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Metacognition is thinking about cognition (memory, reasoning, learning, etc.) itself. Most simply, it is thinking about thinking. Flavell (1979) wrote that "metacognitive knowledge consists primarily of knowledge or beliefs about what factors or variables act and interact in what ways to affect the course and outcome of cognitive enterprises." Metacognitive learning strategies involve applying metacognitive knowledge in planning, checking, monitoring, selecting, revising, or evaluating. Such strategies are also referred to as "self-regulated learning" (Winne & Perry, 2000; Zimmerman, 1995). Clark and Mayer (2003) define metacognition as the mind's operating system.

In learning, metacogntion often refers to the set of skills that manages the learning process. These include skills such as planning (the design of the learning process), monitoring (comparing actual progress to the desired one), self assessment (the ability to correctly evaluate one's own knowledge level), and debugging (identifying sources of failure and overcoming those).

This definition leaves much room for interpretation. Most researchers point out a dichotomy in the nature of metacognitive knowledge: Metacognition includes both monitoring of understanding (what do I know? knowledge about cognition) and monitoring of the learning process (managing the problem solving process, regulation of cognition) (Brown et al. 1983, Bransford et al. 2000, Schoenfeld et al. 1992). Brown et al. (1983) summarize these two aspects: "Metacognition refers to one's knowledge and control of the domain cognition."

The Help Tutor project provides a nice example of an instructional intervention addressing these two types of metacognitive knowledge:

  • The Self Assessment Tutor component supports knowledge about cognition. It helps students monitor their knowledge level and identify knowledge gaps.
  • The Help Tutor component supports regulation of cognition. It helps students apply their help-seeking skills appropriately.

Metacognitive knowledge is domain independent to a large degree. However, domain knowledge cannot be ignored. For example, it is hard for students to evaluate their knowledge level without having adequate knowledge about the desired performance and skills. Also, As Brown et al. (1983) note, it is often difficult to distinguish between the metacognitive and the cognitive level. To what extent are strategic skills, which are relevant to specific domains, metacognitive? For example, self-explaining one's answers can be viewed as a domain-level skill or a metacognitive skill.

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
  • Brown, A. L., Bransford, J. D., Ferrara, R. A., & Campione, J. C. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In Handbook of child psychology (pp. 77-166). New York: Wiley.
  • Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2003). E-Learning and the science of instruction: proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
  • Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and Cognitive Monitoring: A New Area of Cognitive-Developmental Inquiry. American Psychologist, (34), 906-11.
  • Schoenfeld, A. H. (1992). Learning to think mathematically: Problem solving, metacognition, and sense-making in mathematics. In D. Grouws (Eds.), Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 334-70). New-York: MacMillan.
  • Winne, P.H. & Perry, N.E. (2000). Measuring self-regulated learning. In P. Pintrich, M. Boekaerts, & M. Seidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (p. 531-566). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
  • Zimmerman, B.J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25, 3-17.