The 10 Metacognitive Strategies That Will Empower All Primary And Secondary Students

Metacognitive strategies help pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate aspects of their learning. Explicit teaching of these strategies can have a considerable impact on student outcomes at both primary and secondary, especially for disadvantaged students. 

However, it can be difficult to unlock the potential of metacognitive strategies in practice as metacognition can be difficult to identify. It also requires students to take greater responsibility for their own learning. In this article, we list 10 practical metacognitive strategies to embed in your classroom teaching to develop more independent, self-regulated and empowered learners.

We know that the students who take part in Third Space Learning’s online one to one tuition lessons make better progress when they use metacognitive strategies to engage with their learning and take ownership of it; understanding what they are learning, why and what steps they need to take to strengthen and improve. It’s for this reason that our extensive tutor training programme includes training on embedding and teaching metacognitive strategies to develop autonomous pupils who are able to reflect on and adapt their approaches.

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The Primary School Guide to Metacognition

A step by step guide to teaching metacognition across your primary school. Includes 10 practical strategies for the classroom.

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What is metacognition?

Metacognition is the ability to examine the process of thoughts and feelings. This ability encourages learners to understand how they learn best. It also helps them to develop self-awareness skills that will help them in the future. 

In short, metacognition is the process of thinking about your own thinking and learning. It differs from normal thought because it is intentional

Here are some examples of metacognition: 

  • A pupil learns about what things help him or her to remember facts, names, and events. 
  • A pupil learns about his or her own style of learning. 
  • A pupil learns about which strategies are most effective for solving problems.

What are metacognitive strategies?

Metacognitive strategies empower learners to think about their own thinking and learning more explicitly, usually by setting goals and monitoring and evaluating their progress towards their goals.

This awareness of the learning process enhances their control over it and enhances personal capacity for self-regulation and managing one’s own motivation for learning.

Metacognition in the classroom can be divided into three phases, and different strategies can be utilised at different phases:

  • Planning;
  • Monitoring (or doing);
  • Evaluation (or reviewing).
Cognition and metacognition as applied to a primary maths problem. [Source: EEF Report]

There is a strong body of research from psychology and education demonstrating the importance of metacognition and self-regulation for effective pupil learning. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found that the use of metacognitive strategies was a high impact and low cost intervention that can be worth the equivalent of 7 months’ additional progress.

Read more: The most effective intervention strategies for schools

However, the EEF acknowledges that metacognition can be hard to define and describes it as an ‘elusive’ topic. It’s also something that we, as humans, sometimes do and develop naturally so it can be tricky to identify concrete examples. However, it is the explicit instruction of these techniques that can have a huge impact on student progress, especially among disadvantaged students.

In order to support teachers looking to embed metacognitive strategies into their teaching, we’ve listed 10, categorised by the phase in which they can be used. All of the strategies are suitable for both primary and secondary learners.

Planning phase:

1. Break the problem down

Maths problems, especially multi-step word problems or problem-solving questions, can be overwhelming. Students might rush in and make mistakes.

Get learners to take a step back to ‘unpack’ the question to make sure they understand it. Ask them questions like:

  • Is this something you have done before? 
  • Is it similar to something you have done before?
  • Is there anything you recognise?
  • What are the important elements of the question or task?
  • What resources do I need to answer this question?

Not only will it boost their self-confidence if they know they have solved a problem like this before, but it will also help them to make connections in their learning and activate prior knowledge.

Third Space Learning's online tuition slides providing tutors with support to develop metacognitive skills
In our online one to one maths tutoring, lessons are structured to guide pupils from guided to independent practice.
We provide tutors with questioning prompts to help students to use metacognitive strategies when working more independently.

Read more: Effective Questioning

2. Peer and partner work

Talking with their peers, asking reflective questions, and debating approaches to problem-solving helps learners to develop higher-order thinking and reasoning skills. Such conversations can create productive conflicts that help learners develop multiple perspectives, leading to deeper understanding.

Interacting with peers can be more effective in achieving successful learning than working only independently and can be as effective as working one on one with an adult.

Purposeful peer work allows learners to:

  • Examine their thinking process and the approach they used in order to identify different ways of solving a particular problem;
  • Explore diverse appropriate strategies or varying viewpoints;
  • Use active listening and reading strategies;
  • Think aloud;
  • Test out ideas and methods that are different from their own;
  • Debate or negotiate to reach a consensus in decision-making before presenting to the group.

In practice, this often means reducing teacher talk time. At the beginning of a lesson, a teacher will speak for a short time to set up a task, with learners then working independently to decide on an effective strategy and engaging in discussion and ‘metacognitive talk’ with their peers.

With younger students or those not yet confident with peer work, teachers can provide a structure for discussion, through questions, guidance and templates.

