We often think of studying as just reviewing content repeatedly, in different ways, until it magically just sticks in our head.
But the truth is a little more complex than that.
While repetitively reviewing content does help us learn, there are some deeper cognitive processes help us actually remember content when we study. One such process is the self-reflective activity of metacognition.
Combined with active recall, spaced repetition, and interleaving practice, metacognition is the secret sauce that allowed Brainscape to develop the world’s most effective flashcard app. It helps you to better internalize the subject you're learning to ensure that you will remember it both for your exams and for the long haul.
In this article, the Brainscape team has condensed decades of cognitive science research into metacognition strategies that will enhance your studying. Let's get to it!
Metacognition is basically "thinking about your thinking".
Metacognition strategies are a number of processes that we use to plan, monitor our performance, assess our understanding, think critically, problem-solve, and make decisions. It’s also part of the process that we use to regulate our emotions. Another way to think of it, according to Sternberg, is that metacognition is, “figuring out how to do a particular task, and then making sure that the task is done correctly.”
At Brainscape, we’re mostly interested in “retrieval” tasks involved with studying, and in the self-reflection a learner undertakes when assessing his or her confidence in learning a new concept.
2. Why is metacognition important for studying?
It turns out that metacognition is an incredibly important tool for studying, and there are two primary reasons for this:
- The first is that metacognition actually creates more neuron pathways in your brain, connecting information. When you ask yourself, “Do I really know this? How well do I know this?” you deepen the learning and increase your chance of remembering the concept.
- The second reason metacognition helps you study more effectively is that it makes you better able to strategize how you go about your studying. It helps you make a plan, choose effective study tools, focus on your weaknesses, adopt healthy study habits, and so on.
Weaker students tend to have underdeveloped metacognitive skills, which leads to overconfidence in how well they know the material. For example, a weak student might passively highlight a passage of a textbook and think that the yellow color magically means they're going to remember it forever. They may then under-estimate how much time they need to study and review difficult concepts.
A stronger student would instead be able to recognize: "I don't really know this super well; I should probably come back and review this in multiple other ways, using the appropriate effective study techniques for the specific topic."
The stronger student will learn better and probably perform better on tests. But the reason isn’t that they’re smarter or knew the material better to begin with.
Strong students do better because:
- They are better at identifying what they need to know,
- They judge what they already know and how well they know it.
- They use strategies to make a plan to practice their weak points.
Each of these is an example of metacognition.
Students use metacognitive processes to decide what to study, when to study, and how long to study for. It's no wonder that understanding metacognition strategies is essential to studying and learning.
4. Metacognition is also an important life skill
It’s also an important skill for the world more generally; the more you improve your own metacognitive skills, the more you'll recognize applications of metacognition in the real world.
For example, the Dunning-Kreuger effect is the phenomenon where the less people know about a topic, the more of an expert they think they are. In other words, people with low ability often have an inflated sense of their own ability. This is perhaps why Charles Darwin famously observed that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
It also explains why all those terrible singers decided to audition on American Idol—and were shocked when they didn’t make it. This is really just an instance of poorly developed metacognitive skills.
The world's best experts don't necessarily know everything but they have a more acute sense of what they don't know than novices do. Using metacognition could help you identify areas of your work that you need to improve; regulate strong emotions, like anger at a partner; or even develop effective communication skills to support healthy relationships.
The good news is that you can develop your metacognition skills simply by practicing them. More advanced metacognitive skills will help you learn better ... and they might even save you from embarrassing yourself on national TV.
Here are 7 tactics to improve your metacognition skills to study more effectively.
5.1. Consciously identify what you know and what you don’t
You can guide yourself through metacognitive exercises to improve your knowledge. For example, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I already know about this topic?
- What questions do I have? What is confusing me?
- What has changed about how I understand this topic from before this class to now?
- Did I understand that last paragraph? Should I read it again?
5.2. Use good questions to guide your study
You can similarly use questions about your learning and understanding to guide your exam preparation. Here are some example questions to help guide your study:
- What are my weakest areas of knowledge? What are my strongest?
- What about my exam preparation worked last time, and what didn’t?
- What would I put on the exam if I were the teacher or professor?
- What will I need have a conversation at a restaurant in France?
- What is the most efficient way to study for the bar exam?
5.3. Prepare properly
A popular old adage, often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, says, “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.”
Whether or not Lincoln said it, the saying has merit. Preparation is essential for being successful on any task.
And the act of preparing yourself for a task requires that you plan and you use your metacognitive skills. Not only that but the more you use metacognition strategies to prepare, the more you will develop them.
