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By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

A: Introduction: what is metacognition?

The term

The general notion of knowing and thinking about knowing and thinking clearly goes back to the ancient Greeks and philosophy in general. Flavell is credited with introducing the specific notion and the term to the cognitive psychology literature: the germ of the idea in Flavell (1971), and the term "metacognition" in Flavell (1979) after it had clearly been discussed by him and others in conferences and so on in the years between.
  • Flavell, J. H. (1971) "First discussant's comments: What is memory development the development of?" Human Development vol.14 no.4 pp.272-278 DOI:10.1159/000271221
  • Flavell, J. H. (1979) "Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry" American Psychologist vol.34 no.10 pp.906-911 doi:10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.906

    Dictionary definitions:

  • "Metacognition: awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes"
  • "Thinking about one's own mental processes" — The free dictionary.

    But I shall mainly argue that the important meaning is:

  • "Regulating, controlling, managing one's thinking (and how one's ability at this develops and improves)"

    However in reality and in psychology, there are different meanings to the term, as the wikipedia entry makes clear. Next I'll list Ann Brown's set of pre-existing research areas to which the term must be related now that Flavell has introduced the term. Later, in Part B, I'll discuss the different areas that seem important to me for learning and education.

    Brown's list of pre-existing different research areas that are kinds of metacognition

    In a thoughtful review, Ann Brown listed these separate areas of existing research that are kinds of metacognition:
    Brown,A.L. (1987a) "Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms" ch.3 pp.65-116 in F.E.Wernert (ed.) Metacognition, motivation and understanding (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum)

    1. The status of verbal reports as data. When are and are not people aware of their own thoughts?
    2. Consciousness.
    3. Executive mechanisms (in Information Processing models of psychology): how is thinking controlled, decided upon as an action?
    4. Error correction in language, and its development.
    5. Self-regulation of action, and conceptual development of this in children. From Piagetian theory.
    6. Vygotsky: his notion of a transition (in each area learned) from Other-regulation to Self-regulation.


    Flavell really started with a person's control of their own memory, and followed Piaget's tendency to see development in terms of an evolution of thought patterns which, although implicit, are logically equivalent to deep abstract understanding.

    The problem

    I think the reason why "metacognition" seems so appealing (at least to academics), but turns out to be so confusing, is really something like the following.
  • One strand in our culture, but above all in academic culture, is to assume that good functioning depends upon prior understanding and planning. Academics spend their lives thinking and trying to think better, and it is natural for them to reflect sometimes on what works best; and to believe that that understanding leads to better thinking. (It is not clear that there is any evidence for this.)
  • The military, above all disciplines, appreciate both the great advantage from detailed advanced planning; and also equally, that this is far from sufficient. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and equally important is to be able to react effectively to the unexpected without time to analyse it.
  • Once you grasp this, then you have admitted that effective functioning is often NOT based on understanding. Then you must admit that there is a whole other task for researchers, to understand how effective functioning (including effective thinking) can work without understanding.
  • Ann Brown's way of saying this is that there are two phenomena to research which, although related, are not at all just one thing. One is analysis: to what extent and how does an individual understand and analyse the business of thinking; and the other is: how do they control their thinking (and action) in practice. The latter concerns the strategies indivdiuals acquire, and how they choose amongst them in any particular case.

    A simple glimpse of this is the idea that young ravens are said to treat any new object by first fearing and fleeing it, then attacking it, then trying to eat it, etc. Anyone who has seen a human infant try putting everything into their mouth, then try throwing it ... realises that this is a widespread strategy. It is an example of a method of choosing, which does not rely much on understanding. It is also not very different from how many people tackle new problems: try the first thing you think of, then the second, .... Thus looking at how real organisms do self-control, makes you realise that understanding how to think and thinking are two separate subjects of study. So one field is to study the ideas people have about thinking; another is how they in practice direct their own thinking.

    Another stance of the same kind is to say that in theory everyone has a metacognitive strategy, it is just that it may be really crude, unconscious, and fixed (like the ravens') or it may be or become much more informed, conscious, flexible, and evidence-based. I.e. "metacognition" becomes an a-priori analytic idea or framework, and the empirical work addresses the developmental transformation from unconscious and crude, to conscious and more effective.

    So: the big division is seeing metacognition as either:

    1. conscious analysis of thinking processes; or
    2. actual, practical and effective control of thought processes; which is generally implicit, even when sophisticated.
    AND in the great majority of cases (a) does not lead to (b). So to study how people achieve (b) is of great educational importance, while (a) is not.

    Thus much of metacognition is not a study of thinking about thinking, but of how thinking is limited, controlled by simplistic rules. We certainly often make decisions about how and what to think, and this is as conscious as our awareness of what passes before our eyes; but that doesn't mean that we reason about or reflect on such decisions, any more than we reason about flinching when an insect nearly flies into our eye.

