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Metacognition In The Classroom: A 7-Step Practical Approach To Primary Maths Teaching

The EEF released a report in April regarding the importance of metacognition in the classroom. Here’s what some of these metacognitive strategies look like in practice at the primary maths level, presented as a 7-step teaching model.

The power of metacognition is something we have hard wired into the Third Space Learning methodology for our 1-to-1 maths interventions. Metacognitive strategies used by tutors help us to ensure pupils make excellent progress in Maths.

Here we explain exactly what we do to help you better understand the steps you can take with learners in your primary school classroom.

To get the first question out of the way: Why should you care?

As the Education Endowment Foundation report says:

‘There is a strong body of research from psychology and education demonstrating the importance of metacognition and self-regulation to effective pupil learning. The Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit—which summarises international evidence—rates ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ as a high impact, low cost approach to improving the attainment of disadvantaged learners. [1]

Broadly speaking – it works. Together with cognition and motivation, meta-cognition is key to being a self-regulated learner, who is actively engaged in improving their own learning.

So, here are the 7 steps from the report together with guidance to show you how to implement these metacognitive strategies in your primary school or classroom. 

This is what we’ve learnt about using metacognition to give the 5,000+ pupils we teach 1-to-1 maths every week the best chance to move their learning forward.

1. SKILLS: Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive skills

Over a period of initial and continuous professional development, our 1-to-1 Maths specialist tutors receive explicit training on the tenets of pupil success in primary maths. We have always used the term ‘emotions’ to incorporate the ‘motivation’ aspect the EEF report refers to, as we believe enjoyment and fluent dialogue is also key.

How to develop your metacognitive skills in primary
Third Space Learning framework for pupil success, with a focus on metacognition and cognition

For more on the emotional aspect of student success, read our blog on how to make maths lessons engaging.

Understand the metacognitive stages for a learner on any task

The first stage for your development is knowing about the processes that a learner goes through.

Here’s what the EEF metacognition report says:

‘We approach any learning task or opportunity with some metacognitive knowledge about:

  • our own abilities and attitudes (knowledge of ourselves as a learner);
  • what strategies are effective and available (knowledge of strategies); and
  • this particular type of activity (knowledge of the task).

When undertaking a learning task, we start with this knowledge, then apply and adapt it. This is metacognitive regulation. It is about planning how to undertake a task, working on it while monitoring the strategy to check progress, then evaluating the overall success.’

This diagram represents the metacognitive regulation cycle as applied to a Maths problem:

Cognition and Metacognition as applied to a primary maths problem
Cognition and Metacognition as applied to a primary maths problem [Source: EEF Report]

Once you understand that ‘self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and can […] improve their learning’ you will be closer to supporting them to develop their learning process.

Get personalised online lessons from specialist maths tutors to support your target pupils.

Get personalised online lessons from specialist maths tutors to support your target pupils.

Learn more about how our 1-to-1 interventions work first hand on a 10 minute call. You'll have a chance to see the platform, review our curriculum and ask as many questions as you'd like.

2. MONITOR: Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning

During the opening of a 1-to-1 lesson, tutors are directed to focus on metacognitive knowledge.

They’re taught to ask questions around the pupils’ attitudes and their ability in the topic at hand before they’ve even started on the maths.

From our practice, we’ve found that questions like:  ‘How do you feel about this topic?’ or ‘How confident are you in solving these types of questions?’ to be a simple but effective starting point:

Questions you can use to start the metacognitive process in the primary classroom

Tutors also investigate what the pupil already knows about the topic and what strategies they are aware of for solving this type of activity, using questioning in the classroom techniques like:

‘What strategies do you use when problem solving?’

‘What do you notice?’

‘What things should you pay careful attention to when solving questions like these?

‘Where have you seen these types of questions in real life before?’

In the SATs lessons that form the bedrock of our SATs Revision Programme, tutors explicitly ask pupils to choose from a range of strategies to solve questions, while keeping the goal of the activity in mind. Just like the lesson slide below:

SATs lesson slide
Interactive lesson slide teaching SATs curriculum

Keep prompting your pupils to be aware of their thought processes in your Maths lessons

Tutors are not telling pupils what to do but rather combining explicit input with interactive questioning, pupil choice and feedback.

The tutors use this information to help the pupil with metacognitive regulation (planning, monitoring and evaluating) throughout the lesson.

As an example they remind the pupil about strategies they themselves have highlighted as important in the beginning of the lesson, when they get stuck on a question later on.

Questions to use as prompts to elicit metacognition during practice maths tasks

Tutors get tutor notes for each slide (only seen by the tutor) which guides them through this metacognitive process too. See this information to the left in the image below.

There are three parts which help a pupil articulate their knowledge of themselves, the task; and strategies. Namely:

‘What do you notice?’,

‘What do you know?’,

‘Can you show me your working out?’

Reflection is also an important part of the process e.g.

‘Does your answer seem reasonable? Why?’.

