Have you heard the terms metacognitive skills or metacognitive strategy bandied about at work or in the staff room and wondered, hmmmm, what am I missing? If so, read on because in this post we’re going to look at what is metacognitive strategy and how you can use it in the classroom.

The first time I heard the term metacognitive strategy or metacognitive skill was in my third year of teaching during a professional development afternoon.

You know the kind of afternoon I’m talking about. One of those compulsory professional development meetings that somehow appear in your calendar.

And of course, it’s after you’ve already taught all day. Plus your feet are killing you, you are absolutely starving, and you need to pee.

Someone in a blazer is standing at the front of the room trying to get you excited about the next new pedagogical technique (insert eye roll here).

If you’ve suffered through professional development afternoons like that you will know that it’s pretty hard to take in useful information after your brain is fried from attending to a million things during your teaching day.

But sometimes buried in those afternoon professional development sessions are some useful information. No, really!

Read on to find out the gems and tips for what metacognitive strategies are and how you can easily use them in your classroom.

What is metacognitive strategy?

woman looking up with question mark and text what is metacognitive strategy

According to the Cornell University Centre for Teaching Innovation, metacognitive strategies are basically just how people learn.  But for teachers, what we mean when we ask what are metacognitive strategies are the skills and techniques we teach students to help them understand their own thinking and learning.

And chances are you are already using metacognitive strategies and teaching metacognitive skills. Tasks such as writing learning reflections, assessing for existing knowledge, and asking students to explain how they arrived at answers are all metacognitive strategies.

According to the Centre for Teaching Innovation, metacognitive strategies “help students focus with greater intention, reflect on their existing knowledge versus information they still need to learn, recognize errors, and develop practices for effective learning.”

Why is metacognition important?

The answer here may be obvious to you, but it’s still important to revisit.  Students who have metacognitive strategies and skills achieve better academic results.  But not every student is destined for an academic or professional career, so why teach these skills to all students?  

Easy! Metacognitive strategies are important for all learning, not just academic learning.  And the stronger your students’ skills are, the more effectively they will learn anything they wish to, whether that’s learning how to edit a YouTube video, how to code, how to prepare a souffle, or how to create a permaculture food forest.

All of these learning goals require the learner to

  • Identify what they what to learn
  • Decide what they know well enough and what they still need to learn
  • Identify, budget for, and acquire necessary materials or tools
  • Learn what they need to learn
  • Complete their project
  • Evaluate their project/product and fix it where it needs fixing
  • Identify and evaluate progress on short-term goals and long-term goals
  • Evaluate skill levels and seek out help to improve
  • Manage time effectively so that the projects are completed to satisfaction within the goal time-frame

Basically, metacognitive strategies enable students to be successful in life.  Learning these skills enable students to 

  • Plan projects
  • Maintain and manage a house
  • Complete tasks at work
  • Maintain important tools (such as cars, workshop tools, gardening tools etc)
  • Manage their time effectively
  • Make long-term life decisions based on their goals

drawing of stick people and lightbulb with text metacognitive strategies lead to

So what now?  Should I teach metacognitive strategies?

If you’re still reading, you’re thinking yeah, I get it, kids need metacognitive strategies, so when does metacognition develop? Can metacognition be taught? How? What’s next?

This research shows that metacognition develops independently during adolescence, between the ages of twelve and fifteen (Stel 2011).  This likely happens because along with the physical changes that happen during puberty, adolescents also go through a massive brain re-wiring during puberty which means they have an “increased ability for adult-level reasoning” (UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti 2017).

However, as this UNICEF report describes, puberty and adolescence is a time of great opportunity and risk for students.  Students are strongly motivated by peer acceptance and immediate gratification.  And they are also entering a time during which they face increased risk of “accidents, suicides, substance use, and eating disorders, mental disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and other negative outcomes.”

Further, students who are from low socio-economic homes are most at-risk because poverty has been shown to affect the “sculpting” of the “developing brain” of adolescents (Noble in UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti 2017).  This correlates with research that shows that students from lower socio-economic homes are taught fewer study skills, which in some cases are skills that can be considered metacognitive strategies (Gambill, Jill M.; Moss, Lauralee A.; Vescogni, Christie D 2008).

Teaching metacognitive strategies is a way for teachers to not only help students do better at school, but also help shape students’ brains for better outcomes in later life too.

So the short answer, is yes, you can and should teach your students metacognitive strategies.

