Developing Metacognitive Processes

By Nathan Burns


How to design processes for students that encourage them to think about their thinking.


So, we are around halfway through these series of metacognitive articles now, with the focus of this piece on the metacognitive processes. As ever, with these articles, I will warn you that if you haven’t read the first article in this series, which covers what metacognition is, in a digestible format, then you really do need to go and read that first! (link). Once you have done that, or if you already have, then come straight back to find out about all these new strategies that you can introduce into your classroom!

There are two main metacognitive processes. Plan, monitor, evaluate; knowledge of self, task, strategy. Both processes, or perhaps cycles, can guide an individual’s metacognitive thinking, ensuring that they consider all required facets of a task or problem.

However, these two cycles can come across as quite clunky (the terminology used is not the most straight-forward, especially for students), but rather than avoiding them, we need to incorporate them into our lessons more and more so that students really grasp these cycles, and explicitly understand what it is that they need to be thinking about when they are approaching tasks.

Let us move on now to the four most effective strategies that you can put into place in your classroom to support the development of student’s use of the metacognitive cycles.



The first strategy is the best. And normally I would not say that one strategy is significantly better than the others, but in this scenario, this one really is!

As teachers, we are experts. We are experts with the curriculum. We are experts at strategies. We are experts at tackling problems. We are experts at evaluation and improvement. In essence, we have all the knowledge that we want students to have, so the best thing we can do is share this. Obvious, right? The issue is, so often we just share that content knowledge. The key facts, the method that should be deployed, the theory that students need to utilise. But what about the rest of these facets?

Something that we do, lesson in, lesson out, is modelling. This provides us with the perfect opportunity to support students understanding of these metacognitive processes by making them explicit in the modelling that we do. So, for example, if you are modelling how to complete a task, talk students through the planning stage, the monitoring stage, and the evaluation stage. But take this a step further, by making these three different types of thinking extremely explicit to students: “I am going to plan my response to this question before I dive straight in, so that I can ensure I cover all of the points that I need to for a successful answer”. There would be no point going through each of these parts of the cycle, ticking them off in your head as you go, but students are still no clearer as to the thinking stages that you are going through.

The same came be done for the other cycle, again emphasising to students that you will start by considering the requirements of the task, then an evaluation of the self – I.e. the content that you know and need, before considering the approaches that you can take to tackle the task in front of you.

Through such subtle changes to your modelling, you can ensure that students consistently become exposed to the metacognitive cycles, and will begin to explicitly consider the different stages, before, in time, it’ll become implicit in their thinking.


Lesson segmentation

This strategy builds off the last strategy, again placing a focus on making it as obvious as possible which stage of the metacognitive process students are working through. Rather than just providing students with a task or question, break the lesson down into three sections.

In the first section, students must only plan their response to the question. Not only does this get students into the good habit of planning a response before diving straight in to answering it (how often does this happen?!), but it will also drum into students that the first thing that they need to be thinking about is planning.

Once students have all had time to do this (for example, 10 minutes), they can then move on to completing the task, be being actively conscious of the monitoring stage. Some strategies for monitoring, such as warning signs (article link) could be used to support this stage. Again, the aim here is for students not to race away and get loads of questions done, but rather think about what they are doing in each question to improve the quality of their output. Quantity is important, but not if quality is not there.

In the final part of the lesson, students could then consider evaluation. Again, this will get students into good habits of considering the strengths and weaknesses of the approach that they have just taken, as well as what they ought to do next time. So often students will complete a question, and either move on to the next question or simply see themselves as done. By not only asking students to evaluate, but actually providing the whole class, at one given time, the opportunity to evaluate (perhaps using a strategy found here: link), students are forced to slow down and consider important questions, such as what went well and what they need to do differently next time. Again, there is no point ploughing on through questions if the same mistakes and being made repeatedly.


Worksheet graphics

This is another very low planning strategy, that will again help you make these invisible processes visible. Simply place graphics of the metacognitive cycle(s) on the worksheets that you are using with students.

Sub-consciously, students will be drawn to them and hopefully consider the different stages of the processes. If this is naively optimistic, then you can at least point out to students which stage they should be working through, or even challenge students if it is clear that they have not worked through one of those stages.

The beauty of this strategy is that it is so quick to do (and only needs to be done once), but it is a superb visual scaffold for students that their attention can be drawn to over and over again, task after task, lesson after lesson. Over time, this scaffold will just be burnt into their thinking. That’s the aim, anyway.


Planning documents

The final strategy presented in this article is a planning document. As mentioned in previous articles, these metacognitive processes can be turned into documents. Simply produce a three-column table, and place each of the metacognitive processes as a heading.

When you provide students with a task, they then need to work through the planning document, recording down their thoughts and ideas for the task, in line with the metacognitive processes which sit at the top of each column.

This strategy is a good one if you are quickly trying to get students to be very aware of the parts of the metacognitive process, or if students are just not ‘getting it’ enough from the more ‘soft-touch’ strategy such as the graphics or modelling. This type of strategy will really help to place these metacognitive processes front and centre of a student’s thinking.


So, there they are. Four more strategies that you consider using in your classroom, each with the aim of improving a student’s understanding, and active thinking of, the metacognitive processes. Though it may seem complicated, we know that it can really help to guide a student’s thinking in a positive direction.


You can read more articles by Nathan Burns here.


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