This maps onto the monitoring and evaluating aspect of regulation strategies.

lesson slide on process of reflection for metacognition in the classroom
The tutor notes prompt reflection and metacognition in this Maths question

Metacognitive questions to end a maths lesson

In closing, each lesson ends with a plenary which once again mimics this continuous cycle of metacognition. See image below. So here the pupil evaluates specific and general progress, skills and strategies which will inform their monitoring and planning for the next time they are working in this topic.

end of lesson plenary metacognition
End of maths lesson plenary

How should teachers teach metacognitive strategies at primary school

This is the seven-step model for explicitly teaching metacognitive strategies as recommended by the EEF report:

  1. Activating prior knowledge;
  2. Explicit strategy instruction;
  3. Modelling of learned strategy;
  4. Memorisation of strategy;
  5. Guided practice;
  6. Independent practice;
  7. Structured reflection.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at the progression of a Third Space Learning Maths lesson. We recommend you use this as a model for adapting and adjusting your own plan for a lesson built around metacognition. 

1) Activating prior knowledge

The first 4 slides of our Maths lessons deal explicitly with activating prior knowledge. Here the tutor works with the pupil to test recall from the previous week, determine what the pupil understands about the topic already, elicit the topic’s application to the real world, and to help make connections and plan goals for the lesson.

Lesson slide on fractions
Lesson slide on fractions
Lesson slide warm up for counting in sequences
Lesson slide warm up for counting in sequences
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on simple sequences
Lesson slide on simple sequences

Tutors then work through the next four steps using a range of slides (from highly scaffolded to more independent practice) which helps a tutor work through each of these.

2) Explicit strategy instruction;

Read more: Direct instruction and Learning From the Principles of Rosenshine

3) Modelling of learned strategy;

4) Memorisation of strategy;

5) Guided practice; 

Here’s an example of guided practice in one of our lessons.

metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on counting in 2s
Lesson slide on counting in 2s

Read more: The 5 Stages Of Deliberate Practice In Education

6) Independent practice

metacognition in the classroom: lesson slide showing practice time
Lesson slide showing practice time
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on division
Lesson slide on division

After the instruction period lessons have ‘Practice time’ where pupils can independently complete calculations with the tutor there to ask deeper questions and prompt thinking and reasoning.

At the end of the lesson a child is required to undertake multiple choice questions alone to practise what they have just learnt and embed their learning. 

7) Structured reflection

All lessons end with a three part plenary slide as above asking questions around attitude and motivation, metacognition and a chance to evidence progress.

Each of these steps is directly replicable in your primary classroom when teaching Maths. If you want to get a closer look at the lessons or process we use get in touch with our schools team who’ll be happy to help.

3. MODEL: Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills

The EEF report encourages teachers to model the process as they proceed through a lesson, deliberately moving from a more teacher led activity to one directed by the student. 

Third Space Learning’s 1-to-1 KS2 Maths lessons are structured to start with a worked example or highly scaffolded slide where a tutor can model best practice. This level of scaffolding is gradually reduced to partly completed examples right through to ‘Practice time’ where a pupil should be able to practise more independently.

Look at the transition of these slides, as they move from a more scaffolded approach where more modelling occurs towards a less and less scaffolded approach as the pupil starts working more independently.

Could you do this in your primary classroom?  

metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
Lesson slide on ordering and comparing numbers
metacognition in the classroom: Lesson slide on practice time
Lesson slide on practice time

4. CHALLENGE: Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition

The report says

‘Challenge is key to developing self-regulation and metacognition: if learners are not challenged, they will not develop new and useful strategies; nor will they reflect deeply on the content they are engaging with, or on their learning strategies, or stretch their understanding of themselves. Put simply, and somewhat paradoxically, if pupils have to undertake a task that makes them struggle (remember ‘deliberate difficulties’), they are more likely (in the future) to recall information from such tasks from their long-term memory.’ [21]

Examples of how to keep challenge level up

Our tutors are evaluated each week on one of their Maths lessons. ‘Challenge’ and ‘Questioning’ are key components of this evaluation.

Tutors are guided to make sure the pupil is appropriately stretched and challenged according to his/her ability and/or encouraged to develop critical thinking skills.

In our SATs lessons we have explicitly built opportunities for this into our ‘Reasoning’ and ‘Challenge’ slides.

metacognition in the classroom: lesson slide on reasoning
Reasoning slide provides opportunities for metacognition
metacognition in the classroom: Challenge slide
Challenge slide opportunities for metacogntion

What is an appropriate level of challenge? Looking at John Sweller’s cognitive load theory or Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of proximal development’, we see it is important to make it not too hard, not too easy, but just right.

While we teach 1-to-1 our tutors are able to adapt in real time with the correct amount of scaffolding very personalised to each pupil.

However, even with a full KS2 primary maths class you will still be expert at building differentiation in the classroom and adapting the task to each child, whether they are high or low ability students.

