Metacognition and self-regulation in the primary classroom

Written by: Anoara Mughal | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The explicit teaching of metacognition and self-regulation can bring a range of benefits, not least offering us a powerful tool for improving pupil behaviour, motivation and learning. Anoara Mughal – author of Think! Metacognition-powered primary teaching – offers tips and five concrete classroom strategies

What is metacognition and self-regulated learning?

Metacognition is commonly known as “thinking about thinking”. This sounds quite fuzzy and can be quite unhelpful. It may be useful to broaden the definition.

Flavell (1979) describes it as being the “interplay between person, task and strategy characteristics”, whereas another definition is that “metacognition encompasses motivation, cognition, emotional awareness and intelligence, managing behaviours, improved wellbeing, the development of human connections and relationships and much more. Everything is interrelated”, (Mughal, 2021).

A simpler and more useful definition of metacognition may be that it is a set of behaviours which helps you to manage, monitor and review your thinking.

“Self-regulation is monitoring and controlling your emotions and behaviours,” and “self-regulated learning is the application of metacognition and self-regulation to learning”, (Manion, 2020).

According to the Education Endowment Foundation (Quigley et al, 2018), self-regulated learning can be broken down into three important components: cognition subject knowledge and subject-specific strategies in knowing, understanding and learning, metacognition or understanding how we think, and motivation or the willingness to undertake a task.

The two strands of metacognition

Although pupils develop some metacognitive skills and strategies naturally, when it is taught explicitly it can boost confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

It helps to develop an awareness of the processes and actions pupils use during learning, helps them to understand themselves as learners, and helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds to make an additional progress of seven months across a year according to the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Metacognition can be divided into two strands: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.

  • Metacognitive knowledge requires thinking processes to be developed in the classroom to enable pupils to understand who they are as learners and how they learn.
  • Metacognitive regulation is the planning, monitoring and evaluating process, which is subject or task-specific.

Classroom strategy 1: Metacognitive Cycle Strip

Expert learners think about the stages of planning, monitoring and evaluating implicitly. However, novice learners cannot do this and must be taught explicitly.

The metacognitive cycle strip shown above can be used when modelling and added onto the end of a success criteria for pupils to make comments.

For younger pupils the questions could be displayed during task completion. Regular feedback must be given to pupils who get stuck to move their learning forward.

Metacognition in the Classroom: A one-day Headteacher Update event

Practical examples and teaching tips for using metacognition and self-regulated learning in the classroom will be on offer at Headteacher Update's inaugural Metacognition in the Classroom conference. Taking place on September 23 in London, the event features 15 practical sessions – including a workshop led by Anoara Mughal – focusing on teaching, learning and pedagogy and offering ideas and strategies for your classroom and school. This one-day conference will describe what metacognition actually looks like and means in the classroom and across your school. Visit

The foundations required to build metacognition

Philosophical enquiry: Metacognitive skills can be developed through developing critical thinking skills such as counter examples, distinction-drawing, identifying inconsistency, and inference-making, which all form part of philosophical enquiry skills (Worley, 2018). Equally, critical thinking skills can be developed by teaching metacognitive strategies explicitly. These types of questioning can be taught through other subjects such as English, science, history and geography too.

Challenge: Tasks should be challenging enough for pupils to develop deep reflective skills which help them to understand themselves as learners. If pupils have to “struggle” (Quigley et al, 2018) with their learning, then recall from long-term memory becomes more automatic later on (Mughal 2021). However, we are likely to abandon tasks which we find too difficult and will avoid tests at all costs (Kornell, 2009).

As such, careful consideration must be given to how challenging the tasks should be – too challenging and pupils will become cognitively overloaded and give up, thus not accepting the challenge. Pupils need to be motivated to accept challenges. According to Mccrea (2020), motivation is a system of allocating attention. This implies that the challenge must be difficult enough to ignite the motivation required to strive towards it.

“There is a misconception that in order to develop self-efficacy teachers should plan easy activities. However, this can lead to all sorts of problems from switching off and becoming withdrawn in lessons to displaying both low levels and extreme behavioural issues.” (Mughal, 2021)

Feedback: The EEF guidance (Quigley et al, 2018) recommends that during difficult tasks, when motivating pupils, it is important to give feedback at timely intervals and to reward effort rather than outcome. Giving immediate feedback from time to time (Hattie, 2012) also helps with pupil motivation (Mughal, 2021).