    A. Metacognition as extra information, highly specific to each topic of knowledge

    2. Bloom's taxonomy

    In the education literature, Bloom's taxonomy is or used to be famous. It has received a significant revision, too. This revision has one idea of "metacognitive" built into it, but not one which others talk about much. This idea assumes that when a student learns, first they learn the knowledge, then they learn how to apply it. An example for arithmetic is that, after you have learned how to do addition and division, then you need to learn that whereas you may add any two numbers, for division, you can divide any two numbers except you mustn't divide by zero. I.e. it is knowledge about the knowledge: limitations, exceptions, etc. Thus their view of metacognition is that it is highly topic specific, and part of the detailed elaboration you must learn with each topic. Certainly this fits your impression of many professionals: that they don't only know the chief methods outsiders have heard of, but when to use and when to vary or avoid each method.
  • Anderson,L.W., Krathwohl,D.R., Airasian,P.W., Cruikshank,K.A., Mayer,R.E., Pintrich,P.R., Raths,J. & Wittrock,M.C. (eds.) (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (New York: Longman).
    Also see:

    3. Perry

    William Perry (1968) introduced the idea that students progress from a simplistic to a more complex, less true/false, view of what they learn. Contrary to his global scheme, which presupposed that a given learner has a single view of knowledge which they apply uniformly to all cases, it is clear that in fact one of the (first) things we learn in an area, is something of its status: whether all agree, whether there is evidence or just dogma, and so on. For instance, a typical undergraduate regards arithmetic as universally true (maths postgrads would have a more complex view), politics as something on which opinions differ but arguments and persuasion can happen, but music (and often religion too) as something on which there is neither agreement nor reasoned persuasion.

    Thus reconciling Perry's idea to actual learners requires us to view what he thought of as epistemology (a general view about the nature of knowledge) as instead, extra meta-information about the status and use of knowledge in each area separately.

    B. Learning as a self-regulated activity

    4. Meta-memory ...

    "Meta-memory" is the phenomenon where a person wants to recall something (e.g. the name of the husband of a colleague) and cannot recall it but knows that they know it (and that it will probably come back to them before long). Normally we recall something and get in one operation both the content and the meta-content of its existence. The fact that we sometimes get the meta-memory separately demonstrates a dissociation of the two. (Our meta-memory isn't perfect: sometimes we believe we don't know something, yet in fact do. Thus skilled detectives may interview witnesses of an unexpected event, and extract more details than the witness realised they had perceived.)

    I will skip over a possible term "meta-knowledge", since we use "know" to mean both recall ("I know John's address") and understanding ("I don't really know why the sky is blue").

    "Meta-understanding" might be used to label a capacity to know whether or not we understand something. This is a crucial issue in education, especially higher education. Students do most of their learning alone. If they cannot judge whether or not they understand something, then they cannot know whether to move on or to spend more time on a topic. The evidence is very mixed.

    Essentially, if something draws our attention to a deficit in understanding (a contradiction, a peer disagreeing, even just asking ourselves how confident we are about something) then we will look for some resolution of the problem, and may keep the problem in the back of our minds until we come upon the answer much later. On the other hand, we show almost no seeking out of such problems. For instance, students will re-read passages, and often highlight passages for the feeling of "active learning" this gives; but will not test themselves, despite the evidence that highlighting does not produce learning, but self-testing does. Perhaps the resolution of this apparent contradiction is simply that we cannot doubt all our knowledge: there is not time for that, any more than a car owner will sit by their car 24 hours a day but instead uses a crude and unreliable car alarm.

    Thus our "meta-understanding" is important for self-improvement of the accuracy and depth of our learning, yet few if any go further, and actively reason about how to improve their understanding and then apply that. Indeed, science is a social practice: it seems that even our our best thinkers, working on what they value most, are still improved by external stimuli to improve their cognitive functioning.

    5. Ann Brown

    Ann Brown's review of the area of "metacognition" was discussed in the introduction above. In her later work, she studied classroom learning derived from Aronson's "Jigsaw classroom" method, in which a class is divided into subgroups which teach each other. In this approach, teachers are not used as subject-matter experts (as the source of the specific material to be learned); but what they do set themselves to teach, is how the children should learn. The real curriculum is learning how to learn.

    Learning how to learn is a way of expressing the general topic and mental capacity which the discussion of meta-understanding shows is highly desirable, but not very widespread or advanced amongst actual HE students.

    6. Vygotsky: From other-regulation to self-regulation   #selfreg

    Vygotsky wrote of how a teacher / adult / expert regulates the learner's attention, and Wertsch crystallised the use of the terms "other-regulation vs. self-regulation" to refer to this aspect of Vygotskian theory: that a child typically learns how to control their actions (including thinking) as part of learning any particular content. This emphasises how in the 1:1 tutoring studied by Vygotsky, and also by Bruner and Dave Wood (who coined the phrase "scaffolding"), the expert/tutor is not only filling in missing parts of skill and knowledge, but just as importantly is filling in the meta-knowledge of how to coordinate the parts into a coherent, successful, and meaningful whole. I.e. they learn management simultaneously with "worker" level actions.

