Metacognition in the primary school classroom

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

They are among the most effective teaching strategies, especially for pupils who are disadvantaged. Matt Bromley looks at how metacognition and self-regulation can work in the primary school setting

The Educational Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit ranks strategies by the “extra months” of pupil progress they secure and topping their chart is metacognition, which has “consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months’ additional progress” each year.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is not simply “thinking about thinking”, it is much more complex than this. Metacognition is actively monitoring one’s own learning and, based on this monitoring, making changes to one’s own learning behaviours and strategies.

Although a metacognitive approach typically focuses on allowing the learner rather than the teacher to take control of their own learning, this is not to say that the teacher has no role to play – particularly in the primary phase. Indeed, the teacher is integral to the development of younger pupils’ metacognitive skills. For example, for primary pupils to become metacognitive, self-regulated learners, the teacher must:

  • Set clear learning objectives.
  • Demonstrate and monitor pupils’ metacognitive strategies.
  • Continually prompt and encourage their pupils along the way.

Metacognitive skills can be developed from an early age, certainly while pupils are at primary school and possibly as early as EYFS.

Metacognition describes the processes involved when pupils plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. It is often considered to have two dimensions: metacognitive knowledge and self-regulation.

The two dimensions

Metacognitive knowledge refers to what pupils know about learning. This includes:

  • The pupil’s knowledge of their own cognitive abilities (e.g. “I have trouble remembering my eight times tables”).
  • The pupil’s knowledge of particular tasks (e.g. “the spelling of some “-tion” words is difficult”).
  • The pupil’s knowledge of the different strategies that are available to them and when they are appropriate to the task (e.g. “If I create a timeline first, it will help me to understand what happened during the First World War”).

Self-regulation, meanwhile, refers to what pupils do about learning. It describes how pupils monitor and control their cognitive processes.

For example, a pupil might realise that a particular strategy is not yielding the results they expect so they decide to try a different strategy.

Put another way, self-regulated pupils are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.

The metacognitive cycle

Metacognition and self-regulation might take the following form:

The planning stage: Pupils are encouraged to think about the learning goal the teacher has set and consider how they will approach the task and which strategies they will use. It is helpful for pupils – prompted by the teacher or a peer – to consider:

  • What am I being asked to do?
  • Which ways of working will I use?
  • Are there any ways of working that I have used before that might be useful?

The monitoring stage: Pupils implement their plan and monitor the progress they are making towards their learning goal. Pupils might decide to make changes to the methods they are using if these are not working. As pupils work through the task, it is helpful – prompted by the teacher – to consider:

  • Is the way of working that I am using effective?
  • Do I need to try something different?

The evaluation stage: Pupils determine how successful the way of working they have chosen has been in terms of helping them to achieve their learning goal. To promote evaluation, it is helpful for pupils – prompted by the teacher – to consider:

  • How well did I do?
  • What did not go well? What could I do differently next time?
  • What went well? What other types of problem can I use this way of working for?

The reflection stage: Reflection is an integral part of the whole process. Encouraging pupils to self-question throughout the process is therefore crucial.

Teaching metacognition

The EEF argues that metacognition and self-regulation must be explicitly taught. In other words, they are not innate skills – and primary pupils in particular need lots of support from the teacher if they are to develop their metacognitive skills. The teacher must explain what metacognition is and model being metacognitive. They must then prompt pupils to use metacognitive strategies where appropriate.

For example, during the planning stage, the teacher encourages pupils to think about the goal of their learning (set by the teacher or the pupil themselves) and to consider how they will approach the task. This might include:

  • Ensuring they understand the goal.
  • Activating relevant prior knowledge about the task.
  • Selecting appropriate ways of working.
  • Considering how to allocate their effort.

Then during the monitoring stage, the teacher emphasises the need for pupils to assess their own progress. This might include self-testing or peer-testing, as well as making changes to their chosen strategies. Teachers can explicitly teach these skills by prompting pupils with examples of the things they should be considering at each stage of a learning task.

The EEF uses the example of pupils drawing a self-portrait. Effective teacher questioning while modelling a self-portrait, they say, can aid the development of metacognition:

The planning questions activate prior knowledge or model the use of cognitive strategies:

  • What resources do I need to carry out a self-portrait?
  • Have I done a self-portrait before and was it successful?
  • What have I learned from the examples we looked at earlier?
  • Where do I start and what viewpoint will I use?
  • Do I need a line guide to keep my features in proportion?

