Metacognition and Student Learning

Spring 2017

By Joseph Ball

Stimulating students’ critical thinking and metacognition are the … greatest goals in modern education and a teacher’s greatest challenge. — Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science
One of the most important things a teacher can do is to help you develop your own mental representations so that you can monitor and correct your own performance. — Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise
After more than 40 years of teaching, I still find myself asking the question, “What is the proper role of the teacher in the educational process?” Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, a leader in the relatively new field of mind, brain, and education science, believes that “there is now substantial evidence that the single greatest factor that impacts student learning is teacher quality”;1 however, this still begs the question, “What is teacher quality, and how does a teacher bring out the best in young people, empowering them for a successful future?”
Along with sincerely caring for our students and getting to know their individual needs, increasingly I believe that helping young people develop their powers of metacognition is central to how we provide them with the tools they need to flourish in life and, thereby, to experience true wellness. At first glance, it may appear that metacognition is about clear, logical thinking that leads to effective problem solving. This is certainly true; however, to understand ourselves as thinkers, it is also critical to recognize the significant impact of emotions on the learning process. As neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang puts it, “Emotions are, in essence, the rudder that steers thinking.”2 Metacognition, then, involves an introspective analysis of one’s emotions and the impact they are playing on the learning process. Similarly, students can be guided by educators so that they gain a better appreciation of the mind-body connection and the significance of nutrition, sleep, and exercise on thinking, learning, and wellness. In short, metacognition is at the core of all learning.3 As we will see, when students become more metacognitive, not only are they able to think more clearly but they will improve their executive functioning skills and be better equipped to take control of their lives.

Incorporating Metacognition in the Classroom

My goal in this article is twofold: first, to make the point that providing for our students’ wellness requires us as educators to guide our students to become more metacognitive, and, second, to suggest ways to incorporate metacognition into the classroom.4 I agree with Ron Ritchhart who wrote in Creating Cultures of Thinking: “Merely training teachers in new techniques has so often failed as a strategy for improving teaching. We need to first change how they look at the process of teaching and learning.”5 Encouraging students to be more metacognitive should not be an add-on to a content-focused class; it should be at the very core of the educational process. To put this in a concrete way, we need to rewrite our behavioral objectives: not “At the end of this class students will be able to list three causes of European colonialism,” but, rather, “Students will be able to describe their thought processes as they analyze various theories about the causes of European colonialism.”
The most obvious benefit of metacognition is that it helps students develop their thinking skills. As Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa points out, “Through metacognitive practices we learn how to consciously follow self-proposed steps tailor-made to our own thinking processes, creating a cycle of improved thinking across our lifespan. Thus, metacognition is fundamental to lifelong learning and is highly individual.6


One way to make the skill of metacognition more comprehensible for students is a technique from Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible called “connect-extend-challenge.”7 Students are encouraged to connect new ideas to concepts they already know and then extend those connections and see what challenges may result in their thinking.
I introduce the C-E-C technique early in the school year and employ it regularly on virtually every topic we are studying. For example, when teaching a unit on the causes of European colonialism, I would ask students to make as many connections as possible. Do the ideas expressed in the textbook connect to any ideas you learned in the past? Do the various causes connect with one another? If so, how? Do the dynamics of colonialism remind you of any other periods in history or any other units we have studied? Was colonialism unjust? How do you feel about European colonialism? Why? (Keep in mind that emotional connections will deepen the students’ learning.) As Ritchhart points out, initial connections may be superficial or even inaccurate; thus, we ask students to extend their connections. One way to do this is to use a related technique recommended by Ritchhart: We simply ask, “What makes you say that?” As students expand on their connections, it is quite possible that challenges may arise. When and why does the analogy break down? What are the differences as well as the similarities between the ideas being connected? When we ask these questions, it is important to remind students on a regular basis, perhaps daily, that they are engaging in metacognition as they think about the connections they are making. Any effective history teacher will ask students to analyze documents and make connections, but I am suggesting that we ask students to analyze their analysis. Furthermore, I am suggesting that we tell students explicitly that practicing metacognition is central to the lesson; in fact, we must tell them that improving their metacognitive skills is much more important than simply learning about the possible causes of European colonialism.
How effective is this technique? On a student survey I conducted at the end of the year for my eighth-grade World Cultures classes, one student commented:
Thinking about my thought process has allowed me to figure out new things about my brain, and to truly Connect, Extend, Challenge (C-E-C). By thinking about my thinking, I have become a deeper thinker, and can branch my mind out to whole new levels.
Another student wrote:
I find that metacognition is a very important tool I have learned this year that will empower me greatly in the future. Being able to think about thinking is a very strong skill. It will help me on many aspects. An example is when I thought about how I think and I decided to change it.
While these students do not give specific examples, my experience is that the more they hear me commend them for making connections, the more they will make statements such as, “This reminds me of something we are studying in science” or “This is similar to what we learned in American Studies last year.” At times I will respond with a comment such as, “Wow. Think about what your brain just did to make that connection!” This is a way to encourage metacognition without necessarily using the word every time.

