The text below is a small extract adapted from ‘Homework With Impact: Why What You Set and How You Set It Matters’ (published by Routledge, 2022).
According to Seng, Tey and Fam (1993), metacognition is thinking about thinking. This means pupils need to plan, monitor and review their own thinking in order to complete tasks or activities successfully. Metalearning, on the other hand, is thinking about learning over time, particularly how our ‘learning habits’ can impact on knowledge retention and skills. This suggests pupils are aware that they are in control of their own learning, especially in terms of organising strategies and approaches towards studying as well as preemptively identifying likely mistakes and evaluating their performance.
Of the two terms, metacognition is most commonly used in relation to teaching and learning. Although I will start with a discussion on metacognition and its importance to completing homework tasks, I think metalearning is still worth mentioning afterwards, especially in relation to the planning and organisation of revision. Together, metacognition and metalearning should improve pupils ability to independently self-regulate their learning behaviours, or habits, in the run up to assessments and exams.
Metacognition and learning
A host of studies have shown how metacognition and self-regulation impact on school performance. For example, one study demonstrated that, ‘Different areas of self-regulation could explain 34% of variance of school performance in the primary school, about 21% in the secondary school and nearly 14% in university education’ (Vukman & Licardo, 2010, p. 267).
Another study found that there, ‘…is strong evidence indicating that when metacognition is effectively taught in schools then there is a very positive effect on pupil outcomes’ (Perry, Lundie & Golder, 2019, p. 483). It is clear, then, that we should consider the processes that develop metacognitive skills when teaching our pupils and, of course, setting homework. Beyer (1987, cited in Seng, Tey and Fam, 1993) suggests the key processes involved in metacognition are:
- planning (including goal setting, sequencing operations, identifying obstacles);
- monitoring (including keeping an awareness of the goals set and operational sequences planned as well as obstacles);
- and assessing (including assessing whether the goal has been achieved, judging the accuracy of this achievement, evaluating the efficiency of the tasks used).
In 2018 the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) developed guidance on metacognition for teachers in schools. Their advice is helpful as it underpins the importance of highlighting metacognition as an explicit learning strategy. The guidance can be broken down into 3 broad areas (EEF, 2018, p. 6), which mirror Beyer’s earlier research.
- We should acquire a professional understanding of the skills needed to develop our pupils’ metacognition, including:
- helping pupils’ become self-regulated learners who can assess their own strengths and weaknesses;
- developing pupils’ metacognitive understanding of how they learn, which includes knowledge of effective learning strategies;
- supporting pupils to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.
- We should teach metacognitive strategies to pupils, this involves:
- explicitly teaching pupils how metacognitive strategies can improve their learning and achievement;
- ensuring that these strategies are not overly generic and relate to the nuanced context of their learning; for example, metacognition in maths might be different to drama;
- that the above are taught in a series of steps, which include using prior knowledge, independent practice and finally reflection; again, this needs to be considered within the context of the subject and age group.
- We should model our own thinking to develop pupils’ metacognition, such as:
- revealing our own thought processes;
- verbalising the above points where possible (this is essentially thinking aloud);
- guiding pupils through scaffolded tasks, such as worked examples.
Metacognition, homework and ‘revision skills’
Although the EEF guidance mostly refers to learning per se, I feel these metacognitive strategies, or processes, are a prerequisite to the successful completion of practice and preparation homework tasks.
Importantly, impactful metacognition has some clear overlap with the strategies suggested by Dunlosky (2013) in his incredibly useful Strengthening the Student Toolbox, which is referenced in the EEF guidance. These can also be used independently by pupils once they have mastered them in a classroom setting. Examples that can be adapted as homework tasks include:
- practice testing – setting practice tests, including GCSE and A Level style questions that pupils have been taught to answer via the EFF processes outlined above;
- self-quizzing – teach pupils strategies to triage subject content so they can self-quiz themselves on the problems or topics they find most challenging;
- elaborative-interrogation – homework tasks that require pupils to explain why a fact or concept is true (once the elaboration process is mastered in class);
- self-explanation – homework assignments where pupils explain the processes of solving a problem or how concepts are linked together (mirroring points 2 and 3 of the EEF guidance outlined above);
- summarisation – writing summaries of longer texts or pieces of information (get pupils used to doing this through guided-practice in class first);
- keyword mnemonics – tasks that get them to link verbal association or mental images of key information to a written task (after being explained and modelled in class).
