Two forms of ‘thinking about thinking’: metacognition and critical thinking


by John Draeger (SUNY Buffalo State)

In previous posts, I have explored the conceptual nature of metacognition and shared my attempts to integrate metacognitive practices into my philosophy courses. I am also involved in a campuswide initiative that seeks to infuse critical thinking throughout undergraduate curricula. In my work on both metacognition and critical thinking, I often find myself using ‘thinking about thinking’ as a quick shorthand for both. And yet, I believe metacognition and critical thinking are distinct notions. This post will begin to sort out some differences.

My general view is that the phrase ‘thinking about thinking’ can be the opening move in a conversation about either metacognition or critical thinking. Lauren Scharff and I, for example, took this tack when we explored ways of unpacking what we mean by ‘metacognition’ (Scharff & Draeger, 2014). We considered forms of awareness, intentionality, and the importance of understanding of various processes. More specifically, metacognition encourages us to monitor the efficacy of our learning strategies (e.g., self-monitoring) and prompts us to use that understanding to guide our subsequent practice (e.g., self-regulation). It is a form of thinking about thinking. We need to think about how we think about our learning strategies and how to use our thinking about their efficacy to think through how we should proceed. In later posts, we have continued to refine a more robust conception of metacognition (e.g., Scharff 2015, Draeger 2015), but ‘thinking about thinking’ was a good place to start.

Likewise, the phrase ‘thinking about thinking’ can be the opening move in conversations about critical thinking. Given the wide range of program offerings on my campus, defining ‘critical thinking’ has been a challenge. Critical thinking is a collection of skills that can vary across academic settings and how these skills are utilized often requires disciplinary knowledge. For example, students capable of analyzing how factors such as gender, race, and sexuality influence governmental policy may have difficulty analyzing a theatrical performance or understanding the appropriateness of a statistical sampling method. Moreover, it isn’t obvious how the skills learned in one course will translate to the course down the hall. Consequently, students need to develop a variety of critical thinking skills in a variety of learning environments. As we began to consider how to infuse critical thinking across the curriculum, the phrase ‘thinking about thinking’ was something that most everyone on my campus could agree upon. It has been a place to start as we move on to discuss what critical thinking looks like in various domains of inquiry (e.g., what it means to think like an artist, biologist, chemist, dancer, engineer, historian, or psychologist).

‘Thinking about thinking’ captures the idea students need to think about the kind of thinking skills that they are trying to master, and teachers need to be explicit about those skills that if their students will have any hope of learning them. This applies to both metacognition and critical thinking. For example, many students are able to solve complex problems, craft meaningful prose, and create beautiful works of art without understanding precisely how they did it. Such students might be excellent thinkers, but unless they are aware of how they did what they did, it is also possible that they got just lucky. Both critical thinking and metacognition help ensure that students can reliably achieve desired learning outcomes. Both require practice and both require the explicit awareness of the relevant processes. More specifically, however, critical thinkers are aware of what they are trying to do (e.g., what it means to think like an artist, biologist, chemist, dancer, engineer, historian, psychologist), while metacognitive thinkers are aware of whether their particular strategies are effective (e.g., whether someone is an effective artist, biologist, chemist, dancer, engineer, historian, psychologist). Critical thinking and metacognition, therefore, differ in the object of awareness. Critical thinking involves an awareness of mode of thinking within a domain (e.g., question assumptions about gender, determine the appropriateness of a statistical method), while metacognition involves an awareness of the efficacy of particular strategies for completing that task.

‘Thinking about thinking’ is a good way to spark conversation with our colleagues and our students about a number of important skills, including metacognition and critical thinking. In particular, it is worth asking ourselves (and relaying to our students) what it might mean for someone to think like an artist or a zoologist (critical thinking) and how we would know whether that artist or zoologist was thinking effectively (metacognition). As these conversations move forward, we should also think through the implications for our courses and programs of study. How might this ongoing conversation change course design or methods of instruction? What might it tell us about the connections between courses across our campuses? ‘Thinking about thinking’ is a great place to start such conversations, but we must remember that it is only the beginning.


Draeger, John (2015). “Exploring the relationship between awareness, self-regulation, and metacognition.” Retrieved from

Scharff, Lauren & Draeger, John (2014). “What do we mean when we say “Improve with metacognition”? (Part One) Retrieved from

Scharff, Lauren (2015). “What do we mean by ‘metacognitive instruction?” Retrieved from about two forms of thinking about thinking: Metacognition and critical thinking Click To Tweet

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