Classroom strategy 2: Challenge Check

When a task is too easy, pupils may think that they are good at what they are doing because they are not getting anything wrong and feel quite happy. When a task is too difficult, some pupils may verbalise that they do not understand what is being asked although others may not.

When a task is just right or at the correct level of challenge, pupils may recognise that they can complete some parts and not other parts. This usually motivates them to be brave and just have a go. Deeper discussions then usually take place when working with a partner and they find the process quite enjoyable.

A Challenge Check Strip could be added onto the end of success criteria, or three trays could be labelled: Too easy – Challenge-just right – Too hard. Pupils could be asked to leave their books in the tray most appropriate for that lesson.

A reflection model

The metacognitive cycle consists of planning, monitoring and evaluating. Reflection is an evaluative thought process, which can be structured or unstructured. It may be written down to document the process of reflecting on an experience or situation which has occurred. Reflection usually contains stages to review what went well, what didn’t, and what could be changed to enable you to move forward.

Novice learners are unable to “see” that they are being successful at learning and are therefore more likely to give up. One way to show novice learners that they are being just as successful as more experienced learners is to use regular retrieval about how successful they have been during a lesson. Let us explore a model of reflection below.

Schon (1983) identified two types of reflection: On action and In Action.

  • On action: Reflection on action is where you reflect after an event you have experienced, and you start reflecting on how things could have been improved or how you will deal with the situation if it occurs again.
  • In action: Reflection in action is where you reflect on a situation as it occurs and “think on your feet” about how you can improve the situation there and then.

With novice learners, it is better to begin with reflection on action rather than during the learning. As they develop expertise, they will be able to reflect during tasks as well.

Classroom Strategy 3: Are you doing the right thing?

When pupils go off task (and let’s face it, we all do from time to time!) a great way to bring them back is to ask whether they are doing the right thing. Asking a quick question in this way is a great way of prompting them to reflect on their behaviour and of “reallocating” or boosting motivation.

Classroom Strategy 4: Reflection on action response strips in a plenary

As I have said, novice learners often think that expert learners are the only ones who can learn. Reflection on action response strips can be used to enable them to identify what makes them successful learners.


Metacognition can be seen as the bridge between self-concept to self-efficacy. By managing, monitoring and reviewing how we think (metacognition), we can successfully move from recognising and comparing our feelings of motivation in past events or situations (self-concept) to measuring our expectations about success – e.g. determination of effort, persistence and goal-setting, which is known as self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy helps determine the way in which we behave. If we think we are being successful in learning, we are more likely to be motivated to put more effort into a task.

Classroom strategy 5: Then and Now Venn (developing self-efficacy)

This is a visual way of comparing similar pieces of work over time. For example, in English, a pupil may have written a setting description in the autumn term and one in the spring term. Although they may be aware about how they have improved in their writing, they often cannot see it. One way of comparing their progress would be to fill in a Venn diagram according to given criteria.

  • Anoara Mughal is the author of Think!: Metacognition-powered Primary Teaching (October 2021). She is a primary practitioner of 15 years and an experienced school leader of 10 years. For details, visit Anoara will be presenting a workshop entitled Practical ideas for embedding metacognition in the primary classroom at Headteacher Update's inaugural Metacognition in the Classroom event on September 23 in London. For details, visit

Further information & resources

  • Flavell: Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry, American Psychologist (34), 1979.
  • Hattie: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising impact on learning, Routledge, 2012.
  • Kornell: Metacognition in animals and humans, Current Directions in Psychological Science (18, 1), University of California, 2009.
  • Mannion & Mercer: Learning to learn: Improving attainment, closing the gap at key stage 3, The Curriculum Journal (27,2), June 2016.
  • Mccrea: Motivated Teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort in the classroom, November 2020.
  • Mughal: Think!: Metacognition-powered primary teaching, SAGE Publications, 2021.
  • Quigley, Muijis & Stringer: Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning: Guidance Report, EEF, 2018:
  • Schon: The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action, Temple Smith, 1983.
  • Worley: Plato, metacognition and philosophy in schools, Journal of Philosophy in Schools (5), 2018.

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