5. TALK: Promote and develop metacognitive talk

‘Teachers asking challenging questions—guiding pupils with oral feedback, prompting dialogue, and scaffolding productive ‘exploratory’ talk where appropriate—is an ideal way to share and develop effective learning.’[31]

Tutors leading our Maths lessons are encouraged to ask open-ended questions with a focus on reasoning, discussing, arguing and explaining.

Verbal reasoning is one of the first areas teachers notice improvement in with their pupils on Third Space Learning.

‘It’s a fantastic way to get the children TALKING about their maths and explaining their thinking. Children are keen to participate in the sessions and enjoy them.’
Sara Ellis, Deputy Headteacher, Wyke Regis Junior School

Tutors are trained to think about the different purposes of questions posed and we use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help tutors distinguish between them. The ultimate aim is to get to the top layer of cognition (see image below) where a pupil is able to create, evaluate and analyse with ideas in a specific topic.

Obviously, it is also important and useful to use aspects of remembering, understanding and applying style questions, in order to build the metacognitive knowledge in this domain to access these higher order skills and reduce pupils cognitive load.

Bloom's Taxonomy and how it applies to metacognition in the classroom
Bloom’s Taxonomy: the ultimate aim is to get to the top layer of cognition

Giving pupils a voice is essential to them being able to construct their own meaning and understanding. Tutor talk time should not dominate the lesson as this restricts pupil voice.

At Third Space Learning, we strongly believe this and we are currently working on assessing word count of audio in real time to warn a tutor if they are speaking too much, so they can adjust accordingly.

Are you vigilant to your balance of pupil and teacher talk in your primary classroom?

6. ORGANISE: Explicitly teach pupils how to organise, and effectively manage, their learning independently

In order to help pupils achieve self-regulated learning, it is important to support pupils in understanding how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own progress.

Specifically, our tutors encourage pupils to assess and judge their own thinking processes and understanding during the lesson, in the plenary and formally by completing a pupil feedback form at the end of each lesson.

This allows pupils multiple opportunities to improve accuracy in judgement, especially younger ones, as they tend to struggle with realistic view of how well they learnt something.

In addition, the learning programme has been created to help a teacher best support their pupils with the most effective learning techniques such as retrieval practice, practice testing, distributed (‘spaced’) practice and interleaved practice built in as standard.

7. SUPPORT: Schools should support teachers to develop their knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately 

As with any changes to classroom practice and pedagogy, teachers need a lot of support, training, and time to practise in order to implement them effectively

Every week with Third Space every tutor has one of their lessons evaluated by an expert and they are then given support in integrating metacognitive and other teaching strategies into their teaching.

Continuous CPD is also delivered and used to help tutors understand how to encourage and support pupils’ metacognition in the specific domain of maths.

Make sure that metacognition is on your timetable for discussion each year at your in-school CPD sessions. You’ll be surprised how many teachers will already be using these metacognitive strategies  without even perhaps realising it. It’s part of good, quality first teaching.

How do we know if our metacognitive strategies for primary pupils in Maths are working?

In order to help guide our understanding of self-regulation and metacognition at TSL, we assess our impact by using pupil self reporting questionnaires.

Each programme begins and ends with a ‘Mission Zero’ where we ask cognitive (domain specific), affective (emotional) and meta-cognitive questions. We use machine learning to cluster pupils into groups and then track which areas they have improved in.

This gives Third Space Learning an idea of which areas we are having the most (or least)  impact in and this informs and supports our continuous professional development of tutors and curriculum design.

start of lessons - mission zero
Mission Zero
Example of a question from TSL for encouraging metacognition in the classroom
Example of metacognition questions

Never too early to start teaching metacognition in primary

Our tutors work mostly with KS2 pupils plugging gaps, and fixing common maths misconceptions that have developed over years at primary school.

But you can start your own work in your school or classroom today, no matter what year group you teach or are responsible for, in much the same way you might have incorporated growth mindset in the classroom.

‘Children as young as three have been able to engage in a wide range of metacognitive and self-regulatory behaviours, such as setting themselves goals and checking their understanding.  They also show greater accuracy on tasks they have chosen to accept than on tasks they would have preferred to opt out of. 

Although older children typically exhibit a broader repertoire of metacognitive abilities, the evidence suggests that younger children do typically develop metacognitive knowledge, even at a very early age.’

Now you’ve got the evidence and some practical strategies that we know work to develop metacognition in primary classroom, what are you going to do about it? 

Read more

Do you have pupils who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of pupils across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons and maths interventions designed to plug gaps and boost progress.

Since 2013 we’ve helped over 125,000 primary and secondary school pupils become more confident, able mathematicians. Learn more or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.

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Candida Crawford
Candida Crawford
Third Space Learning
With over 10 years of classroom teaching experience, Candida now works at Third Space Learning with a focus on improving learner progress through curriculum design and tutor training.
Get personalised online lessons from specialist maths tutors to support your target pupils.

Get personalised online lessons from specialist maths tutors to support your target pupils.

Learn more about how our 1-to-1 interventions work first hand on a 10 minute call. You'll have a chance to see the platform, review our curriculum and ask as many questions as you'd like.

Find Out More!

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