Metacognition and self-regulation

Metacognition refers to one’s awareness of and ability to regulate one’s own thinking (Flavell, 1979).

Everyday examples of metacognition:

  • awareness that you have difficulty remembering people’s names in social situations
  • reminding yourself that you should try to remember the name of a person you just met
  • realizing that you know an answer to a question but simply can’t recall it at the moment
  • realizing that you should review an article you read last week because you have forgotten many of the key points
  • realizing that there is something wrong with your solution to a problem
  • re-reading a passage because you realize you didn’t understand it

Metacognitive awareness is like an internal monitor that notices when your attention wanes, when your comprehension and memory fail or succeed, when your thinking is faulty, when you haven’t learned something, and so forth. Metacognition enables us to regulate our learning and thinking, whether that involves refocusing attention, re-reading material that doesn’t make sense, mulling over an idea, asking questions, or other mental moves to deal more effectively with the situation.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of metacognitive knowledge and skills for effective learning. Metacognition makes you smarter, better able to take advantage of and develop your abilities. Moreover, metacognition is the basis for self-regulated learning in which students are able to plan, apply strategies, monitor, evaluate, and adjust their learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010).

Students differ widely with respect to their level of metacognitive development. Researchers have identified common erroneous assumptions and beliefs that undermine student learning (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013; Kornell & Finn, 2016). Some examples:

  • The best way to learn is through repetition and re-exposure to the material. This belief is the basis for adopting learning strategies such as re-reading and rote memorization, which actually are relatively ineffective (Morehead, Rhodes, & DeLozier, 2015).
  • Each student has a unique learning style by which they learn best (Howard-Jones, 2014). There is no evidence to support this belief (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2009).
  • Making mistakes is something to be avoided instead of an opportunity to improve one’s learning.
  • Academic performance is based on immutable innate differences in ability. Students who believe they lack innate ability in a subject are more likely to avoid it or give up easily when they experience difficulty (Dweck, 2007).
  • Learning should be easy; something is wrong with students or instruction if learning is difficult (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013).

Students also exhibit inaccurate judgments of learning (JOLs). If students can easily produce answers to questions when they are studying, they are likely to conclude they know the subject, and stop studying. They fail to recognize they may not be able to produce the answers on a future test (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013; Kornell & Finn, 2016). In general, low achieving students overestimate their academic performance while high achieving students underestimate theirs (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger & Kruger, 2003).


Metacognition is essential for effective, self-regulated learning. Lack of metacognitive knowledge and skills can interfere with learning in many different circumstances. Metacognitive gaps limit students’ ability to learn independently and to regulate their own learning. To promote better learning, instructors must try to influence students’ ability to engage in self-regulated learning.

Recommendations to promote metacognition and self-regulated learning

A model of self-regulated learning. One group of researchers proposes a model of self-regulated learning specific to academic tasks (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010). In their view, self-regulated learning depends on 1) assessing the demands of a learning task, 2) evaluating one’s strengths and weaknesses vis a’ vis the task, 3) planning an approach to address the task, 4) applying strategies and monitoring performance, and 5) reflecting on and adjusting one’s approach.

This model can help identify metacognitive gaps in specific aspects of the learning process. Instructors can then pinpoint areas that need improvement.

Help students learn to assess learning goals and expectations

  • Be explicit and transparent. Many underperforming students do not understand their assignments and instructors’ expectations (Winkelmas, 2016). Rewrite assignments to reduce academic jargon and define terms clearly. To achieve greater transparency, ask students to explain what they think the assignment expects them to do. Use their feedback to further improve the clarity of the assignment.
  • Help students understand performance criteria for assignments. Use rubrics to delineate the criteria on which their work will be evaluated. Review the criteria with students, and use examples of previous students’ work to highlight strengths and weaknesses. For example, if an assignment requires students to “analyze” a perspective or theory, show them examples of strong and weak analyses.

Help students learn to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses

  • Use practice tests throughout a course to help students diagnose their strengths and weaknesses. In particular, give a practice test early in the course before the first major exam. Review the answers with students. Point out how to answer questions and recommend ways they can study to improve their exam performance.
  • Ask students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their exam preparation and assignment drafts, and submit these for review and feedback. Students’ responses will reveal how they study and the reasons they believe their approach is effective. Based on students’ responses, instructors can give targeted feedback to help students improve the accuracy of their self-evaluations.

Help students learn to plan an appropriate approach

  • Scaffold students’ planning by providing them with plans for major assignments and projects.
  • Ask students to submit a plan for each major assignment. Review and give feedback.
  • Ask students to submit a study plan for each exam. Review and give feedback.

Help students learn to apply strategies and monitor their performance

  • Use guided self-assessments in which students evaluate their progress on an assignment or course learning goal. The instructor can guide the process by providing a detailed rubric and examples of student work.
  • Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work. Ask students to describe and explain where and why they have difficulty with the course subject matter and assignments.
  • Use peer review activities. Peer review activities involve students in reading and giving feedback on one another’s work. However, students typically need instruction and guidance to carry out peer review effectively. If interested in adopting peer review, consult with a local campus expert, experienced colleagues, and peer review guidelines.

Help students learn to reflect on and adjust their approach

  • Require students to reflect on and evaluate their final performance on exams and assignments. Ask students to complete exam or assignment “wrappers” in which they answer questions about how they planned, prepared, and studied for a test or assignment, and what they would do to improve their learning on future tasks (Lovett, 2013).

Help students develop more accurate beliefs about intelligence and learning

  • Provide recommendations and advice to students throughout the term about how to study and learn the knowledge and skills in the course.
  • Create a course learning guide that describes and explains effective ways of studying and learning in the course.

Recommended reading

Cerbin, W. (2015). Metacognition. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Millis, B. (2016). Metacognition to promote learning. IDEA Paper #63. Retrieved from The IDEA Center website:


Ambrose, S. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, M. & Norman, M. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners. In How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188-216). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013) Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64: 417-444.

Cerbin, W. (2015). Metacognition. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83-87.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911.

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824.

Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2016). Self-regulated learning: An overview of theory and data. In J. Dunlosky & S. K. Tauber (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of metamemory (pp. 325-340). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Lovett, M. C. (2013). Making exams worth more than the grade. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18-48). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2015). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies, Memory, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2014.1001992

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

Winkelmes, M.A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J. & Zochowski, M. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, Washington DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.