Developing Metacognition
Elaine Blakey and Sheila Spence

Source: Blakey, E., & Spence, S. (1990). Developing metacognition. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources. [ED327218]

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Metacognition is thinking about thinking, knowing "what we know" and

"what we don't know." Just as an executive's job is management of an

organization, a thinker's job is management of thinking. The basic

metacognitive strategies are:

1. Connecting new information to former knowledge.

2. Selecting thinking strategies deliberately.

3. Planning, monitoring, and evaluating thinking processes. (Dirkes,


A thinking person is in charge of her behavior. She determines when it

is necessary to use metacognitive strategies. She selects strategies

to define a problem situation and researches alternative solutions.

She tailors this search for information to constraints of time and

energy. She monitors, controls and judges her thinking. She evaluates

and decides when a problem is solved to a satisfactory degree or when

the demands of daily living take a temporary or permanent higher


Studies show that increases in learning have followed direct

instruction in metacognitive strategies. These results suggest that

direct teaching of these thinking strategies may be useful, and that

independent use develops gradually (Scruggs, 1985).

Learning how to learn, developing a repertoire of thinking processes

which can be applied to solve problems, is a major goal of education.

The school library media center, as the hub of the school, is an ideal

place to integrate these types of skills into subject areas or

students' own areas of interest. When life presents situations that

cannot be solved by learned responses, metacognitive behavior is

brought into play. Metacognitive skills are needed when habitual

responses are not successful. Guidance in recognizing, and practice in

applying, metacognitive strategies, will help students successfully

solve problems throughout their lives.


1. Identifying "what you know" and "what you don't know."

At the beginning of a research activity students need to make

conscious decisions about their knowledge. Initially students write

"What I already know about..." and "What I want to learn about...." As

students research the topic, they will verify, clarify and expand, or

replace with more accurate information, each of their initial


2. Talking about thinking.

Talking about thinking is important because students need a thinking

vocabulary. During planning and problem-solving situations, teachers

should think aloud so that students can follow demonstrated thinking

processes. Modeling and discussion develop the vocabulary students

need for thinking and talking about their own thinking. Labelling

thinking processes when students use them is also important for

student recognition of thinking skills.

Paired problem-solving is another useful strategy. One student talks

through a problem, describing his thinking processes. His partner

listens and asks questions to help clarify thinking. Similarly, in

reciprocal teaching (Palinscar, Ogle, Jones, Carr, & Ransom, 1986),

small groups of students take turns playing teacher, asking questions,

and clarifying and summarizing the material being studied.

3. Keeping a thinking journal.

Another means of developing metacognition is through the use of a

journal or learning log. This is a diary in which students reflect

upon their thinking, make note of their awareness of ambiguities and

inconsistencies, and comment on how they have dealt with difficulties.

This journal is a diary of process.

4. Planning and self-regulation.

Students must assume increasing responsibility for planning and

regulating their learning. It is difficult for learners to become

self-directed when learning is planned and monitored by someone else.

Students can be taught to make plans for learning activities including

estimating time requirements, organizing materials, and scheduling

procedures necessary to complete an activity. The resource center's

flexibility and access to a variety of materials allows the student to

do just this. Criteria for evaluation must be developed with students

so they learn to think and ask questions of themselves as they proceed

through a learning activity.

5. Debriefing the thinking process.

Closure activities focus student discussion on thinking processes to

develop awareness of strategies that can be applied to other learning


A three step method is useful. First, the teacher guides students to

review the activity, gathering data on thinking processes and

feelings. Then, the group classifies related ideas, identifying

thinking strategies used. Finally, they evaluate their success,

discarding inappropriate strategies, identifying those valuable for

future use, and seeking promising alternative approaches.

6. Self-Evaluation.

Guided self-evaluation experiences can be introduced through

individual conferences and checklists focusing on thinking processes.

Gradually self-evaluation will be applied more independently. As

students recognize that learning activities in different disciplines

are similar, they will begin to transfer learning strategies to new



A metacognitive environment encourages awareness of thinking. Planning

is shared between teachers, school library media specialists, and

students. Thinking strategies are discussed. Evaluation is ongoing.

In the creation of a metacognitive environment, teachers monitor and

apply their knowledge, deliberately modeling metacognitive behavior to

assist students in becoming aware of their own thinking.

Metacognitive strategies are already in teachers' repertoires. We must

become alert to these strategies, and consciously model them for


Problem-solving and research activities in all subjects provide

opportunities for developing metacognitive strategies. Teachers need

to focus student attention on how tasks are accomplished. Process

goals, in addition to content goals, must be established and evaluated

with students so they discover that understanding and transferring

thinking processes improves learning.

In this rapidly changing world, the challenge of teaching is to help

students develop skills which will not become obsolete. Metacognitive

strategies are essential for the twenty-first century. They will

enable students to successfully cope with new situations. Teachers and

school library media specialists capitalize on their talents as well

as access a wealth of resources that will create a metacognitive

environment which fosters the development of good thinkers who are

successful problem-solvers and lifelong learners.


Dirkes, M. Ann. (1985, November). "Metacognition: Students in charge

of their thinking." Roeper Review, 8(2), 96-100. EJ 329 760.

Heller, Mary F. (1986, February). "How do you know what you know?

Metacognitive modeling in the content areas." Journal of Reading, 29,

415-421. EJ 329 408.

Palinscar, A. S.; Ogle, D. S.; Jones, B. F.; Carr, E. G.; & Ransom, K.

(1986). Teaching reading as thinking. Alexandria, VA: Association for

Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Scruggs, Thomas E.; Mastropieri, M. A.; Monson, J.; & Jorgenson, C.

(1985, Fall). "Maximizing what gifted students can learn: Recent

findings of learning strategy research." Gifted Child Quarterly,

29(4), 181-185. EJ 333 116.


Biggs, John B. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying.

Hawthorne, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational

Research. ED 308 201.

Dirkes, M. Ann. (1988, December). Self-directed thinking in the

curriculum. Roeper Review, 11(2), 92-94. EJ 387 276.

Marzano, Robert J.; Brandt, Ronald S.; Hughes, Carolyn Sue; Jones,

Beau Fly; Presseisen, Barbara Z.; Rankin, Stuart C.; & Suhor, Charles.

(1988). Dimensions of thinking: A framework for curriculum and

instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and

Curriculum Development. ED 294 222.

"Thinkers and readers (Secondary perspectives). (1990, March). Journal

of Reading, 33(6)," 460-62. EJ 405 093.

This digest originally appeared as "Thinking for the Future," by

Elaine Blakey and Sheila Spence, in Emergency Librarian, 17(5),

May-June 1990, 11-14. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


This digest was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational

Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract

no. RI88062008. The opinions expressed in this report do not

necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.