Metacognitive skills and self-regulation are being promoted in many schools at present, and rightly so. The Education Endowment Foundation’s research and analysis, chiming with findings across the world, have found that explicit teaching of these skills can mean pupils make as much as an additional 7 months’ progress within a school year and are low-cost to implement. They are particularly effective for disadvantaged learners. This article gives an understanding of what metacognition and self-regulation is, why it is beneficial to teach these skills and how this applies particularly to high potential (more able) learners.

What are Metacognition and Self-Regulation?

Self-regulated learning is made up of three parts:

  1. Cognition – the mental processes involved in knowing, understanding and learning
  2. Metacognition – the process a learner goes through when they plan, monitor and evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours
  3. Motivation – the willingness to engage cognitive and metacognitive skills.

Metacognition is helpful for students to evaluate their performance so that they can understand what has caused their successes and failures. It means having self-awareness and control over their thoughts about learning so that they develop appropriate and helpful thinking strategies at each stage of a task.

Metacognitive strategies can be broken down into three stages: before a task (planning), during a task (monitoring) and after a task (evaluating). Planning strategies might involve thinking about similar tasks, setting clear goals or working out how long a task might take to complete. Monitoring strategies are assessing how things are progressing according to the plan and adapting it accordingly. Evaluating strategies are reflecting what went well and what they might do differently next time.

Why is it Beneficial to Teach Metacognition?

Metacognition helps learners to become independent as it empowers them to monitor their progress and take control of their learning. Research shows that learners who use metacognitive strategies are able to achieve more than those who don’t. This is true across a range of ages and subjects and can be done within the classroom and within subjects, not as an add-on, by providing clear learning objectives and supporting students to monitor their own learning, such as by modelling metacognitive thought processes at different stages.

How Do I Know About a Learner’s Metacognitive Skills?

David Perkins (1992) defined four levels of metacognitive learners which provide a useful framework for understanding where individual students are with their metacognitive skills:

  1. Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept that they know something or not.
  2. Aware learners know about some of the kinds of thinking that they do, such as generating ideas, finding evidence etc. However, thinking is not necessarily deliberate or planned.
  3. Strategic learners organise their thinking by using problem-solving, grouping and classifying, evidence-seeking and decision-making etc. They know and apply the strategies that help them to learn.
  4. Reflective learners are not only strategic about their thinking, but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or not of any strategies they are using and then revising them as appropriate.

How Does Metacognition Apply to High Potential (More Able) Learners?

Since metacognition is important in the development of high achievement in a subject area, teaching metacognitive strategies to high potential learners is crucial to them being able to fulfil their potential.

An appropriate level of challenge is crucial to allow learners to develop and progress their knowledge of tasks, strategies, and of themselves as learners, so high potential learners may fail to develop metacognitive skills if they are not challenged in their learning.

Where material is sufficiently challenging, research has shown that high potential learners are able to develop metacognitive skills earlier than their peers, however they do not show advanced metacognition in all areas.

High potential learners tend to have a higher capacity for metacognitive strategies, since they involve the abstract processing of thought which they are usually good at. They also tend to have more factual information about strategies than their peers and this is present consistently across year groups.

High potential learners are often able to use more complex metacognitive strategies and prior knowledge spontaneously. In addition, high potential learners are better able to transfer metacognitive strategies to situations distinct from those in which the strategy was learned. However, there is no difference in near-transfer situations between high potential learners and their peers.

When it comes to planning, high potential learners are more accurate in identifying a problem to be solved, generating solutions and monitoring the effectiveness of solutions.

What Does This Mean for Teaching High Potential (More Able) Learners?

An understanding of metacognition in relation to high potential learners demonstrates that it is crucial to ensure that these learners are given appropriately challenging tasks so that they can develop the metacognitive skills they need to fulfil their potential. If a child has not needed to develop planning skills or had the opportunity to properly monitor and evaluate their learning because the majority of tasks they encounter are not sufficiently challenging, this will mean opportunities are lost to progress beyond the second level in Perkins’ framework above to becomes strategic or reflective learners.

High potential learners need exposure to a wide range of metacognitive strategies, including complex ones, with the opportunity to employ strategies learned in one domain into distinctly different ones, so that they can learn incrementally more about themselves as learners and which strategies work well for them.

In the primary phase, this means supporting high potential learners to set goals, use procedures, anticipate problems and use resources available to them so that they can start to learn to monitor their progress and evaluate outcomes. This can be done in the contexts of discussing the consequences of options, helping to plan classroom activities, taking part in project work and learning to paraphrase, elaborate and reflect.

In the secondary phase, the emphasis shifts to clear modelling and demonstration of metacognitive operations. This can be done through:

  • guiding learners through problems by asking them to say how they arrived at a particular step, why an approach was adopted, how they can deal with the problems and what steps to take next
  • centring on strategies of predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarising which are effective in monitoring reading comprehension and have cross-curricular effectiveness
  • involving students in cooperative learning and promoting metacognitive discussion amongst peers, leading to greater insights and better understanding.

What Questions Can Be Asked to Promote Metacognitive Strategies?

Below are examples of some of the questions that learners can ask themselves (and teachers can prompt) to promote metacognitive strategies. This example is in relation to a whole lesson and gives an indication of the kinds of metacognitive thinking that strategic or reflective learners would employ.

Plan (before the lesson)

  • What is the learning objective?
  • What do I already know about this?
  • What questions do I already have?
  • Where is the best place for me to sit to maximise my learning?

 Monitor (during the lesson)

  • What am I understanding about this?
  • What am I confused about?
  • What questions do I have? Am I making a note of them?
  • What are the important points? If I’m not sure, how will I figure it out?

Evaluate (at the end of/after the lesson)

  • What was the lesson about?
  • Was there anything that I now understand differently to before?
  • How did it relate to previous lessons?
  • What did I find most interesting about this lesson?

Asking questions like these will increase metacognitive skills in learners, moving learners from bring Tacit and Aware learners to Strategic and Reflective learners. This will give them the tools they need to manage and get the most from their learning, which in turn will have an impact on achievement and success beyond the classroom.

About the author: Rebecca Howell is Potential Plus UK’s Senior Education Consultant. She leads various aspects of the organisation, including oversight of the assessment and advice services. She is passionate about leadership and developing new services to support members. With a background in educational leadership, she has 3 children with high learning potential/dual or multiple exceptionality.