By: Naba Ahsan

It’s common to see instructors at the front of the lecture hall, repeatedly asking students to limit laptop usage to note taking (instead of Facebook) or disallowing cell phone usage—I’ve even come across a syllabus or two explicitly asking students to reserve sleeping for outside the classroom. Apparently, the word “boring” comes to students’ minds when describing a majority of their classes, and it shouldn’t come as a great surprise when we consider how little the student mind is actually being engaged in class. The traditional lecture style is still widely popular, and while it allows for a large student-to-professor ratio, it also constrains how much students can interact with the material while it’s being taught.

Instructors can start to overcome this barrier by focusing on a critical, but often overlooked, component of learning: metacognition. Metacognition, or more simply, thinking about thinking, motivates the learner to take charge of the incoming information by placing them in the driver’s seat (Weimer, 2012). The idea is that instead of passively taking notes, students will find themselves in an active learning role by thinking critically and independently. In this article, I will briefly explore the theory behind metacognition that allows for enhanced learning and how teaching this technique to students can benefit the learning environment for students and teachers. Finally, I will present a few steps that instructors can take to implement this tool in their classroom.

Metacognition in the mind and brain

At its core, metacognition is comprised of at least two basic components: awareness of cognitive states, and regulation of the self as a cognitive agent. In the learning environment, this means students must become aware of a) the knowledge they receive by engaging with it on a deeper level, and, most importantly, b) the cognitive processes utilized in encoding and storing that information. Research has shown that self-regulated learners are often the best learners (Nilson, 2014). These are the individuals who design and implement their own learning goals and work towards achieving them independently, using lecture material as a tool on their path to success.

Teaching students how to organize and interact with new information and to reflect on their learning abilities, early on in a course, will not only prevent information overload and frustration, but should motivate them to engage with class material and to come to class mentally prepared to absorb more. Let’s take a look at the cognitive and neurological basis for this learning phenomenon.

Our working memory capacity is a limited resource that prevents us from being able to hold excessive information, and it is particularly crucial in learning new information. The information that gets stored in the long-term memory reserve of knowledge must first pass through the working memory filter to be processed and encoded (Hodges, 2015). Not surprisingly, working memory is also a strong predictor of academic success (Alloway & Alloway, 2010). Because students tend to be novices, particularly in their first couple of years in undergraduate study, the traditional lecture method of dispensing a large amount of new material in a short time can be dissuading. Without the proper mental organization, information gets scattered and students get overwhelmed. However, Autin and Croizet (2012) showed that employing metacognitive skills during a learning task improves working memory capacity, thereby improving cognitive performance. In their study, participants were given cognitively demanding tasks. One group received an intervention teaching them to reflect on their state of mind and learning capacity in relation to the task, while the other group did not. Results showed that, overall, working memory decreased as cognitive demand increased; however, the group who received metacognitive tactics performed significantly better (M = 0.70) than their counterparts (M = 0.63).

Neurological studies in metacogniton and learning have also come produced some fascinating insights on this front. One researcher at Harvard showed that mental engagement with an activity can be just as engaging and critical to learning as hands-on practice (Begley, 2007). He sought to investigate how much brain structure changes after engaging in a beat-counting task for an hour every day, for five days. One group carried out the task, and the second group only imagined that they did – in other words, the second group engaged in cognition about the cognitive task. Amazingly, both groups showed significant neural changes in the same regions. Brain studies have linked metacognition with the prefrontal cortex, a structure responsible for decision-making (Fleming & Dolan, 2012) and with the medial temporal lobe, a structure critical for long-term memory and information storage (Baird et al., 2013).

Metacognition in the classroom

This is only a sample of the work being done on the benefits metacognitive skills lend to the learning environment. Instructors will be pleased to notice increased student engagement with the class material, and students will be able to resist falling asleep. Best of all, incorporating metacognitive skills into the lesson doesn’t have to take up a whole lot of time or deviate from the planned lecture. There are several strategies teachers and educators can employ to get students engaged in metacognition. Let’s look at five:

  1. Start by asking questions. Weimer (2012) provides some example questions that may be posed at any time during a class. These questions work for large classes as well as small; they can be presented on a PowerPoint slide and are more for the students’ benefit than grade value. Questions can be simple such as having students ask themselves whether they prepared for class, and what they think would be the best way to do so. After an exam, the instructor may have students ask themselves about missed or incorrect questions, and/or have students reflect on how to avoid making the same mistake next time.
  1. Allow room for creative ideation. Provide students with a framework for assignments, but let them choose their topics as much as possible. Students are individualistic beings with unique skill sets and interests. Allowing them to harness those skills and employ them to the topic at hand grabs their interest and motivates them to engage with the material on a deeper level.
  1. Encourage discussion. Debate stimulates the mind and fosters constructive interaction with peers. Students get the chance to know the analytical thoughts within their classroom and can use that to cultivate and process their own thoughts. Have students prepare for discussions ahead of time to encourage self-directed engagement with the material outside of class time.
  1. Get students writing. Menary (2007) states that writing is thinking. The simple act of writing allows the writer to externalize internal thoughts, and the revision process allows for those thoughts to be refined, expanded, critiqued, and intensified. Allow students a period of time to write freely, with time to reflect upon and process their thoughts.
  1. Lead by example. Metacognitive instruction is particularly effective when it not only refers to post-lecture evaluation, but to a real-time evaluation, while the instruction is taking place (Scharff & Draeger, 2015). When the teacher is able to reflect, react, and adapt to the classroom at a continuous pace, it helps the student body engage. Not only that, but if students observe the teacher reflecting on her own work, it is likely they will follow suit with their own.

It’s important to remember that students are in class to learn, not to be overloaded with facts they will forget within the day. While it’s up to the teacher to deliver the information, the student must play an active role in his/her own learning. Teachers can help this process by showing students how to engage in metacognitive skills in the classroom, and how to take that tactic into the world beyond.


Alloway, T.P. & Alloway, R.G. (2010). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106, 20-29.

Autin, F. & Croizet, J. (2012). Improving working memory efficiency by reframing metacognitive interpretation of task difficulty. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141(4), 610-18.

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Gorgolewski, K.J. & Margulies, D.S. (2013). Medial and lateral networks in anterior prefrontal cortex support metacognitive ability for memory and perception. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(42), 16657–65.

Begley, S. (2007). The brain: How the brain rewires itself. TIME. Retrieved from:,9171,1580438,00.html.

Fleming, S.M. & Dolan, R.J. (2012). The neural basis of metacognitive ability. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 367(1594), 1338-49.

Hodges, L.C. (2015). Making our teaching efficient: Flipping the classroom. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 25(5), 1-4.

Menary, R.A. (2007). Writing as Thinking. Language Sciences, 29(5), 621-32.

Nilson, L.B. (2014). The secret of self-regulated learning. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

Schraff, L. & Draeger, J. (2015). Thinking about metacognitive instruction. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 25(5), 1-4.

Tanner, K. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11, 113-20. Retrieved from:

Weimer, M. (2012). Teaching metacognition to improve student learning. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

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