Thinking About Thinking

No doubt educators can develop their own techniques for encouraging students to be more metacognitive, but in any case another good approach is to use what Ron Ritchhart calls “the language of thinking.” He suggests terms such as “inquire, generate, question, puzzle, theorize, imagine, explore,” as well as processes such as “justifying, examining, reasoning.”8 Again, the critical piece in using the language of thinking in class is to make explicit to students that they need to consciously examine their own thinking. By expanding their vocabulary regarding thinking, we can ask them to distinguish between “theorizing” and “examining” or “imagining” and “generating.” The teacher should also make explicit references to the types of thinking he or she is doing while addressing the class. This is a means of effective modeling and “making thinking audible,” as Michael Martinez calls it in “What Is Metacognition?”9
Another benefit of metacognition emerges as students apply it to their emotional lives, a critical aspect of wellness. Not only will they come to a better understanding of the connection between emotions and learning but they will improve their executive functioning. In fact, it is possible to understand mature decision making and emotional intelligence as stemming largely from metacognition. Consider, for example, the way Dr. Peter Fonagy, head of the Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology Department at University College London, describes emotional intelligence as “the capacity to reflect on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions and to be aware of complex mental states — the wishes, beliefs, and feelings — of the people around us.”10 This is essentially a definition of metacognition! In fact, the connection between metacognition and emotional intelligence is borne out by the experiences of my students. As one student reflected:
Thinking about thinking has helped me understand how I manage myself and … to work more efficiently. It has helped me break bad habits such as large amounts of video games and develop good habits such as waking up early before school instead of going to bed late.
In short, this student used metacognition to enhance his own wellness! Combining both the cognitive and affective domains, one student wrote this intriguing insight:  
Metacognition — Thinking about the true essence of music, and exploring my mind. Thinking about music’s true effect on the brain, and why I feel so intrigued by music. Metacognition helped me understand what it means to play, sing, dance, and work!
While this student was no doubt already familiar with the pleasures that can be found in the arts, metacognition helped her gain a deeper understanding of the “true effect” of her experiences. A heightened awareness of how the arts bring her joy will enable her to pursue activities that will enhance her wellness as she grows and matures.
What I find the most powerful comment of all came from a student who used metacognition to improve his interactions at home:
One of the tools that has helped me a lot this year and will continue to help me is metacognition and mindfulness. From the very first day of class Mr. Ball told us that the key to being happy is to be grateful. My mom and I had a period of time this year when we would argue a lot and get into fights but then one day I thought of how I can try to prevent this and therefore be happier. Now, whenever I am in a bad mood or on the verge of getting in a fight with my mom, I think of a bunch of things I'm grateful for and it actually really helps. I think about thinking and identify why I'm mad and how I can fix it and be happier. We have a much better relationship now and have gotten so close and she has told me that she notices a difference.
 Not only is this an expression of emotional wellness but it bodes well for a lifetime of increasingly mature relationships based on self-understanding and well-being.

Mental Representations and Models

Another way to encourage metacognitive practices is to teach students the concept of “mental representations.” While the phrase may be used typically in a philosophical sense — namely, that we all create mental representations of everything in the external world — it is used by Anders Ericsson who has done extensive research into the psychological nature of expertise and human performance"  to refer to what some might call “mental models.”11 Perhaps the terms may be used interchangeably, but mental models are typically more conscious. This is why I see a progression from mental representations (which may be somewhat vague or even unconscious) to mental models (which can be revised and embellished). One of the most intriguing discussions of the practical use of mental models can be found in Charles Duhigg’s latest book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. According to Duhigg,
Researchers have found … [that] people who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models. By developing a habit of telling ourselves stories about what’s going on around us, we learn to sharpen where our attention goes.12

