able to communicate, helping students understand the what, why, and how of their learning, which can lead to better learning outcomes.
  • Able to use their knowledge of students’ metacognitive skills to plan instruction designed to improve students’ metacognition and to create inclusive course climates.

Getting started: How to teach both for and with metacognition?

The Center for Teaching and Learning has compiled the following list of research-supported practices for instructors interested in activating and developing students’ metacognitive skills. Listed below are additional strategies for instructors looking to become more metacognitive in all facets of their teaching practice.

Teaching for metacognition — Metacognitive strategies that serve students and their learning:

Ideas for implementation include:
Share simple heuristics to enable student self-monitoring.
Provide students with a list of simple questions they can ask themselves throughout the semester to make sure they are on track. Tanner (2012) provides an extensive list of the types of questions students can use to self-monitor their learning, their success, and their progress.
How to Activate Your Reading
Explicitly teach metacognitive strategies and explain their value to students’ learning and success.
When introducing the syllabus, explicitly teach students how to engage in meaningful reflection on their learning and demonstrate how this reflection connects to their success, their self-awareness, and their regulation of their future learning.

Revisit this conversation after returning a major assignment or exam.

Activating Prior Knowledge
Build in time for metacognitive work.
Build in class time for students to reflect on and assess their learning–individually and in collaboration with their peers. Ask students to write a 1-minute reflection paper at the end of a class session with the prompt: what is your main takeaway from today’s class session?

Design homework assignments that ask students to focus on their learning process. This includes having students monitor progress, identify and correct mistakes, and plan next steps.

Following an exam, ask students to complete a self-assessment (also known as an “exam wrapper”) in which they reflect on their performance, how they prepared for the exam, and what they would do differently as they prepare/study for the next exam. This self-assessment can be revisited prior to the next exam to remind students of their observations on how to better prepare themselves.

Iterative Note Review
Model metacognitive processes for students OR
Make metacognitive processes visible to students
Think aloud as you solve a problem, read a text, write notes, or perform other disciplinary behaviors to model for students the steps you take.

Offer group office hours to encourage students to verbalize their learning processes and listen to others’ approaches to reasoning and problem solving.

Scaffold the metacognitive process.
Provide structures to aid students in recognizing strengths and areas for improvement in their learning process.

Provide structures to guide students in creating implementable action plans for improvement.

Show students how to move stepwise from reflection to action.

Use appropriate technology to support student self-regulation.
Many platforms such as CourseWorks provide tools that students can use to keep up with their course work and monitor their progress.

Use the assessment tools in CourseWorks to help students self-monitor and self-evaluate.

Teaching with metacognition — Metacognitive strategies that serve the course and the instructor’s teaching practice:

Ideas for implementation include:
Plan how to monitor course progress and the effectiveness of teaching methods used
Set course and instructional objectives and milestones to measure progress and success.

Create an evaluation plan to periodically evaluate one’s teaching and course design, set-up, and content.

Structure the course to provide time for students to give feedback on the course and teaching.

Evaluate course progress and successes of teaching
Use course and instructional objectives to measure progress.

Schedule mid-course feedback surveys with students.

Request a mid-course review (offered as a service for graduate students).

Review end-of-course evaluations and reflect on the changes that will be made to maximize student learning.

Build in time for metacognitive work
Set aside time before, during, and after a course to reflect on one’s teaching practice, relationship with students, course climate and dynamics, as well as assumptions about the course material and its accessibility to students.

Reflect on course and teaching practice and revise goals and strategies for next iteration of course.

Metacognition at Columbia

Metacognition and Memory Lab | Dr. Janet Metcalfe (Professor of Psychology and of Neurobiology and Behavior) runs a lab that focuses on how people use their metacognition to improve self-awareness and to guide their own learning and behavior. Dr. Metcalfe is author of Metacognition: A Textbook for Cognitive, Educational, Life Span & Applied Psychology (2009), co-authored with John Dunlosky.

In Fall 2018, the CTL and the Science of LEarning Research (SOLER) initiative co-organized the inaugural Science of Learning Symposium “Metacognition: From Research to Classroom” which brought together Columbia faculty, staff, graduate students, and experts in the science of learning to share the research on metacognition in learning, and to translate it into strategies that maximize student learning. View video recording of the event here.


Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Dunlosky, J. and Metcalfe, J. (2009). Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Flavell, J.H. (1976). Metacognitive Aspects of Problem Solving. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), The Nature of Intelligence (pp. 231-236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hacker, D.J. (1998). Chapter 1. Definitions and Empirical Foundations. In Hacker, D.J.; Dunlosky, J.; and Graesser, A.C. (1998). Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice. Mahwah, N.J.: Routledge.

Hartman, H.J. (2001). Chapter 8: Teaching Metacognitively. In Metacognition in Learning and Instruction. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 149 – 172.

Lai, E.R. (2011). Metacognition: A Literature Review. Pearson’s Research Reports. Retrieved from

McGuire, S.Y. (2015). Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Schraw, G. and Dennison, R.S. (1994). Assessing Metacognitive Awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 19(4): 460-475.

The CTL researches and experiments.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.