Research School Network: Using metacognition in secondary science How we can teach students subject-specific strategies


Using metacognition in secondary science

How we can teach students subject-specific strategies

by Sandringham Research School
on the

Dr Elizabeth Mountstevens – Evidence Lead in Education

Last week was the first session of the training course on the EEF Secondary Science guidance report. One of the areas we considered was Metacognition and Self-Regulation and how we can teach students subject-specific strategies which can help them to develop their metacognitive skills.

Teaching metacognition follows a similar series of steps as teaching any concept. The EEF report Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning’ includes a diagram to represent this (see below). The key points are that these strategies need to be taught explicitly, they need to be modelled, and students need the opportunity to carry out guided and independent practice to internalize this idea. These stages won’t be covered in one lesson but will be spread out as appropriate over the course of a period of learning:

Elizabeth M blog Mar 22 image

One of the strategies I use to support my students to develop their metacognitive skills is the 5Ps of problem solving:

  1. Problem: Familiarising yourself with the problem.
  2. Parts: Breaking the problem into its constituent parts.
  3. Prior Knowledge: Activating the prior knowledge that is related to the problem.
  4. Proceed: Monitoring the plan as it is carried out.
  5. Post-mortem: Reflecting on the success of the strategy.

We can use this example to look at some of the different stages involved in teaching metacognitive skills; explicit instruction, modelling, guided practice and independent practice.

Explicit teaching and modelling

What do we mean by explicit teaching? Explicit teaching involves explaining a particular strategy and why it is important, in contrast to implicit teaching which would be verbalising a thought process without explaining why. Kistner (2010) investigated the effectiveness of these two strategies and showed that explicit instruction is relatively rare but, in contrast to implicit strategy instruction, was related to an improvement in performance.

For the 5Ps of problem solving, that means not only narrating the way I use the strategy to tackle an exam question but also explaining why this is useful. For example, I might say the following:

I need to find the question I am being asked because it will help me to know what information I need to extract from the data I’ve been given. I need to look at the different parts of the question because I can use this to structure my answer. I need to think about my prior knowledge before I answer the question because that will help me to avoid making mistakes.’

Guided practice

One of the best ways to scaffold students’ guided practice is to provide prompts. Prompts can be generic or specific to the task. A generic prompt might be to plan your answer’. A more specific prompt might be to check for information in the table which is relevant to your answer’. Peters and Kitsantis (2010) suggest that the decision about which type of prompts to use depends on the extent to which students are self-regulated learners.

An example of the prompts I use for the 5Ps of problem solving are given in the diagram below.

Elizabeth M blog Mar 22 image 1

Independent practice
My ultimate goal for using the 5Ps of problem solving is for students to go through these stages instinctively when solving problems. To get to this stage we need to give them the opportunity for independent practice. We also need to plan for when we are going to remove the scaffolds and this might be incorporated into a scheme of learning. For example, if the 5 Ps of problem solving are introduced when students first encounter exam questions in year 10, the teacher might spend the first topic modelling the strategy. For the rest of year 10, prompts could be used to scaffold the process. These prompts could then be removed for most students at the start of year 11 to give them the chance to apply the strategy independently.

Supporting your students to develop metacognitive skills requires explicit teaching of strategies for them to use. They also need to be provided with the opportunity for guided practice of these skills, with the use of prompts to scaffold their thinking. Finally, they need to practise these skills until they are able to use them independently.


Quigley, A., Muijs, D. and Stringer, E., (2018). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning guidance report. EEF.

Kistner S, Rakoczy K, Otto B, Dignath-van Ewijk C, Büttner G. and Klieme E (2010) Promotion of self-regulated learning in classrooms: investigating frequency, quality, and consequences for student performance. Metacognition Learning. 5(2):157 – 171

Peters, E. and Kitsantas, A., (2010). The Effect of Nature of Science Metacognitive Prompts on Science Students’ Content and Nature of Science Knowledge, Metacognition and Self-Regulatory Efficacy. School Science and Mathematics. 110(8), 382 – 397.

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