4 Metacognition

OpenStax and Kristin Conlin

For many of us, it was in kindergarten or first grade when our teacher asked our class to “put on our thinking caps.” That may partially have been a clever way for a harried teacher to get young scholars to calm down and focus, but the idea is an apt depiction of how we think.

Depending on the situation, we may have to don several very different caps to do our best thinking. Knowing which cap to wear in which situation so we are most prepared, effective, and efficient becomes the work of a lifetime. When you can handle more than one complex thought at a time or when you need to direct all your focus on one crucial task is highly individual. Some people study well with music on in the background while others need absolute silence and see any noise as a distraction. Many chefs delight in creating dinners for hundreds of people in a chaotic kitchen but don’t care for making a meal for two at home.

When an individual thinks about how he or she thinks, this practice is called metacognition. Developmental psychiatrist John Flavell coined the term metacognition and divided the theory into three processes of planning, tracking, and assessing your own understanding.[1]

“Becoming aware of your thought processes and using this awareness deliberately is a sign of mature thinking.”

For example, you may be reading a difficult passage in a textbook on chemistry and recognize that you are not fully understanding the meaning of the section you just read or its connection to the rest of the chapter. Students use metacognition when they practice self-awareness and self-assessment. You are the best judge of how well you know a topic or a skill.

In college especially, thinking about your thinking is crucial so you know what you don’t know and how to fix this problem, i.e., what you need to study, how you need to organize your calendar, and so on.

If you stop and recognize this challenge with the aim of improving your comprehension, you are practicing metacognition. You may decide to highlight difficult terms to look up, write a summary of each paragraph in as few sentences as you can, or join a peer study group to work on your comprehension.

If you know you retain material better if you hear it, you may read out loud or watch video tutorials covering the material. These are all examples of thinking about how you think and adapting your behavior based on this metacognition. Likewise, if you periodically assess your progress toward a goal, such as when you check your grades in a course every few weeks during a long semester so you know how well you are doing, this too is metacognition.

Beyond just being a good idea, thinking about your own thinking process allows you to reap great benefits from becoming more aware of and deliberate with your thoughts. If you know how you react in a specific thinking or learning situation, you have a better chance to improve how well you think or to change your thoughts altogether by tuning into your reaction and your thinking. You can plan how to move forward because you recognize that the way you think about a task or idea makes a difference in what you do with that thought. The famous Greek philosopher Socrates allegedly said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Examine your thoughts and be aware of them.

Becoming Aware of Your Thinking

Just as elite athletes watch game footage and work with coaches to improve specific aspects of their athletic performance, students can improve their mindset and performance reliant upon their thinking by starting to be aware of what they think. If a baseball pitcher recognizes that the curveball that once was so successful in producing strikeouts has not worked as well recently, the pitcher may break down every step of the physical movement required for the once-successful pitch. He and his coaches may notice a slight difference they can remedy during practice to improve the pitch.

This thinking allow the owner of the thought to contemplate alternatives instead of becoming frustrated or mindlessly continuing to sabotage sincere goals. Think now of a personal example of a habit you may want to change, such as smoking, or an attribute such as patience or perseverance you may want to improve in yourself. Can you determine what steps you may need to undertake to change this habit or to develop a stronger awareness of the need to change?

Using Thought Deliberately

If you need to plan, track, and assess your understanding to engage in metacognition, what strategies do you need to employ? Students can use metacognition strategies before, during, and after reading, lectures, assignments, and group work.


Students can plan and get ready to learn by asking questions such as:

  • What am I supposed to learn in this situation?
  • What do I already know that might help me learn this information?
  • How should I start to get the most out of this situation?
  • What should I be looking for and anticipating as I read or study or listen?

As part of this planning stage, students may want to jot down the answers to some of the questions they considered while preparing to study. If the task is a writing assignment, prewriting is particularly helpful just to get your ideas down on paper. You may want to start an outline of ideas you think you may encounter in the upcoming session; it probably won’t be complete until you learn more, but it can be a place to start.


Students can keep up with their learning or track their progress by asking themselves:

  • How am I doing so far?
  • What information is important in each section?
  • Should I slow down my pace to understand the difficult parts more fully?
  • What information should I review now or mark for later review?

In this part of metacognition, students may want to step away from a reading selection and write a summary paragraph on what the passage was about without looking at the text. Cornell University is famous for coining this method of notetaking that provided time during lectures for students to summarize their notes before moving to the next subject.[2]

Another way to track your learning progress is to review lecture or lab notes within a few hours of the initial note-taking session. This allows you to have a fresh memory of the information and fill in gaps you may need to research more fully.

Reflection and Assessment

Students can assess their learning by asking themselves:

  • How well do I understand this material?
  • What else can I do to understand the information better?
  • Is there any element of the task I don’t get yet?
  • What do I need to do now to understand the information more fully?
  • How can I adjust how I study (or read or listen or perform) to get better results moving forward?

How much more effective could you be in general if instead of reacting to events and then contemplating better alternatives later, you were able to do the thinking proactively before the situation arises? Just the act of pausing to think through the potential consequences is a good first step to accomplishing the goal of using metacognition to reduce negative results.

Can you think of a situation in which you reacted to events around you with less than ideal results? How about a time when you thought through a situation beforehand and reaped the benefits of this proactive approach?



Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License
4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information

  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format,
    then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:

    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/1-introduction

  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format,
    then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:

    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/1-introduction

Citation information

© Mar 26, 2020 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book
covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may
not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.

  1. Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Cornell University (2021) The Cornell note taking system. The Learning Strategies Center. http://lsc.cornell.edu/how-to-study/taking-notes/cornell-note-taking-system/


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Strategic information literacy: Targeted knowledge with broad application Copyright © 2019 by OpenStax and Kristin Conlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book