    This definitely tends against any idea that meta-cognition develops from reflection and understanding of thinking, and towards the view that it is taught, is topic-specific, and piecemeal. Other- and self- regulation are one way to label this issue (which is thereby shown to be one important sense of metacognition).

    Stone & Wertsch (1984) [footnote 2, p.194] go further, and note that to be able to do reflection and describe strategies, and to be able to execute the strategies are independent abilities: you get all four combinations.

    Stone,D.A. & Wertsch,J.V. (1984) "A social interactional analysis of learning disabilities remediation" J. of learning disabilities vol.17 no.4 pp.194-199

    7. Self-regulation, Feedback   #selfreg

    "Self-regulation" is used in a variety of senses, not only the pure Vygotskian. In education, it tends to mean self-controlled learning. This can be taken at two levels.

    At the overall level of who decides what should be learned, "self-regulation" still seems ambiguous between rational self-control (learner control of the curriculum) vs. merely impulsive learning, such as flicking through a magazine to see what catches your eye. Both are not controlled by teachers; both are cases of learner, not teacher, control. But only in the former is there a sense of a prior goal, with self-regulation referring to self-correction towards that goal.

    At a lower level, "self-regulation" can describe learners as simple control-engineering devices like thermostats, who receive feedback and self-correct towards a fixed goal state (in this case, completely accurate knowledge of something). The catch in practice with human learners, is that receiving feedback from a human teacher tends to go with adopting a passive approach in which the teacher is called on (increasingly loudly) to deliver something but the learner then does not spend a moment's thought on it, and so fails to learn anything. Actual self-regulation in this sense requires the learner to process the feedback, and then act on it: both require effort and time, which the passive-reception frame of mind does not trigger. (Practical solutions include a) Reciprocal peer critiquing, where the origin of feedback in peers causes critical and active judgement of its value, rather than passive acceptance of authoritative sources; and b) prompting the processing of feedback.)

    The unconscious error by both teachers and learners in which they tend to assume that processing feedback is effortless (which is certainly true of self-regulation feedback mechanisms such as room heating thermostats) is perhaps partly due to the unexplored complexity involved in actually using feedback. To take a really trivial example: what should you do when someone points out a spelling error in your writing?

    1. Correct the current document.
    2. Correct your internal word-spelling procedure, so that in future you generate the correct spelling while writing.
    3. Correct your spelling-recognition perception, so that when reading you notice and (when appropriate) flag up to yourself or others the correct spelling.
    That is two internal bits of learning and one external action, all required from one very simple bit of feedback.

    C. Flow vs. strategic wisdom

    [See also this page for a longer discussion of the nature of "wisdom".]

    8. Doris Lessing. Out-manoeuvering your spontaneous behaviour

    In vol.1 of her autobiography, Lessing briefly describes how after the birth of her third child, she accepted her surgeon's offer to sterilise her. She did so because she reasoned that when she next fell in love, she would again want to have her lover's child, but that this would simply further obstruct her aim of being a writer. In other words, she predicted her future feelings, and out-manoeuvered them. This amount of wisdom is rare, not least because we consult our feelings not only for passing whims and pleasures but also for indications of our deepest motivation ("who we are", "our character"). This view is clearly relevant to ideas of metacognition, yet is rarely discussed.

    It raises and illustrates an issue far too little discussed. "Flow" is the term used to denote our happiest moments, which are characterised by not having to reason out difficult decisions, but making progress by just doing from moment to moment the first thing that comes into our heads. All our familiar skills are organised like this. What is seldom discussed, is that what is so hard about giving up an addiction, or losing weight by rational control of how much we eat, is that we have to give up listening to our feelings: which also means giving up joy and natural action in that area of our life and instead, acting by some imposed calculation.

    9. CBT. Working ON regulation by attending to cognitions (thoughts) with demands for evidence

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) could be seen as similar to this, in that it tackles both behaviour and thoughts (rather than taking the commonsense view that one causes the other and so only the cause need be tackled). Here the behaviours in question will typically be performed in a kind of flow i.e. patterns of behaviour, triggered by context, and not re-thought at the time. Conversely, the cognitions tackled are spontaneous thoughts and feelings, which the therapy teaches the participant to challenge e.g. by testing them against evidence.

    Both CBT and Lessing's wisdom bring out a kind of metacognition we should aspire to, though many of us never test ourselves like this. In doing so, they bring out a different latent criticism of the idea of metacognition: that even though it may be important to improving our lives, it can also entail undermining both joy and the meanings we had used to underpin our lives.


    The only really clear feature of this area is the spread (diversity) of related issues.

    Or to put it another way: How people actually regulate, control, manage their thinking (and how their ability at this develops and improves) is far more important than a fantasy that we decide this by reasoning about it, then formulating a conscious and articulate theory, and only thus change. But "metacognition" is perhaps not the best term for this. After all, even if we lean toward the view of metacognition as a kind of conscious reasoning, our knowledge about what we know, and our ability to reason about this, is surely just a branch of "critical thinking".


    General education references e.g. to Perry

    An extensive (though not complete) bibliography of Ann Brown's work.

    Lessing, Doris (1994) "Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949"

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