What do we mean when we say “Improve with metacognition”? (Part Two)

by John Draeger (SUNY Buffalo State) and Lauren Scharff (U.S. Air Force Academy*)

The nature and many benefits of metacognition might seem obvious to those of us working in the field. But because our casual conversations had revealed some “fuzziness” in how the term was interpreted, we asked a convenience sample at our institutions (30 faculty and 11 students) what they believe the term ‘metacognition’ means and why it might be important. As summarized in Part I of this two-part exploration, most respondents offered “thinking about thinking” as a rough shorthand for the meaning of metacognitive processes. Beyond that general response, many faculty offered refinements that we grouped into the categories of awareness, intentionality and understanding. While that conversation is ongoing, this week’s post will focus on responses to the second question in our “survey”, “why might it be important for students and instructors to know about metacognition and perhaps incorporate it in their classes?”

When considering the benefits, the majority of our respondents affirmed importance of metacognition in academic settings. In particular, metacognition was reported to be beneficial because it “improves student learning” and “improves teaching.” As in our last post, where we argued that, while defining ‘metacognition’ as “thinking about thinking” can be a helpful way to get the conversation started but is too simplistic, the goal in this post also is to move toward more useful refinements.

Refinements to “improved student learning” can be grouped into two categories:

(1)  Metacognition improves student learning by increasing efficiency and prompting students to  take ownership of their own learning

  • “As a student, if you can understand how you think and learn, then you can more easily choose the method that will work for you.”
  •  Metacognition can “help [students] create strategies to enhance their study of new concepts to increase their retention of the concepts.”
  •  “I can study faster and more efficiently …”
  •  “Metacognition forces students to take positive control of their own development. Much like the first step to getting your finances in order is to see where your money is going, metacognitive questions help a learner assess whether s/he has actually increased his/her level of understanding or knowledge.”
  • “…they [learners] become more independent in their learning…”

(2)  Metacognition increases the depth of learning engagement with material and supports critical thinking

  • “By reflecting on our understanding we’re more likely to improve that understanding and make connections between bodies of knowledge.”
  • “…figuring out why the wrong answers (and the reasoning behind them) are wrong.  This is often more important than getting the right answer.  It is by repairing errors in our thinking that we learn surprising things we didn’t know we were ignorant about…”
  • “[Metacognition is] an important step in the critical thinking process. If I am not aware of how I am thinking about something, the context, the role and the perspective, then it is difficult to think critically”
  • “The issue is being able to use critical-thinking skills to sift through the mass of information to develop appropriate conclusions, theses, etc.  Metacognition enables us to analyze how we’re doing this and thus, do it better.”
  • “If we can get students to think about thinking, their own and others, it will help them to be better thinkers.  It might also encourage them to be more slow, careful and deliberate in their thinking / writing / speaking.”


Refinements to “improves teaching” can be grouped into two categories:

(1)  The more instructors understand about their students’ learning processes and are aware of their state of learning, the more then they can adapt to the needs of their students.

  • “I also have to be able to teach in different ways for people who learn differently than me, and have an idea how they learn”
  • “…helps us [instructors] structure our teaching to best support student learning”
  • “It’s important as instructors because if we understand how our cadets [students] think, we can tweak our teaching methods appropriately. “
  • “Because the more aware that students and teachers are about how each other thinks and learns, the more effective classroom learning techniques can be.”

(2)  The more instructors communicate about metacognition, the better they can help students become better learners.

  • “…if professors and students communicate about metacognition it can allow the instructors to use every resource available to them to better convey information to the students.”
  • “…It’s one thing to be aware of how you learn something or think through complex issues.  However, even better is to have the ability to identify which processes are most effective for you.  Metacognition becomes important when it informs us about how to improve, how to be more efficient, and how to “sift the wheat from the chaff,” so to speak… This self-awareness is not always obvious to a student and thus is most likely enhanced when facilitated by faculty members…”

In conclusion, both teaching and learning are dynamic processes that interact with each other.  Thus, we must continue to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of our current students’ state of learning and help them do so also. Because instructors are not ever-present in students’ lives, our ultimate goal as instructors should be to help develop independent learners.

Metacognition can play a crucial role in both teaching and learning because it prompts us to be “tuned into” these dynamic processes and because it reminds us to be on the lookout for ways to improve and promote deep, life-long learning. These goals are especially important given recently reported shortcomings in higher-education  (e.g. Arum & Roksa, 2011).  Students need to know how to think critically and communicate well. The term ‘metacognition’ can be understood in a variety of ways and there are many benefits to metacognition. However, they boil down to supporting deep learning goals (beyond mere memorization) and critical thinking at a time when students in higher-education need it most.


Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.

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