Students Speak: What Does Metacognition Mean Anyway?

At the recent Learning Differences Conference, the SMARTS team presented a workshop on strategies that foster metacogntion, or self-awareness, in students. Before teaching metacognition strategies, it’s helpful to begin by defining what it means.

For starters, let’s look at the official SMARTS definition:

Metacognition: “Thinking about one’s own thinking.” Self-awareness is the foundation of metacognition. There are three key processes involved in metacognition:

1. Self-understanding — understanding our unique profiles of strengths and challenges

2. Reflection — thinking about what we know

3. Self-regulation — regulating and monitoring our learning

Together, these comprise important learning processes.

You can see that promoting metacognition requires a focus on three general categories: improving students’ understanding of their strength and challenges, providing opportunities to reflect on their work, and teaching strategies that help students apply this knowledge and regulate their effort to match their goals.

This definition is pretty loaded—appropriate for teachers, perhaps, but a little too intricate for our students. So, how do students describe metacognition? Here are three illustrated examples.

Metacognition Image 1

This student defined metacognition as, “I am awesome, because that is what everything should mean!” While we love to see strong self-esteem, this highlights the need to promote greater self-awareness in our students. Too often students will hold an artificially high or low opinion of themselves. This prevents them from understanding their true areas of strength and challenge. When they succeed or struggle in school, they won’t be able to learn and incorporate that knowledge into a realistic picture of themselves.


Metacogntion Image 2

This student recognizes the cognition part of metacognition. He understands that being metacognitive means “thinking about your thinking.” Students need to use their brains to think about how their brains work! Using neuroscience to spice up a lesson about metacognition can be a valuable way to help students visualize the process of building self-awareness.


Metacogntion Image 3

This student nailed it! She depicted a brain that is filled with all the various tasks that make up the day. (I’ve been told the tiny dots are memories that are related to each task). In the center is the executive function area, coordinating efforts to get each task done. Hard-to-do tasks, such as homework, are larger and occupy a prominent position in the brain because she knows that they will take more time and effort to accomplish. This picture literally illustrates the reason we want to teach our students about metacognition. She clearly understands herself and uses this knowledge to map out her plan to get all her academic and non-academic tasks done.  Bravo!

I hope you enjoyed these pictures as much as our workshop attendees did, and I encourage you to teach your own students about key concepts such as metacognition, executive function, and strategy use. For activities and lesson plans that help students define these crucial concepts, take a look at Unit 1 of the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director