With that in mind, here are six tips to get you started teaching metacognitive strategies and skills to your students.

Tip #1: Run mini-lessons teaching metacognitive strategies and study skills

Many teachers avoid teaching study skills and metacognitive strategies because they seem like too big of a task to do when your unit plan and teacher-planner are jam-packed with content knowledge your students need to learn to pass tests.

It can also be a matter of not knowing where to start, how to do it quickly enough, or what exactly you should teach your students.

And the easy fix to this is to start anywhere, do it as a mini-lesson, and pick the topics you think your students could use the most.

For example, your students may be great at planning their essays, but their essay research, notes, and content may be terrible.  So focus on note-taking skills and how to research.

Your students may be ok at notes, but have no idea how to manage their study time with their part-time jobs and sports. So teach time management and how to create a study timetable.

Or, your students may be good at managing study time, but they just can’t seem to remember anything.  If that’s your students, explain how memory works and show students specific study techniques such as spaced repetition.

In each of these cases, you could run a mini-lesson in 15-20 minutes.  How?  Use the Crash Course Study Skills or Crash Course Navigating Digital Information videos with the correlating skills.

Want to make it even easier for yourself? Give students a worksheet to accompany the video, like the ones below.

CrashCourse Study Skills Worksheet

Or these ones here.

Crash Course Navigating Digital Information Worksheets

But the important part of teaching these metacognitive strategies is to ensure students re-visit the skills throughout the year(s) until they have mastered the skill.

Tip #2: Explain that metacognitive strategies and study skills are real-world skills that will help them throughout life no matter what path they take

Most students are likely to groan and roll their eyes if you say that you’re going to teach them study skills or metacognitive strategies during a lesson.  In fact, they’ll probably feel just like you do when you’ve taught all day and then realize you have a professional development meeting after classes.

But once students know how valuable these skills and strategies will be for their future, they will sit up and take notice.

Tell them about the friend you have who used their writing skills to advance their career in a finance-dominated industry with no formal finance qualifications.

Explain about the tiny home builder up the street who learned how to build a tiny home from YouTube and now lives debt-free.

Rave about your neighbor who learned how to grow all their own food by reading books and never has to worry about paying a grocery bill again.

Use the people and stories you know to show students just how valuable these skills are.  If your friends and family will let you, take their pictures, put them in a PowerPoint, and help your students connect with these skills and how they can use them to shape the future they want.

Teenagers are motivated by instant gratification and immediate reward, but if they can see the long-term value of a skill, they are more likely to put in the work to master the skill.

Tip #3: Keep doing the metacognitive strategies you already do

You are likely doing metacognitive strategies in your classroom already, so just keep doing them.  Things such as

  • Establishing prior knowledge 
  • Describing learning goals
  • Encouraing reflection
  • Setting homework
  • Teaching students to evaluate their work to criteria
  • Modeling how to complete tasks
  • Think aloud while analyzing or modeling writing
  • Showing students how to organize a desk/study space
  • Demonstrating how to organize a study binder or digital notebook
  • Showing students useful study apps and websites
  • Encouraging a growth mindset
  • Showing students reading strategies such as skim, skip, and read
  • . . . . and many more

Chances are you are already teaching your students metacognitive strategies.  Keep doing that, and perhaps keep an eye out for areas that your students need more help in and try to incorporate that into your classroom routine, homework tasks, or lesson plans.

Tip #4: Teach mindfulness meditation


Now, hear me out.  We all had that hippy teacher in high school who was into yoga, meditation, and relaxation.  But guess what, they were right. 

According to this research, mindfulness meditation is one of the cheapest, easiest interventions that improves students’ resilience (Tang in UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti 2017).

Okay, but how can you do this and not have the kids giving you side-eye or staging a full-out riot?  Here are some ideas below:

  • Take in some raisins and get students to do this mindfulness meditation at the start or end of class.  But also, raisins low-key suck, so maybe use m&m’s instead?
  • Do a 30-day meditation challenge where you ask them to do a mindfulness meditation for homework each day for 30 days – perhaps put a YouTube video up on Google classroom and have students sign in and watch the video each day
  • Do a counting meditation where students count backward from 100 to 1 – you could do this aloud at the start of class or do it in the same way you would do silent reading
  • Teach students to do sigh-breaths and do 5-10 at the start of the lesson – this might be more effective outside the classroom while students are lined up but before they go in, or even in a space not connected with the classroom such as the library or the sports hall
  • Use the Headspace one-minute meditation

Tip #5: Encourage a learning/growth mindset 

One thing that many teens (and adults!) struggle with is negative self-talk.  One of the ways to overcome this habit is to encourage a growth or learning mindset.  Remind students that language has power, and how they talk about themselves and to themselves matters.