5.4. Track your performance
Build in a system to monitor your strengths and weaknesses. Understanding where your errors are and how well you understand material helps you more effectively judge your own ability and can help you practice what to focus your study on.
5.6. Seek out feedback.
When novices engage in a task, they wait until the end to see how they do. When experts engage in a task, they consistently check in to see how it’s going. Be like the experts and find out how you’re doing. Then use that feedback to change your work and the way you engage in it. Seeking out feedback and then using the feedback to guide your actions is great way to practice metacognition.
5.7. Keep a diary.
A diary can help you record how difficult a task was or what you’re struggling with. It can help you build self-awareness and practice reflecting on your learning.
6. How Brainscape uses metacognition to enhance your studying
While you can develop your metacognitive skills on your own, some study tools also have metacognition built within their learning system. This helps make metacognition easier to implement in your studies even if you're not intrinsically good at it.
But what’s even better is that they can actually help you improve your metacognitive skills in general. Brainscape's adaptive flashcard app is one study tool that does just that.
Brainscape is a form of retrieval practice where you think of the answer in your head, before flipping the flashcard to see the answer. You then are asked to rate your confidence, on a scale of 1-5, based on how well you think you'd known the answer (rather than just having the app tell you if you were right or wrong).
This very act of assessing your knowledge confidence is a deep form of metacognition that strengthens your new memory trace.
But the best part is that Brainscape uses your metacognitive self-assessment to determine how soon that flashcard will repeat again, applying a refined spaced repetition algorithm. In other words, your confidence ratings tell the app to show you cards you don’t know more often and show you cards you do know less often.
This ongoing self-assessment will allow the app to automatically regulate your ongoing studies so that you focus more time on your biggest weaknesses, while avoiding wasting time on concepts you already know well.
[Go study in Brainscape!]
The even bigger benefit is that you end up improving your metacognitive skills over time. Even if you sometimes over-confidently rate yourself a 4 or a 5 on a card you actually didn't know so well, that's ok, because Brainscape will still repeat those flashcards occasionally. And when they come up next—and you see that the card was already green or blue (4 or 5) but realize that you actually didn't still know the answer—you end up re-calibrating your understanding of the strength of your knowledge going forward.
This recalibration process helps you actually develop your metacognitive skills. So the app not only uses your metacognition to help you study on the material you’re weaker at, but it also helps you get better at metacognition.
Good students aren’t good because they’re smart. They are good students because they study effectively. Metacognition is an essential part of studying effectively. It helps students:
- Accurately estimate how much time they need to study.
- Manage their time time by creating a study plan.
- Prioritize their studying by focusing on their weaknesses.
- Adequately prepare for exams and tests.
Metacognitive skills are just that—skills. You can practice and develop them. Brainscape builds this practice right into the application, so that you get better at it with every use, but there are a number of other ways to develop these skills.
The key is to reflect on how you’re learning not just the information you’re trying to remember.
Dawson, T. L. (2008). Metacognition and learning in adulthood. Northampton, MA: Developmental Testing Service, LLC.
Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one's own ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247-296. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6
Efklides, A. (2006). Metacognition and affect: What can metacognitive experiences tell us about the learning process?. Educational Research Review, 1(1), 3-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2005.11.001
Fleming, S. M. (2014). Metacognition is the forgotten secret to success. Scientific American, September/October 2014, 31–37. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/metacognition-is-the-forgotten-secret-to-success/
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.
Sadler, P. (2006). The impact of self- and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31.
Sternberg, R. J., & Kagan, J. (1986). Intelligence applied: Understanding and increasing your intellectual skills. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Start by defining the term. ...
- Emphasize the benefits. ...
- Point it out organically. ...
- Discuss its usefulness beyond the classroom. ...
- Model metacognition.
Examples of metacognitive activities include planning how to approach a learning task, using appropriate skills and strategies to solve a problem, monitoring one's own comprehension of text, self-assessing and self-correcting in response to the self-assessment, evaluating progress toward the completion of a task, and ...What is a metacognitive study strategy? ›
Metacognitive strategies are techniques to help students develop an awareness of their thinking processes as they learn.How does a student use metacognition? ›
For students, having metacognitive skills means that they are able to recognise their own cognitive abilities, direct their own learning, evaluate their performance, understand what caused their successes or failures, and learn new strategies. It can also help them learn how to revise.What are the 4 types of metacognition? ›
This is metacognition. Perkins (1992) defined four levels of metacognitive learners: tacit; aware; strategic; reflective.What are examples of metacognition for students? ›
Metacognition also involves knowing yourself as a learner; that is, knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a learner. For example, if you can explain what your strengths are in academic writing, or exam taking, or other types of academic tasks, then you are metacognitively aware.What is metacognition in the classroom? ›
What is it? Metacognition and self-regulation approaches to teaching support pupils to think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring, and evaluating their learning.What are some metacognitive strategies that students might use when reading? ›
- “Think aloud” while reading. Reading aloud is one of the first ways that educators introduce reading skills. ...