Mind Maps

Understanding the nature and uses of mental representations and mental models can be important for our students’ ever-developing levels of metacognition; however, I have found that younger students, say in middle school, benefit from mind maps, which are visual renderings they can use to concretize and share their mental models. Mind maps are, in effect, a way for students to “see” their thoughts. Then a dialectic can occur whereby the mind map helps a student become more metacognitive, and deeper metacognition leads to more detailed and effective mind maps.
In my eighth-grade World Cultures class, I switched from having students list various aspects of culture to having them create mind maps depicting their understanding of culture. The result is that the content is much richer and the students retain the information in much greater detail. For example, under a bubble labeled “the arts,” one can list subcategories, such as architecture, interior design, painting, and ceramics. In addition, the categories can be laid out in a way to indicate their relationships with one another. Proximity or connecting lines may indicate how economic systems and political systems overlap, while the bubble marked “education” may link to a variety of areas, including government, the arts, and athletics. It is important to make explicit to the students that their mind maps are concrete, visual images of their mental representations or mental models. Thus, the exercise becomes explicitly metacognitive.
In order to make the mind maps authentic and personalized, it is essential that students have the freedom to experiment creatively. For example, the mind maps my students created to depict their understanding of culture included a tree with branches, leaves, and roots; an image of the world with children (representing various elements of culture) holding hands around the perimeter; and intricate spiderweb designs. I repeated this exercise three or four times throughout the year, and each time the students’ students mind maps became more detailed and nuanced. Below is the first iteration from James Blume, an eighth-grade student.


Finally, another way to encourage students to be metacognitive is to couple metacognition with mindfulness practice. While mindfulness emphasizes cognitive self-awareness without judgment and metacognition typically leads to analysis and “self-talk,” both are forms of introspection that can lead students to increased self-understanding. Since there are many excellent books on how to incorporate mindfulness practices in the classroom, I will not discuss those techniques here. (However, as a good starting place I recommend Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom by Meena Srinivasan.) The student I quoted above, who describes using a combination of “metacognition and mindfulness” to help improve his relationship with his mother, eloquently makes the point that these two tools can work together to empower students and give them a feeling of emotional wellness. Another student demonstrates the use of metacognition as he describes how mindfulness helped him academically:
Being the most influential part of my year, mindfulness was by far the most helpful skill I know. I was never mindful about mindfulness; in other words, I knew what it was, but I never realized the power that it contains. Being able to be present in stressful cases, especially when doing a frustrating math problem, has helped me so much and has made me have an abundance of gratitude on what’s around me.
Notice that the power of mindfulness for this student is enhanced when he is metacognitive, that is, “mindful about mindfulness.”

Empowering Autodidacts

In recent years I initiated a paradigm shift in my approach to education. For most of my career, my lesson plans were constructed around content, while I did my best to incorporate academic skill building into the curriculum. Now I teach my students the term “metacognition” on the first day of the school year and follow up by surprising them with the statement: “I am not here to teach you; I am here to empower you.” I explain that the more they teach themselves, the more they will learn and truly understand. I also teach them the word “autodidact” and explain that to be an autodidact they need to be metacognitive. The results have been staggering. The few students I quote above are representative of the large majority of the young people I have advised and “taught.” Needless to say, my lessons continue to include content such as history and anthropology, but my students have taught most of it to themselves because they have become autodidacts. By focusing on developing their metacognitive skills, they have learned how they learn and how they can regulate their behavior to achieve greater wellness. They describe increased self-confidence and know they are well on their way to being lifelong learners. Isn’t this what we want in our students, and isn’t this our primary responsibility as educators?


1. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014).
2. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).
3. For a sample metacognition assessment inventory, see
4. See, also, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013).
5. Ron Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015).
6. Tokuhama-Espinosa, Making Classrooms Better.
7. Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison, Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015).
8. Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking.
9. Michael E. Martinez, “What Is Metacognition?” Phi Delta Kappan 87, no. 9 (May 2006): 696-699.
10. Quoted in Lisa Damour, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood (New York: Ballantine Books, 2016).
11. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
12. Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2016).
Joseph Ball

Joseph Ball ([email protected]) taught in Iran and Thailand before joining the faculty at Newark Academy, Livingston, New Jersey, where he has worked as both a teacher and administrator since 1980.