Metacognitive Strategies That Work

Metacognition is a key skill for success in learning. Critical thinking and problem solving rely heavily on advanced metacognition, as does information literacy.

So, what is metacognition? You might have heard it described as “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition is a keen self-awareness about one’s thinking, evident in the ability to self-monitor AND regulate one’s cognitive processes. So it’s more than just “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition requires action or self-correction about thinking too (self-regulated learning). To some extent this process develops naturally as we mature. But maturation can only take metacognitive development so far. That’s where good metacognitive strategies come in.

Good metacognitive strategies make thinking visible–both expert thinking and student thinking.  Here are some metacognitive strategies that work, with tools that can enhance those strategies:

Think Aloud Method

I have discussed the think aloud method in other posts (here and here). This is one of my favorites because it models expert thinking about something (e.g., source evaluation, search strategies), which is probably the single most important first step in helping students develop the metacognitive skills needed to successfully solve problems within a specific domain. For information literacy instruction, the think aloud method gives students expert insight into ways of thinking and interacting with information. Students are then given the opportunity to practice those “ways of thinking” on their own with librarian guidance.

No tools are needed for face-to-face instruction with this strategy, though Think Sheets might be useful for students as they practice the skills on their own. For online learning, librarians can demonstrate the think aloud with screencasts or screenshots. Students can do the same.

Knowledge Surveys

Knowledge surveys are a great way to get students thinking about what they know and what they don’t know at the beginning of an instructional session. Survey questions are scenario-based (what would you do or what do you think you should do) and responses can be open-ended or multiple choice in format. Student response systems (clickers) can be used to deliver knowledge surveys. Discussion immediately following the survey questions(s) gives students insight into their areas of weakness and competence.

Scaffolded Discussion

Discussion (sharing thoughts) is vitally important for the development of metacognitive skills. But, participating in a discussion in itself is a skill that many students need to learn. Scafffolded discussion that uses guiding questions, or that provides students with tips for creating their own questions, not only enhances the development of metacognitive thinking, it’s a very practical approach as well–after all, most college courses use discussion as a central learning activity.

Guided Feedback

Learning requires feedback. Guided feedback has been shown to be an effective metacognitive strategy (it’s a lot like scaffolding). In guided feedback, students receive explanations about the quality of their actions within a learning activity. For example, in the classroom, an instructor might provide oral feedback during an inquiry-based learning activity. In an online course, students might receive annotated feedback or even feedback in the form of a screencast or podcast. Guided feedback can be especially useful for the process of writing research papers. Providing feedback during that process (by chunking up activities) results in better learning.


Self-reflection can help students identify and correct problem areas in their learning. However, good self-reflection is a metacognitive skill, which means that self-reflection alone can be meaningless to students unless they know HOW to self reflect. As an adjunct to more direct approaches (think aloud) and with adequate feedback, students can learn how to use self-reflection as an effective tool. Surveys can be used as self-reflection tools, as can student response systems.


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