Big Brain

This module is all about Metacognition. If you don't know what that means, that is ok - we'll cover it. In this module you will take some time to evaluate how you are doing things and work through what are the most effective and efficient ways you should be doing things. We have covered a good bit of material up to this point, so we will want to ensure you are taking inventory of how things are going and what areas in your academics and personal life have seen growth and improvement, and what areas need further attention.


For many of us, it was in Kindergarten or first grade when our teacher asked our class to “put on our thinking caps.” That may partially have been a clever way for a harried teacher to get young scholars to calm down and focus, but the idea is an apt depiction of how we think. Depending on the situation, we may have to don several very different caps to do our best thinking. Knowing which cap to wear in which situation so we are most prepared, effective, and efficient becomes the work of a lifetime. When you can handle more than one complex thought at a time or when you need to direct all your focus on one crucial task is highly individual. Some people study well with music on in the background while others need absolute silence and see any noise as a distraction. Many chefs delight in creating dinners for hundreds of people in a chaotic kitchen but don’t care for making a meal for two at home.

When an individual thinks about how he or she thinks, this practice is called metacognition. Developmental psychiatrist John Flavell coined the term metacognition and divided the theory into three processes of planning, tracking, and assessing your own understanding[1].

“Becoming aware of your thought processes and using this awareness deliberately is a sign of mature thinking.”



For example, you may be reading a difficult passage in a textbook on chemistry and recognize that you are not fully understanding the meaning of the section you just read or its connection to the rest of the chapter. Students use metacognition when they practice self-awareness and self-assessment. You are the best judge of how well you know a topic or a skill. In college especially, thinking about your thinking is crucial so you know what you don't know and how to fix this problem, i.e., what you need to study, how you need to organize your calendar, and so on. If you stop and recognize this challenge with the aim of improving your comprehension, you are practicing metacognition. You may decide to highlight difficult terms to look up, write a summary of each paragraph in as few sentences as you can, or join a peer study group to work on your comprehension. If you know you retain material better if you hear it, you may read out loud or watch video tutorials covering the material. These are all examples of thinking about how you think and adapting your behavior based on this metacognition. Likewise, if you periodically assess your progress toward a goal, such as when you check your grades in a course every few weeks during a long semester so you know how well you are doing, this too is metacognition. Beyond just being a good idea, thinking about your own thinking process allows you to reap great benefits from becoming more aware of and deliberate with your thoughts. If you know how you react in a specific thinking or learning situation, you have a better chance to improve how well you think or to change your thoughts altogether by tuning into your reaction and your thinking. You can plan how to move forward because you recognize that the way you think about a task or idea makes a difference in what you do with that thought. The famous Greek philosopher Socrates allegedly said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Examine your thoughts and be aware of them.

This material is from College Success - an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 7.

1. Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum


So if we are asked to be more aware of our thoughts, of our learning, what does that look like? Just as elite athletes watch game footage and work with coaches to improve specific aspects of their athletic performance, students can improve their mindset and performance reliant upon their thinking by starting to be aware of what they think. If a baseball pitcher recognizes that the curveball that once was so successful in producing strikeouts has not worked as well recently, the pitcher may break down every step of the physical movement required for the once-successful pitch. The pitcher and the coaches may notice a slight difference they can remedy during practice to improve the pitch.


If you need to plan, track, and assess your understanding to engage in metacognition, what strategies do you need to employ? Students can use metacognition strategies before, during, and after reading, lectures, assignments, and group work.


Students can plan and get ready to learn by asking questions such as:

  • What am I supposed to learn in this situation?
  • What do I already know that might help me learn this information?
  • How should I start to get the most out of this situation?
  • What should I be looking for and anticipating as I read or study or listen?

As part of this planning stage, students may want to jot down the answers to some of the questions they considered while preparing to study. If the task is a writing assignment, prewriting is particularly helpful just to get your ideas down on paper. You may want to start an outline of ideas you think you may encounter in the upcoming session; it probably won’t be complete until you learn more, but it can be a place to start.


Students can keep up with their learning or track their progress by asking themselves:

  • How am I doing so far?
  • What information is important in each section?
  • Should I slow down my pace to understand the difficult parts more fully?
  • What information should I review now or mark for later review?

In this part of metacognition, students may want to step away from a reading selection and write a summary paragraph on what the passage was about without looking at the text. Another way to track your learning progress is to review lecture or lab notes within a few hours of the initial note-taking session. This allows you to have a fresh memory of the information and fill in gaps you may need to research more fully.