The monitoring questions emphasise general progress and check motivation:

  • Am I doing well?
  • Do I need any different techniques to improve my self-portrait?
  • Are all of my facial features in proportion?
  • Am I finding this challenging?
  • Is there anything I need to stop and change to improve my self-portrait?

The evaluation questions assess the relative success of the strategies used and what can be learnt from the experience:

  • How did I do?
  • Did my line guide strategy work?
  • Was it the right viewpoint to choose?
  • How would I do a better self-portrait next time?
  • Are there other perspectives/viewpoints/techniques I would like to try?

The EEF suggests that these prompts are accompanied by explicit instruction in the relevant cognitive strategies.

A seven-step guide

The EEF has a handy guide to teaching metacognition (2019):

  1. Activating prior knowledge – the teacher discusses with pupils the different causes that led to the First World War while making notes on the whiteboard.
  2. Explicit strategy instruction – the teacher explains how a “fishbone” diagram will help organise their ideas, with the emphasis on the cognitive strategy of using a “cause and effect model” in history that will help them to organise and plan a better written response.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy – the teacher uses the initial notes on the causes of the war to model one part of the fishbone diagram.
  4. Memorisation of learned strategy – the teacher tests if pupils have understood and memorised the key aspects of the fishbone strategy, and its main purpose, through questions and discussion.
  5. Guided practice – the teacher models one further fishbone cause with the whole group, with pupils verbally contributing their ideas.
  6. Independent practice follows whereby pupils complete their own fishbone diagram analysis.
  7. In structured reflection the teacher encourages pupils to reflect on how appropriate the model was, how successfully they applied it, and how they might use it in the future.

Creating the conditions for metacognition

There are two ways to create a classroom environment which is conducive to metacognition:

1, Effective use of teacher modelling

The teacher makes explicit what they do implicitly and makes visible the expertise that is often invisible to the novice learner. The best modelling involves the teacher thinking aloud.

For example, a teacher may write a short paragraph of persuasive text to model how to use rhetorical devices. As she is writing, the teacher explains every decision she is taking, and articulates the drafting and redrafting process that is essential.

There is some evidence, at least in terms of metacognition, that modelling and thinking aloud should not be too specific as this may inhibit pupils’ reflection. Indeed, some “deliberate difficulty” is required so that pupils have gaps where they have to think for themselves.

2, Providing appropriate levels of challenge

If pupils are not given hard work to do – if they do not face difficulty, struggle with it and overcome it – they will not develop new and useful strategies, they will not be afforded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and they will not be able to reflect sufficiently on the content with which they are engaging.

As well as thinking hard, pupils need to think efficiently if they are to cheat the limitations of working memory. And while pupils must be challenged and must struggle with new concepts if they are attend to them and therefore encode them into long-term memory, if the work is too hard, they are likely to hit cognitive overload whereby they try to hold too much information in working memory at one time and therefore thinking fails.

Therefore, the work must be beyond pupils’ current capability but within their reach. They must struggle but must be able to overcome the challenge with time, effort and support. The concept of cognitive load theory, first espoused by John Sweller in the 1980s (see also van Merrienboer & Sweller, 2005) is crucial to metacognition and self-regulation because:

  • When we draw on existing knowledge from long-term memory to support working memory, we increase working memory capacity and overcome its limited size. This explains why knowledge is important and why pupils must be encouraged to try and activate prior knowledge before asking for help.
  • We understand new concepts within the context of what we already know. The more pupils know and can draw from their long-term memory, the more meaningful new knowledge will become.

To ensure that learning activities do not demand too much of working memory and cause cognitive overload, we need to teach coping strategies such as using mind-maps, taking effective notes, thinking aloud to work through problems, or breaking tasks down into smaller steps. Teachers can support this process through the use of structured planning templates, teacher modelling, worked examples, or breaking down activities into their constituent parts, revealing one part at a time and in sequence.

A helpful framework

A useful framework for teachers to identify where their pupils are and how much support is required was put forward by David Perkins (1992) and defines four levels of metacognitive learner:

  1. Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept if they know something or not.
  2. Aware learners recognise some of the thinking processes they use, 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 learn.
  4. Reflective learners are not only strategic about their own thinking, but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or failure of their strategies and revising if appropriate.


Further information & resources


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