Be honest and tell them about times when you’ve had negative self-talk and how you’ve changed your mindset to be kind to yourself.  Maybe it was when you

  • failed a test
  • accidentally hurt someone you cared about
  • weren’t very good at a particular skill
  • had a terrible lesson 
  • couldn’t do something that your friends and family found easy

Students are more likely to respond to a growth mindset if you model it for them and they can see that nobody is perfect or excellent at everything.   

Model growth-mindset language in your classroom, for example

  • If a student says “I’m dumb, I don’t understand”, you counter the negative talk and say something like “You’re not dumb you just need to learn it in a different way.  What part don’t you understand?”
  • If a student says, “I can’t do it”, you say something like, “You’ve done this bit, so you can do it. Which part is hard for you?”

Other ideas to teach a growth mindset and letting go of negative self-talk include:

  • Get students to physically ‘let go’ of the negative self-talk by getting them to write down on a scrap of paper three negative things they’ve said to themselves in the past week, and then throw the paper in the rubbish bin
  • Ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned from doing difficult tasks
  • Show students their progress (and celebrate it if you can!)  – whether that’s pages read in a novel, words written on an essay, questions answered on a worksheet, notes written from a textbook, or the number of times they’ve contributed to class discussion.  Remember not all of the progress has to be academic – you can celebrate positive behaviors too – being involved in class discussion, asking questions, helping peers, actively listening, and regulating their own behavior.  Meet your students where they’re at and celebrate their wins. (Click here to find out my favorite ways to celebrate wins).
  • Discuss students’ progress with them during conferences: what are their goals, how are they doing, what are they doing well, what they can improve, and how they can improve in those areas.

Tip #6: Teach students to come up with to-do lists for tasks (action steps, skills demonstrated, thought processes etc)

An important metacognitive strategy is to think of appropriate steps, skills, or strategies to complete a task.  So teach students how to do this. Ideas for how to teach this metacognitive strategy include

  • Get students to write a “recipe” for completing the task
  • Ask students to create a “grading rubric” for a skill
  • Tell students to explain the process as if they were teaching it to their 5-year-old sibling, cousin, or neighbor
  • Show students how to use an analysis chart such as Know/Want to know/Learned or Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats
  • Ask students to write a check-list of steps to complete the task

That’s all folks . . . 

That’s it for our 6 tips for teaching metacognitive strategies to your students.  We hope you’ve learned what metacognitive strategies are, why metacognition is important and ways that you can use metacognition in the classroom.

While this list of metacognitive skills and tips for teaching them is not exhaustive, you get the idea.  Do what you can with the time you have.  Try to help students improve in areas of weakness.  And remember that these are skills that will help them face life’s challenges – and that is more important than getting an A on the next reading test.

Sources cited:

Cornell University Centre for Teaching Innovation. 2020. “Metacognitive Strategies: How people learn.” Cornell University Centre for Teaching Innovation. https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/teaching-cornell-guide/teaching-strategies/metacognitive-strategies-how-people#:~:text=Metacognitive%20strategies%20are%20techniques%20to,thinking%20processes%20as%20they%20learn

Department of Education Victoria. 2011. “Professional Practice Note 14.” Department of Education Victoria, Victoria. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/practice/improve/Pages/ppn14.aspx 

Gambill, Jill M.; Moss, Lauralee A.; Vescogni, Christie D. 2008. “The Impact of Study Skills and Organizational Methods on Student Achievement.” Action Research Project., Saint Xavier University. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501312.pdf 

Price-Mitchell, M. 2015. “Metacognition: Nurturing Self-Awareness in the Classroom.” Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-metacognition-in-classroom-marilyn-price-mitchell#:~:text=Research%20shows%20that%20most%20growth,reliant%2C%20flexible%2C%20and%20productive

Stel, M. van der. 2011. “Development of metacognitive skills in young adolescents: a bumpy ride to the high road.” Doctoral thesis., Leiden University: https://scholarlypublications.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/17910 

UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. 2017. “The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity.” UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence. https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/adolescent_brain_a_second_window_of_opportunity_a_compendium.pdf 

brain doing weights and text what is metacognitive strategy and 6 easy tips to use it in the classroom