At The Reach Free School pupils are taught that these strategies constitute tried and tested ‘revision skills’, which can either be used independently or as part of directed revision tasks. They include a number of ideas advocated by Dunlosky et al. (2013) as ‘very effective’, but also build upon some of the less effective ones by making them into practice of preparation activities. A generic example of this is shown below, although delivery in lessons will be subject specific.
A revision checklist (designed by Martyn Essery)
Metalearning and revision over time
As already stressed, self-regulation and the ability to manage workload are essential for revision tasks that may be set over longer periods than tasks set from lesson-to-lesson. End of key stage, GCSE and A Level revision is literally going over everything the pupils have studied throughout their course of study. If our pupils can organise themselves and get studying without the help of ourselves, the process will be much easier and simpler for them; this is essential as we cannot possibly revise everything with your pupils, they will have to do most of it alone. It is here that some researchers have discussed metalearning as a conceptual strategy to support independent study.
So, how is metacognition different from metalearning?
As stated at the start of this blog, the key difference is that the former applies to cognition, or thinking, and is essential when adapting previously taught content and skills to an immediate problem, task or project. The latter, however, expands and organises learning over time whilst incorporating the principles of metacognition. Pupil friendly appropriation of subject specific triage, spacing and interleaving would be included in this expanded variation of metacognition. Basically, metalearning is, ‘The process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized’ (Maudsley, 1979, cited in Mezirow, 1981).
Nevertheless, the two conceptualisations clearly reinforce each other, as the more pupils become familiar with the processes and strategies of metacognition, the more they will become aware of how these impact on their learning over time. They will also become apt at applying them in the context of their subjects, perhaps using specific strategies in one subject and different strategies in another (Jackson, 2004).
It is worth noting that very few people reference metalearning and whilst metacognition is defined as an awareness of one’s thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994), we now tend to apply metacognition to a more longitudinal approach to learning as exemplified by the EEF. This has made metalearning largely redundant as a concept in education. That said, there are other applications of ‘meta’ that are now encompassed by the use of metacognition, such as ‘metamemory’ (Dunlosky & Bjork, 2008).
If we are to get pupils to complete homework successfully, prepare for upcoming lessons independently or effectively revise for exams, then it makes sense for us to employ the processes and strategies of metacognition (or metalearning). In this sense, we are getting them to be independent in both their learning and, of course, practice. However, one issue is that independent self-regulation might fall into place easily for some pupils, but for others it will be harder; they may still need additional support, especially as pupils approach assessments and exams.
Beyer, B.K. (1987). Practical strategies for the teaching of thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21.
Dunlosky, J. & Bjork, R. A. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of Metamemory and Memory. Psychology Press: New York.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan,M.J. & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.
EEF (2018). Metacognition and self-regulated learning: Guidance report. Retrieved from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Metacognition/EEF_Metacognition_and_self-regulated_learning.pdf [accessed 27.06.2020].
Jackson, N. (2004). Developing the concept of metalearning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41(4), 391-403.
Metcalfe, J., & Shimamura, A. P. (1994). Metacognition: knowing about knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Maudsley, D.B. (1979). A theory of meta-learning and principles of facilitation: An organismic perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Mezirow, J. (1981). A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education, 32(1), 3–24.
Perry, J., Lundie, D. & Golder, G. (2019). Metacognition in schools: what does the literature suggest about the effectiveness of teaching metacognition in schools? Educational Review, 71(4), 483-500.
Seng, S. H., Tey, S., H. & Fam, A. (1993). Metacognition and metalearning essential differences. Paper from the ERA Conference, Singapore, 23-25 September 1993. Retrieved from: https://repository.nie.edu.sg/bitstream/10497/15461/1/ERAS-1993-SengASH.pdf [accessed 02.08.2020].
Vukman, K. B., & Licardo, M. (2010). How cognitive, metacognitive, motivational and emotional self-regulation influence school performance in adolescence and early adulthood. Educational Studies, 36(3), 259–268.
Picture credit: Free SVG (used under a Creative Commons Licence)