Tools for metacognition

Metacognition is an important part of intentional learning, since it involves actively thinking about what you know, what you don’t know, and how you can get better at knowing and applying what you know.

One metacognitive approachA mantra for metacognition

  • State the learning problem with some specificity: identify what you want to know and what you want to do with that knowledge
  • Choose strategies to solve the learning problem—draw upon your own prior knowledge and the knowledge of others
  • Observe how you used the strategies—keep a learning journal or blog
  • Evaluate the results: What worked? What didn’t work?
  • Rinse and repeat: Apply successful strategies to new learning problems

By definition, metacognition involves individual commitment and reflection. However, research suggests that a learner’s ability to learn can be increased when an instructor spends some time discussing and helping students to use metacognitive strategies (Azevedo & Cromley, 2004; Scruggs, 1985).

How you as an instructor can help

Be a role model
Think aloud to show your approach to solving problems. Share your experiences and discuss what worked and what didn’t work when you tried to solve a problem. Understanding where and when an approach fails can be as instructive as understanding where and when it succeeds.

Baby steps
Help learners appreciate that they’ll grow to be better learners. Help them set goals. Keeping a learning journal, ePortfolio, or blog can help learners monitor their progress. Blogs have the useful advantage of  allowing learners to tap into the experiences of others who may comment and share their own learning strategies.

Concept mapping
Have learners develop their understanding of a problem by jotting down what they know and what they don’t know. Concept mapping and mindmapping tools can be very useful here.  There are many great tools for mindmapping or concept mapping, but you may need to encourage learners to be more thoughtful about their brainstorming processes. The best concept mapping tools will have functionality built in to:

  • Allow learners to weigh the relative importance of their ideas
  • Describe how ideas relate to each other
  • Connect new ideas to what they already know.

A “So what? Now what?” approach
Learners need to move past passive collection of information. Each time your learners link to a website, have them jot down why they flagged the site as interesting and what they can do with the information they’ve found. Web annotation tools can help develop these skills. I’m personally a big fan of Diigo which combines the best of social bookmarking with technology that allows you to highlight and annotate the Web pages you find. You can create a project-specific group for your learners, allowing them to share their resources and  reflections on a specific topic. Learners also can  search for and participate in existing groups which allow open-membership.

facilitating intentional learning through metacognition

Use “wrappers”
Consider making  self-reflection an integral part of any lesson/training module by including metacognitive activities with each lesson/training module. For example, you can ask learners to identify their top three take homes after a presentation or learning activity and ask them to share these take homes with others in a discussion (either in an online forum or in a face-to-face setting). As an instructor, remember to share your own important points after you’ve allowed time for discussion.

After a practice activity, you can ask learners to reflect on the strategies they used to solve a problem and to describe what worked and what didn’t work. Similarly, you can do the same after an exam or other type of assessment activity. Ask learners how they plan to attack future assessment activities and more importantly, how they plan to attack real-world problems.

Metacognition and motivation

Of course learners still need to be motivated. Having learning strategies in place doesn’t mean a learner will be motivated to learn. But confidence is an important part of motivation and metacognition can be an important tool for empowering students to obtain this confidence.


Azevedo, R., & Cromley, J. G. (2004). Does training on self-regulated learning facilitate students’ learning with hypermedia? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 523-535.

Scruggs, Thomas E.; Mastropieri, M. A.; Monson, J.; & Jorgenson, C. (1985, Fall). Maximizing what gifted students can learn: Recent findings of learning strategy research. Gifted Child Quarterly, 29(4), 181-185.

9 responses to “Tools for metacognition

  1. Pingback: Using Diigo for intentional learning and sharing « Instructional Design Fusions

  2. Great article with an effective template for sharing. Metacognition is so idiosyncratic at times that it is good to see an attempt to corral it. Thanks.

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