3. Goal setting 

During the planning stage, learners should set themselves short-term goals or targets. This might look like a checklist or a success criteria.

Short-term goals:

  • Keep you on track – Breaking a learning task up into smaller, more easily attainable chunks, in the form of goals, will enable learners to keep track of their progress.
  • Make you more productive – Learners are less likely to procrastinate if they only have to focus on one small task at a time.

Monitoring (or doing) phase:  

4. Questioning 

Many learners are afraid to ask their teachers or their peers for help for fear of looking stupid or inattentive. However, it is important that a teacher creates a learning environment that encourages learners to ask for help and not to fear making mistakes. 

This will avoid cementing any misconceptions or misunderstandings they may have into their long-term memory. Asking questions allows learners to not only consolidate their new and prior knowledge, but also enables students to figure out which topics they don’t understand as well. 

Asking questions allows learners to seek feedback and advice on how to improve or adapt their strategies so they can become better learners.

Questions might include:

  • What steps should I take first?
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • How can I check that I am doing this right?

5. Monitoring progress

Learners need to be constantly monitoring their progress whilst completing a task. This might look like:

  • Referring back and assessing their progress towards their goals.
  • Self-questioning to ensure they are on the right track.
  • Checking methods and looking out for calculation errors which might affect the outcome.

6. Improving self-regulation

Self-regulation, or metacognitive regulation, can be defined as one’s ability to manage thoughts, feelings, and actions whilst striving towards a goal. In other words, they are students who actively engage in the full metacognitive cycle and are aware of which phase they are working at.

How can we help learners to improve their self-regulation? It will look different for learners of different ages, and for different tasks, but here are two self-regulating strategies that learners can use:

  • Manage time effectively – Encourage learners to keep to deadlines and to adapt strategies based on how long the task is taking them.
  • Remove distractions – Help learners to remove different distractions and help them to reflect on its impact on their productivity.

7. Developing resilience 

When working on a new or difficult task, learners can find it daunting. When learners are stuck, they should ask themselves metacognitive questions, such as:

  • What could I do differently? 
  • Have I seen anything like this before? 
  • What support will help me? (for example, books, resources, manipulatives, peers, teachers)

This will put them in a position to overcome obstacles along the way and, where possible, try different strategies before going to the teacher or teaching assistant for help.

Read more: Growth Mindset

Evaluation (or reviewing) phase:

8. Self-evaluating

After successfully completing a task, learners may not remember what they struggled with, and may not realise how much new knowledge they have acquired. 

It is important that learners engage in self-evaluation so that the next time they complete a task, they can apply what they have learned and avoid making the same mistakes.

Teachers can encourage self-evaluation by asking learners to review their corrected homework, classwork and exams, engage with teacher feedback and perform self-marking against a success criteria.

Teachers can also ask students to self-question: 

  • What did I learn about this topic that I did not know before?
  • What was easy for me?
  • What content was challenging to learn?
  • Do I understand it now?
  • Why did I make the mistakes that I did?
  • Where did I succeed?
  • Where did I go wrong?

[Self regulated] learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals

BJ Zimmerman, Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview

9. Test yourself

Learners can use self-testing to help them remember information and to control the learning process. Self-testing and retrieval practice allows learners to review what content they know well, identify what they need to practise more, and what they need to re-learn.

There are various ways in which teachers can encourage students to self-test, including:

  • Completing practice tests
  • Quizzes
  • Flashcards
  • Teaching peers

Read more: Formative And Summative Assessment

10. Identifying the best metacognitive strategies

There are many metacognitive strategies out there and there will be some which are more effective than others – but this will be highly dependent on the individual using them!

If students spend time building their own individual armoury of metacognitive skills to draw upon, they can make the most out of their learning in the classroom.

Teachers can encourage learners to do this in many ways, such as:

  • Reflect on the pros and cons of the methods and strategies students have used;
  • Rank metacognitive strategies from the most to the least effective for them;
  • Recognise what mistakes they made when trying new metacognitive strategies and what they can improve on the next time they use this strategy.

Metacognitive strategies have benefits for students far beyond the class – they can be used in any learning activity and in any environment. This is why metacognition is so vitally important to students and should be embedded in all curriculums.

Looking to develop independent learning skills in your secondary school students? Read our blog to see why these are the secret to success!

What are metacognitive strategies?

Metacognitive strategies empower learners to think about their own thoughts.

Why is metacognition important to learners?

Research shows that metacognition increases learner motivation because learners feel more in control of their own learning. Learners who make use of metacognitive strategies are more aware of their own thinking and more likely to be active learners who learn more deeply.

How can a teacher improve students’ metacognitive skills?

Teachers can embed metacognitive skills in their teaching by supporting student planning, monitoring and reviewing, developing students’ questioning skills and modelling their own metacognitive skills.

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