Metacognition: how to think about thinking

When you want to learn or build something new, it’s tempting to just get going. Read as much as you can, do some tutorials, work on some related projects. Short-term, this gives you a motivation boost. You feel like you’re making progress. But, after a while, you notice that you’re not progressing as fast as you expected. Turns out, cramming content inside your brain is not the most effective way to learn. Instead, you need to use metacognitive strategies. Metacognition, put simply, is “thinking about thinking” or “knowing about knowing.”

It’s being aware of your own awareness so you can determine the best strategies for learning and problem-solving, as well as when to apply them. The word “metacognition” literally means “above cognition”—it’s one of the most powerful forms of self-monitoring and self-regulation. It’s a fancy word for something fairly simple once you break it down.

metacognition map

The recipe for metacognition

Researchers have identified three main components that make up metacognition. These are not clear, separate aspects, but rather interact together in complex ways to influence the way you learn.

  1. Metacognitive knowledge. What you know about yourself and others in terms of thinking and learning processes.
  2. Metacognitive regulation. The activities and strategies you use to control your learning.
  3. Metacognitive experiences. The thoughts and feelings you have while studying and learning something.

Metacognitive knowledge in particular can be divided into three further categories. The first is declarative knowledge— the knowledge you have about yourself as a learner and about what factors can influence your performance. The second is procedural knowledge—what you know about learning in general, such as learning strategies you read about or that you have applied in the past. Finally, conditional knowledge refers to knowing when and why you should use declarative and procedural knowledge, allocating your mental resources in a smart way to learn better.

How to regulate your metacognition

According to scientists, there are only three skills you need to master in order to improve your metacognition.

  • Planning. Before you start learning something new, think about the appropriate learning strategies you will use, as well as how you will allocate your time and energy. This phase is based on your metacognitive knowledge—of yourself, learning strategies, and when to use them to maximise your performance.
  • Monitoring. While learning, stay aware of your progress. Are you struggling with certain aspects in particular? Are there other sections that seem to be a breeze to go through? Instead of passively experiencing your thoughts and feelings, always question everything.
  • Evaluating. When you’re done with a chunk, consider how well you performed and re-evaluate the strategies you used. Make any necessary changes before starting to work on the next part of your learning project.

This approach has been originally designed for students, but I think it can work for anyone and for any type of project-based work. Being aware of the way your mind works is an excellent skill to have whatever your end goal is. And if you’re feeling a bit confused about all the moving parts of metacognition, have a look at the map I inserted earlier in the article.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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