Bringing a Small Gift – The Metacognitive Experience

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By Roman Taraban

In the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” the young boy brings his humble gift to the “mighty king,” which he presents from the heart. This is an apt situation to bring up at this time of year, for you too, might have received a small gift. For ‘tis the season for metacognition.

John Flavell and others generally describe metacognition as thinking about thinking. More specifically, “Metacognitive knowledge is one’s stored knowledge or beliefs about oneself and others as cognitive agents, about tasks, about actions or strategies, and about how all these interact to affect the outcomes of any sort of intellectual enterprise” (Flavell, 1999, p. 906). Flavell (1999) broadened metacognitive theory to include affect: “Metacognitive experiences are conscious cognitive or affective experiences that occur during the enterprise and concern any aspect of it—often, how well it is going” (p. 906). Affect, as part of metacognitive experiences, is important because if you have the feeling that something is difficult to comprehend, remember, or solve, those feelings may trigger careful metacognitive reflection and changes in goals or strategies (Papaleontiou-Louca, 2008). Nuhfer (2014), in a related vein, affirms the crucial role of affect to metacognition in developing students’ metacognitive skills: “[A]ttempts to develop students’ metacognitive proficiency without recognizing metacognition’s affective qualities are likely to be minimally effective.”

So what is that gift I mentioned earlier? It’s your end-of-semester evaluations, of course. There we ask students to evaluate and comment on whether the course objectives were specified and followed by the instructor, whether the instructor was an effective teacher, and whether the course was a valuable learning experience. These questions prompt students to think about their thinking in the course. Without prompting, students spontaneously also comment on their affect. And here come the gifts, some of them encouraging, pleasant, and precious as gold. Here are a few examples: I very much enjoyed the discussions and deeper exploration of the material. I felt that the papers pushed me to genuinely consider and critically evaluate the material in a way I may not have otherwise. Thank you for an enjoyable and thought-provoking seminar. This has been my favorite psychology class. The work assignments were challenging and (dare I say) fun.

But sometimes the gift can be a bit disconcerting. There was one unfortunate December when I unluckily received my course evaluations just before leaving on a family vacation to Las Vegas. I had gone through the semester thinking how wise I was and how well things were going. The students told me otherwise. Yes, they explained why I deserved those low ratings, so they had to think about their metacognitive experience – i.e., what it was like learning the material in my course and how they felt about the process. For a week, I was inconsolable. But the students had got my attention. I realized I had become too complacent. I had to think deeply about my thinking about how to organize and deliver the course. I had to engage in metacognitions about teaching. And it wasn’t just about thinking about the knowledge I had and they had (or had not). It was also about the affect – how I felt about the course, myself, and the students, in the context of those metacognitions.

That semester was a gift. Every semester is a gift. But we have to accept the gift for it to be meaningful and make a difference. So…all good tidings for the season – I mean, end of the semester.


Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive–developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906-911.

Nuhfer, E. (2014). Self-assessment and the affective quality of metacognition: Part 1 of 2. Retrieved from

Papaleontiou-Louca, E. (2008). Metacognition and theory of mind. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.