Research School Network: Everything is Awesome: Metacognition We explore the nuances of the EEF toolkit by looking at high impact strands. This time, Mark Miller looks at metacognition.

Everything is Awesome: Metacognition

We explore the nuances of the EEF toolkit by looking at high impact strands. This time, Mark Miller looks at metacognition.

by Bradford Research School
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The EEF toolkit has a number of strands which we might consider high impact’, those strands with the highest rating for additional months progress’. And that means that school leaders are more likely to adopt those practices or approaches. But before we jump on these as the solution to all of our problems, we need to be a little wary, and dig beneath the headlines. That’s why we are looking at some of these strands in an occasional series.

Last time out we focused on homework. This time, we focus on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning. The impact on the toolkit is +7 months so why wouldn’t we see this as the thing we should adopt?

Metacognition Toolkit

What exactly is it?

What do we even mean by metacognition’? Whenever I ask this question in a training session, I can be met with many different responses: thinking about thinking; understanding your own learning; knowing how we think. It’s a thing that we all have a sense of but these messy, inconsistent definitions add to the problem. So, what do the EEF mean?

Metacognition and self-regulation approaches to teaching support pupils to think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring, and evaluating their learning.

What about self-regulated learning? According to the EEF, it comprises of the following:

  • cognition – the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning
  • metacognition – often defined as learning to learn’; and
  • motivation – willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills.

The EEF definition is not necessarily the final word , but it framed the review of the evidence, can help us to unpick the findings and gives us a shared language. The Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning guidance report goes into even more detail about what exactly we can mean when we talk about metacognition and self-regulation.

Implementation is key

In the How could you implement in your setting?’ section of the toolkit, the number of suggestions reflects the wide possible scope of implementing metacognition:

  • Explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies
  • Teachers modelling their own thinking to demonstrate metacognitive strategies
  • Opportunities for pupils to reflect on and monitor their strengths and areas of improvement, and plan how to overcome current difficulties.
  • Providing enough challenge for learners to develop effective strategies, but not so difficult that they struggle to apply a strategy.

As with all of these, we need to make things more concrete, and define the active ingredients. And rather than simply choosing an approach that we like, a robust audit of the problem you want to solve is important. The School Audit Tool can help you decide.

Meta RAG


The suggestions above don’t mention any curriculum areas, so should you develop an approach to metacognition which means developing generic metacognition skills? We’d advise against it. In the evidence review that accompanies the guidance report:

Importantly, SRL and metacognition have been found to be quite context-dependent, which means that a student who shows strong SRL and metacognitive competence in one task or domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may be differentially effective depending on the specific task, subject or problem tackled.

So any whole-school approach to metacognition must root it in the unique elements of subjects themselves. This doesn’t mean that a shared language is unhelpful. The concepts of plan, monitor and evaluate, plus knowledge of self, strategies and task are quite universal, it’s just that they will look quite different in each subject, and just because someone can monitor their performance effectively when playing an instrument, doesn’t mean they can do it just as easily when writing an essay. 

When you explore the individual studies that feed into the toolkit, most are centred within a specific curriculum area, so generalising is difficult. As they say in the toolkit entry, approaches are more effective when they are applied to challenging tasks rooted in the usual curriculum content.’

There are no quick fixes in education. It’s worth focusing on strategies which develop metacognitive skills, but as ever, look beyond the surface and dig a little deeper. 

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