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THE BIG REVEAL: Showing Students How Metacognition Works


When I talk to adults about metacognition, I begin with a broken vacuum cleaner (a picture of it, that is) and ask, 'What would you do if your hoover didn't work?’ Someone always says they would kick it, but most people take a more measured approach. They might begin by opening it up to see if anything is caught in it, perhaps checking to see if it's plugged in or if a fuse is blown. (If not, a kick might be useful. I once fixed a printer that way.) After a while, they might evaluate whether it’s time to buy a new hoover.

This is a classic, everyday example of metacognitive regulation: planning, monitoring and evaluating our learning. Metacognitive regulation is informed by metacognitive knowledge, or what we know about: ourselves ('I can usually fix things that break'); the task ('I understand the basics of how a hoover operates'); and strategies ('When something breaks, I usually find a video online to help').

As adults, we are so used to this kind of thinking that we are hardly aware we are doing it, and even less aware that young people are still developing these important metacognitive skills. More importantly, as adults we can think about our thinking. We have the gift of age (acquired metacognitive skills) and the curse of knowledge (being unaware of how much we know compared to what students may know). Our job as educators is to help students notice and articulate the strategies they use to solve problems, both successful and unsuccessful, and reflect on that process.


The good news is that there is plenty of research indicating that we can teach metacognitive regulation to students through explicit instruction, lots of modelling and practice. Several large studies and reports have taken on the task of researching the 'how' of teaching metacognition. (Dignath and Büttner (2008), Hattie (2011a), Hattie et al. (1996), the EEF Guidance Report and Getting Started with Metacognition. In practice, evidence-informed recommendations for improving metacognitive skills include:

  • Explain the benefits of metacognition ('Good learners think about their learning, because it helps them make good decisions and learn from mistakes').

  • Are explicit about strategies to use ('It’s important to plan, monitor and evaluate as we solve problems'; 'We can use planning tools to help us').

  • Model ('First I will…').

  • Relate to context and/or subject (‘The first thing I’ll do is look at the periodic table. I will…').

  • Incorporate verbalisation of thinking, including Talk Tasks prompts and protocols ('Let’s Think, Pair, Share…').

  • Practise, practise, practise ('Remember when we… – let’s use that strategy again here').


The best teachers know what they know and show how they think through modelling. Modelling is the vehicle for sharing the teacher’s learning process with students. When we model our thinking, we let learners inside our heads so that they can understand what expert thinking sounds like.

This live demonstration of our thinking, as we think aloud in front of the class, reveals deep understanding of the mysteries of the mind, including when one solves a maths problem, writes a sentence, reads difficult text, sets up an experiment, etc. Teachers should do this repeatedly, providing numerous examples of the thinking process, naming the steps and providing structures along the way. Naming the steps they take when solving a problem is important because novice learners will be using their working memories to sort through other information as they think; this allows them to focus on developing useful learning strategies, versus missing key information due to cognitive overload.

As an English teacher, I often model my thinking for how to organise an essay. Here I have brainstormed ideas for what to include. Then I modelled how I would group and order my ideas into topic paragraphs. This combines chunking and metacognition.

PUT IT INTO PRACTICE: Model, Teach, Practise and Connect

First, identify a learning objective and task you often ask students to do. Consider what students could be thinking that would help them to better self-regulate and meet the objective.

Plan what you are going to say when you model your thinking. Planning, at least at the start, means you don’t have to think on your feet and you can better monitor students’ attention. Think about what questions you will ask yourself before, during and after. Examples are in the chart below.

Use Model, Teach, Practise and Connect, a step-by-step guide to teach metacognition. Notice in the graphic below that after modelling the teacher explicitly goes over the steps and the thinking process. A visualiser teaching aid is an excellent tool for modelling thinking in real time. The visualiser can easily project a draft piece of work, a task to be completed or a mistake made, which the teacher can use as a live model for planning, monitoring or evaluation. In the final Connect step, an important tip for the teacher is to connect the thinking process (or decision-making) with what the students did in the task.

Metacognition in practice
From Connect the Dots: The Collective Power of Relationships, Memory and Mindset in the Classroom


In order for metacognitive thinking to stick, it must be practised consistently, repeatedly applied to real learning contexts. Below are some tools I use. Practise these types of strategies regularly with students so that they become habit. Keep in mind that introducing too many new strategies at a time can be overwhelming for students, so it’s best to introduce these slowly throughout the year.

VISUAL MAPS (for planning

Visual maps, or graphic organisers, are a great way to get students to organise their thinking. Students can design their maps (such as mind maps or concept maps) or use graphic organiser templates, such as compare/contrast diagrams or T charts. Additionally, students can then explain their visual map to their partner or use it to aid themselves as both a reflective tool and memory strategy.

THINK, WRITE, PAIR, SHARE (for planning, monitoring and evaluation)

Teacher poses a question. Students first think on their own, then the students write their thoughts (this could also be in the form of notes). Then they pair with one other person and share their thinking process.

CHECKLISTS (for planning and monitoring)

Simple checklists aid students in following steps and monitoring their progress as they go. Checklists can include steps and questions to ask along the way about one’s thinking or strategies. Examples include a checklist of what goes into writing a scary story (e.g. a suspenseful opening, imagery, etc.) or the steps to solve an equation. The teacher could either model how they came up with the list or the teacher and student together could generate a checklist.

EXIT TICKETS (for monitoring and evaluation)

Exit Tickets, completed in the last few minutes of class, contain questions relating to the learning process. Use them to guide reflection:

  • When students encountered a challenge

  • When students chose a different strategy to solve a problem; and

  • When students learned something new about the task or themselves

This blog is based on my new book called, Connect the Dots: The Collective Power of Relationships, Memory and Mindset in the Classroom with Nina Dibner and illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli, published by John Catt. The graphic is by Oliver Caviglioli and I did the hoover.


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