Simplified Metacognition

I’m writing a short chapter about metacognition and learning, and have been disappointed in how technical it is coming across – metacognition is a complicated construct. So I have decided to have a go at it here and see if aI can break it down into understandable components. Geiwitz (1994) has done a pretty good job of deconstructing metacognitive skills for a non-specialist audience, so I will use his work as a basis for my try here. Please have a read of what I’ve written,and make liberal suggestions to improve what I have here.

Metacognition is a set of skills that allow us to control and direct our cognitive abilities. Don’t feel stupid if you don’y know what cognition is – I was in my first cognition class as a 30 year old adult before I had any idea what cognition is. I took the class because cognitive psychology was one of the areas I was required to study in order to obtain a psychology degree – I ended up getting a PhD in cognitive psychology. Cognition refers to our thinking processes – attention (as in attending to something in the brain), memory, and the thinking processes that make up our everyday existence. So, by that definition, metacognitive skills are those skills that enable you to control and direct your thinking processes.

According to Piaget, metacognitive skills begin to emerge at about age 12. He didn’t call them metacognitive skills, but called them formal operations (the final stage of his intellectual development model). In this stage, children can begin to apply mental routines to abstract material. In Geiwitz’s example, adolescents can understand and can solve a problem like “If a suitcase can eat four rocks in one day, how many can it eat in two days?” Prior to the development of metacognitive skills, a suitcase that eats rocks is an imaginary construct that does not exist in the real world, so they will refuse to answer the question as a serious exercise; the content of the problem (its concrete aspects) gets in the way of solving the abstract components of the problem and they are unable to reason in a purely hypothetical way.

As metacognitive skills begin to emerge, young people spend time thinking about thinking (one of the definitions of metacognition), however, the exercise is usually one of curiosity rather than one of exploration and understanding. As a result, once a person has developed a rudimentary set of metacognitive skills, that is usually where they stay.

Being able to understand and direct our cognitive processes underlies the ability to understand and direct complex problems in management situations, view problems as an expert, and gain a clearer understanding of complex social and societal interactions. The greater an individuals metacognitive skills have been developed, the greater the individual is able to direct their cognitive functions in order to direct and manage their interactions in the world around them.

Geiwitz uses language in a good illustrative manner to demonstrate metacognitive development. To have a grasp of a native language is the content knowledge necessary to communicate. Understanding grammar and understanding the rules of effective communication would be metacognitive skills. Having those metacognitive skills in a well developed form allows someone to communicate more effectively, with greater clarity, and with persuasive powers than someone with rudimentary content knowledge only. Metacognitive skills allow you to use your knowledge to solve problems and control the world around you with some degree of effectiveness.

As you can imagine, the measurement and development of these skills should be very important in education. However, they are hard to measure, and difficult to develop.

Below is a partial list of areas where research has found that metacognitive skills have a direct impact:

  • Academic success depends on thinking – if IQ is the engine, metacognition is the driver.
  • Intellectual ability contributes for about half as much as metacognition to learning something.
  • Cognitive flexibility requires you to know what cognitive options you have available = metacognition.
  • Deep reasoning involves real thinking about what you already know = metacognition.
  • Critical thinking and analysis is all about evaluating the new against what you already know about the subject = metacognition.
  • Logical thinking requires you to know how you think = metacognition.
  • Making rational decisions requires you to think about what you already know = metacognition.
  • Creativity – becoming aware of yourself enough to stop imitating others = Metacognition.
  • Mindfulness – an awareness of the moment requires you to be aware of your own thought process = metacognition.
  • Increases in metacognition significantly reduces relapse in people who suffer with depression.

The foundational metacognitive skill upon which other metacognitive skills are based, is called metacognitive monitoring. This is the ability to determine whether or not you actually know something with any degree of certainty. My students and I studied this for several years, and devised a method of both accurately measuring and developing this skill. What we did was simply ask them a general knowledge content question, and then asked them to indicate how certain they were that the answer they gave was the correct one. By measuring first year university students’ certainty in this manner, we are able to calculate just how good they are at really determining what they know. Shockingly, first year university students consistently performed at just above chance levels of knowing if the answer they provided was the right answer or not. They were not very good at determining whether they knew something or not. Their metacognitive monitoring skills are lacking.

We found that by repeatedly asking them to indicate their certainty, and by manipulating the rewards they received for being right with their certainty rating, they could learn to recognize the feeling they have when they actually do know something. Their metacognitive index (an index we developed) rose from close to 0.50 (indicating guessing) to 0.80 or higher (with 1.0 being perfect discrimination). This change occurred over the course of a few weeks. We developed an app to go on mobile devices that does this for anyone (

Not full metacognitive development, but a start.

One of the big problems with full metacognitive development is the accurate measurement of metacognitive skills. Metacognitive monitoring is the only one of the metacognitive skills that can be easily measured, and it is only one part of the package. Other important metacognitive skills, that don’t lend themselves to easy measurement, would include the ability to take a problem apart, determining what thinking strategy would be the best one for the problem at hand, ongoing evaluation of the progress of solving a problem, and then the evaluation of how well you have done in solving the problem. The kinds of problems I’m talking about here are complex problems, not a simple math like equation.

Full metacognitive training is largely about the process that you could use to deal with a problem, along with a recognition that there are many ways that a problem can be approached, with a number of the approaches yielding a positive outcome. It also involves the ongoing monitoring of the thinking processes that you might use, and a willingness to change an approach, a willingness to back up and go a different direction, a willingness to throw away work you have already done when progress is impeded, slow, or nonexistent. It is about monitoring your thought processes, searching through what you already know that might help solve a problem, and a penchant for trying out something else if the cognitive tools you have at hand are not sufficient.

Not only is it difficult to measure and develop these skills, but the current state of education systematically stifles metacognitive development. One of the hallmarks of metacognitive development is called divergent thinking. Divergent thinking requires an individual to think of different ways that a solution can be reached. It requires cognitive flexibility, as well as critical analysis of where the process you have chosen is taking you.

Formal education is almost always about convergent thinking. Convergent thinking would be considered the opposite of divergent thinking. Convergent thinking requires you to come up with the same solution that others come up with. When you think of learning arithmetic, not only do we all have to come up with the same answer (makes sense in the content domain), but we have to “show our work” so that we can demonstrate that we have all used the same method to arrive at the solution. There is no room for a learner to critically evaluate the process used to learn, only to memorize the approved approach. There is no cognitive flexibility, and such thinking is actively discouraged. Formal education is about convergence and conformity – the exact opposite of what is needed to foster the development of metacognition.

As an example of how this works, Geiwitz highlights the work of Heller and Reif teaching physics at Berkeley. When they started, Heller and Reif found that students that averaged a B or above in a foundational physics course were only able to solve 35% of the textbook problems that required them to apply their theoretical knowledge to obtain a solution. Looking into why, the researchers found that the students were using “primitive” problem-solving methods to arrive at a solution. The problem wasn’t their knowledge, it was their lack of metacognitive skills that allowed them to analyze what cognitive tools they had at their disposal that would allow them to successfully arrive at a solution.

When Heller and Reif taught the students how to deconstruct the problems that they were faced with into sub-problems that they could understand and solve, 70% of the students were able to solve complex physics problems with no errors, while the percentage of students able to solve the problems, who were not trained in the process of evaluating their available strategies, was at about 10%. The students content knowledge, in both cases, was the same. However, being able to think about the process of solving a problem improved the performance of the majority of the students.

In a world obsessed with memorization, the right answer, and standardized testing, there is no room for developing metacognitive skills – regardless of the rhetoric.


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