Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

Metacognition can simply be defined as thinking about the contents and processes of one’s own mind. Thinking about thinking. Within learning sciences and education research, metacognition refers to “knowledge, awareness, and control of one’s own learning” (Baird, 1990, p. 184).

Metacognitive processes include the ability to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. 

      • Planning occurs prior to a cognitive event when the learner estimates the knowledge and skills they will need to successfully complete a task.
      • Monitoring occurs during the event when the learner monitors progress and considers whether the strategies being applied might be adapted to improve progress on the task.
      • Assessing occurs after the event when the learner retrospectively reflects on a learning event, evaluates how effective their strategy was, and considers how they would approach a similar task in the future (Salomon & Perkins, 1989)


While metacognitive abilities may vary across individuals, there is research evidence indicating metacognition is a teachable skill (e.g. Moely et al., 1995, Schraw, 1998). Some of the benefits of metacognition include:

      • Student’s have greater awareness or recognition of their limitations in knowledge/skills and know which areas to place greater focus or attention to improve their knowledge/skills.
      • Metacognition increases students’ ability to effectively apply strategies to solve cognitive tasks and transfer knowledge/skills to new contexts/tasks (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 12; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Scardamalia et al., 1984; Schoenfeld, 1983, 1985, 1991).
      • A student is less susceptible to not being aware of their incompetence and lack insight on how to improve their learning and performance

This concept is particularly useful for instructors who teach courses with extensive problem-solving and/or project-based learning, as students will have ample time to practice and develop their metacognitive skills within these contexts. However, all instructors will benefit from knowing about metacognition and thinking about ways to promote it in their classes.

Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

Since metacognition takes place before, during, and, after a cognitive task, instructors should be mindful of integrating activities throughout specific classes and the curriculum itself.  

In project-based learning courses, instructors should devote ample time toward the early-stages toward planning and discussing design projects with students. Due to a lack of experience, students seldom realize the complexity of a project and underestimate how long certain tasks will take. Requiring students to develop a comprehensive project plan that includes a list of tasks, methods/strategies to be used based on research, contingency plans, and the resources they will use, can help mitigate the risk of improper planning.

There are a number of activities and/or assignments that can support the three metacognitive processes (plan, monitor, and assess). These activities can be employed during class time or outside of class time as homework.

Planning Examples

      • Pre-Assessment Reflections: These can be written reflections or think-pair-share activities that encourage students to examine their current understanding of a topic. 
      • Pre-Assessment Think-Pair-Shares: Have students discuss in small groups what their current understanding of a topic before it is formally introduced. 
      • Gantt Chart: Have students utilize project management tools such as Gantt Charts to think through all the tasks required to complete a project, how long they will take, and when they will be completed by. 
      • Proposal Development: Have students complete a thorough project plan that discusses the strategies and resources that they will need to complete the primary tasks of a project. 

Monitoring Examples

      • Modeling: Demonstrate how to solve a problem step-by-step and explicitly explain your thinking process.
      • Articulation: Encourage students to work on problems in groups and openly discuss their thinking and problem-solving strategy. This can also include encouraging students to share their study habits with one another also.
      • In-Class Reflections: Have students pause while they are working on a task and actively discuss individually or in groups how things are going and whether a shift in strategy would be helpful.
      • Design Reviews: Have formal stage gates or formal design reviews in which students present their current project work and are given an opportunity to reflect and receive feedback on their current progress, the strategies they have used, and next steps. 

Assessing Examples

      • The Muddiest Point: A simple reflection activity in which students can share with the instructor what is still unclear or what they might be confused about. 
      • Retrospective Reflections: These can be written reflections or think-pair-share activities that encourage students to think about how their understanding of a topic has changed. These can also focus on thinking about study habits, what worked well, what didn’t work that they would change next time, and how they would approach a similar task in the future.

Rationale and Research: The WHY

Too often we teach students what to think, but not how to think. Metacognition is essential to learning and there is tremendous value for educators to think about ways to augment metacognitive thinking in their classes.

A large body of research in cognitive psychology, extending back to the mid-1960’s, has demonstrated that metacognition plays an important role in all cognitive tasks including problem-solving, decision-making, and critical-thinking (Winne and Azevedo, 2014). Overall, within an engineering education context, metacognition has been found to support students in engaging in the learning process and solving problems in effective ways (Case et al., 2001; Garofalo & Lester, 1985; Schoenfeld, 1992). Engineering students who possess strong metacognitive skills can more readily identify and define problems, mentally represent problems, plan solution procedures, monitor solution progress, and evaluate the final solution (Cunningham et al., 2015). Metacognitive strategies also support one’s ability to navigate the engineering design process and persist through ambiguity and ill-structured problems. Newell and colleagues (2004) reported that metacognition also enhances engineering teams’ performance.

Additional Resources and References

Interested in learning more?  Here are additional readings on metacognition as well as citations and links to articles referenced in this document.

Baird, J.R. (1990) Metacognition, purposeful enquiry and conceptual change, in: E. Hegarty-Hazel (Ed.) The Student Laboratory and the Science Curriculum.London: Routledge. 
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Case, J., Gunstone, R. and Lewis, A. 2001. Students’ metacognitive development in an innovative second year chemical engineering course. Research in Science Education, 31: 313–335.
Cunningham, P., Matusovich, H. M., Hunter, D. A., & McCord, R. E. (2015, October). Teaching metacognition: Helping engineering students take ownership of their own learning. In 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.
Garofalo, J., & Lester, F. K. (1985). Metacognition, cognitive monitoring, and mathematical performance. Journal for research in mathematics education, 16(3), 163-176.
Lawanto, O. (2010). Students’ metacognition during an engineering design project. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 23(2), 117-136.
Moely, B. E., Santulli, K. A., & Obach, M. S. (1995). Strategy instruction, metacognition, and motivation in the elementary school classroom. In F. E. Weinert & W. Schneider (Eds.), Memory performance and competencies: Issues in growth and development (pp. 301– 321). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Newell, J., Dahm, K., Harvey, R., & Newell, H. (2004). Developing metacognitive engineering teams. Chemical Engineering Education, 38(4), 316–320.
Palincsar, Annemarie Sullivan, and Brown, Ann L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2). 117-175.

Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanism of a neglected phenomenon. Educational psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.
Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional science, 26(1), 113-125.
Scardamalia, M., Bereiter, C., & Steinbach, R. (1984). Teachability of reflective processes in written composition. Cognitive science, 8(2), 173-190.
Schoenfeld, A. (1983). Problem solving in the mathematics curriculum: A report, recommendations, and an annotated bibliography. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.
Schoenfeld, A. (1985). Metacognitive and epistemological issues in mathematical understanding. In Silver, E. A. (Ed.), Teaching and learning mathematical problem solving: Multiple research perspectives (pp. 361–380). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Schoenfeld, A. (1991). On mathematics as sense making: An informal attack on the fortunate divorce of formal and informal mathematics. In James F. Voss, David N. Perkins, and Judith W. Segal (Eds.), Informal reasoning and education (pp. 311-344). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schoenfeld, A. H. (1992). Learning to think mathematically: Problem solving, metacognition, and sense making in mathematics. In D. A. Grouws (Ed.), Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 165–197). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 
Winne, P. H., & Azevedo, R. (2014). Metacognition.