- Stop for reflection. ...
- Craft an inner monologue.
Metacognition, or thinking about one's thinking, is the foundation for other reading comprehension strategies. Proficient readers continually monitor their own thoughts, controlling their experience with the text and enhancing their understanding.What are the best techniques for studying? ›
- Get organised.
- Don't skip class!
- Take notes.
- Talk to your teacher & ask questions.
- Space out your studying.
- Create a study plan – & stick to it.
- Don't just re-read but study.
- Set up a quiet study space.
A metacognitive approach to reading that involves teachers working with small groups of learners and modeling the use of four key strategies: summarising, questioning, clarifying and predicting. The learners are then asked to teach these strategies to other learners.What are the 3 elements of metacognition? ›
The great majority of theorists would agree in drawing a distinction between three basic aspects of metacognition: metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experiences, and metacognitive control strategies.What are the 3 processes of metacognition? ›
The metacognitive process, or cycle, involves three stages to coach you or your child through in order to improve their self-awareness and ultimately their executive functioning: Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluating, and Self-Regulation.What is metacognition and why is it important in student learning? ›
Metacognition is the ability to examine how you process thoughts and feelings. This ability encourages students to understand how they learn best. It also helps them to develop self-awareness skills that become important as they get older.What is metacognition How does it improve students learning? ›
Metacognition is awareness and control of thinking for learning. Strong metacognitive skills have the power to impact student learning and performance. While metacognition can develop over time with practice, many students struggle to meaningfully engage in metacognitive processes.What is metacognition in simple words? ›
Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one's thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one's understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one's thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.What are the 6 metacognitive teaching strategies? ›
- Engage Students in Critical Thinking.
- Show Students How to Use Metacognitive Tools.
- Teach Goal-Setting.
- Instruct Students in How Their Brains Work.
- Explain the Importance of a Growth Mindset.
- Provide Opportunities for Existential Questioning.
Research shows metacognition (sometimes referred to as self-regulation) increases student motivation because students feel more in control of their own learning. Students who learn metacognitive strategies are more aware of their own thinking and more likely to be active learners who learn more deeply.Why is it important for struggling students to be metacognitive? ›
In addition to decoding skills, students need vocabulary knowledge and metacognitive skills so they can monitor their understanding and reflect on what has been read. Competent readers learn these components simultaneously and fluently. In addition, if either component is inadequate, comprehension can be impeded.Why metacognition is an important cognitive skill? ›
Metacognitive skills are important because they help individuals understand their learning processes and how they learn effectively. Further, metacognitive skills help people learn information quickly and retain information for their educational or professional development.
Join a Study Group
Explaining the material to one another. Being able to ask questions about things you don't understand. Quizzing each other or playing review games. Learning the material more quickly than you might on your own.
- Pick up the reins of your education.
- Take old-fashioned notes.
- Cut down on busy-work.
- Do things while they are fresh on your mind.
- Take care of yourself physically.
- Know what study space works for you.
- Know your best studying time.
- Use your syllabus as a roadmap. Look at your syllabus. ...
- Summon your prior knowledge. ...
- Think aloud. ...
- Ask yourself questions. ...
- Use writing. ...
- Organize your thoughts. ...
- Take notes from memory. ...
- Review your exams.
The metacognitive process, or cycle, involves three stages to coach you or your child through in order to improve their self-awareness and ultimately their executive functioning: Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluating, and Self-Regulation.What are Metamemory strategies? ›
Meta-Memory Strategies are a way of giving your brain a helping hand to learn new information. Meta-Memory is a different way of saying “thinking about memory.” Students (and adults) benefit from learning how their brains work and being taught strategies to help navigate the complex process of memorizing information.What is the importance of metacognition in learning? ›
Research shows metacognition (sometimes referred to as self-regulation) increases student motivation because students feel more in control of their own learning. Students who learn metacognitive strategies are more aware of their own thinking and more likely to be active learners who learn more deeply.