Students can assess their learning by asking themselves:

  • How well do I understand this material?
  • What else can I do to understand the information better?
  • Is there any element of the task I don’t get yet?
  • What do I need to do now to understand the information more fully?
  • How can I adjust how I study (or read or listen or perform) to get better results moving forward?

Looking back at how you did on assignments, tests, and reading selections isn’t just a means to getting a better grade the next time, even if that does sometimes happen as a result of this sort of reflection. If you rework the math problems you missed on a quiz and figure out what went wrong the first time, you will understand that mathematical concept better than if you ignore the opportunity to learn from your errors. Learning is not a linear process; you will bring knowledge from other parts of your life and from your reading to understand something new in your academic or personal learning for the rest of your life. Using these planning, tracking, and assessing strategies will help you progress as a learner in all subjects.


This material is from College Success - an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 7.


Now that we have covered the three parts of Metacognition - Planning, Tracking, Assessing; it is now time to start that process of Thinking about our Learning. In this video, Dr. Todd Zakrajsek in TEDxUNC explains how we can use metacognition to improve our learning.



If your brain is like a muscle, you want to build that muscle over time. How productive would it be if you were trying to build muscle by only going to the gym every two weeks and cramming an intense lifting workout in 10 hours? Yow know that would not work, you know that approach is not going to help you produce the results you are wanting. Think about that approach the next time you want cram for that upcoming exam. You need to give yourself time, and you need to set up a plan for how you will address the material, track your progress, and assess what you have learned incase adjustments need to be made. It may be helpful for you to go back to Module 2 and revisit the Time Management strategies discussed there.

What about your attention to detail? Dr. Zakrajsek encourages paying attention to detail and focusing on the task at hand. We may think we are good at multi-tasking, but the research shows that when it comes to cognitive focus, humans need to address one thing at a time. So the next time you sit down to some cognitively demanding work (i.e., reading, homework, studying), listening to music will not be productive to you focusing on the work. Again, planning how you will learn efficiently is key here.


Have you ever been in a situation where a series of events transpired that on reflection you wish you had handled differently? For instance, what if you were tired after a long day at work or school and snapped at your roommates over an insignificant problem and that heated exchange ruined your weekend plans? You’d been anticipating a fun outing with a large group, but now several people don’t want to go because of the increased tension. Afterwards, you come up with several other ways you wish you had acted—you might have explained how tired you were, ignored the irritation, or even asked if you could continue your discussion of the problem at another time when you were less tired. You could call that wish metacognition after the fact.

How much more effective could you be in general if instead of reacting to events and then contemplating better alternatives later, you were able to do the thinking proactively before the situation arises? Just the act of pausing to think through the potential consequences is a good first step to accomplishing the goal of using metacognition to reduce negative results. Can you think of a situation in which you reacted to events around you with less than ideal results? How about a time when you thought through a situation beforehand and reaped the benefits of this proactive approach?

Now how does this apply to your academics? What may have happened in a previous semester that you wish you had the hindsight to go back and correct? Let's use this opportunity to become more acutely aware of those past missteps and recognize what you would have done differently then if you could - and then be sure to be applying those changes now.


This material is from College Success - an Openly Licensed textbook on how to succeed in college. Chapter 7.


That was a lot of information and a lot to take in. You may be asking yourself how does this look on a day-to-day basis though. How do you put this to practice? Here are some ideas for how to engage in metacognition when working on your academics. Think about which of these resonate with you and plan to incorporate them into your study routine on a regular basis.

Use your syllabus as a roadmap
Look at your syllabus. Your professor probably included a course schedule, reading list, learning objectives or something similar to give you a sense of how the course is structured. Use this as your roadmap for the course. For example, for a reading-based course, think about why your professor might have assigned the readings in this particular order. How do they connect? What are the key themes that you notice? What prior knowledge do you have that could inform your reading of this new material? You can do this at multiple points throughout the semester, as you gain additional knowledge that you can piece together.

Summon your prior knowledge
Before you read your textbook or attend a lecture, look at the topic that is covered and ask yourself what you know about it already. What questions do you have? What do you hope to learn? Answering these questions will give context to what you are learning and help you start building a framework for new knowledge. It may also help you engage more deeply with the material.

Think aloud
Talk through your material. You can talk to your classmates, your friends, a tutor, or even a pet. Just verbalizing your thoughts can help you make more sense of the material and internalize it more deeply. Talking aloud is a great way to test yourself on how well you really know the material. In courses that require problem solving, explaining the steps aloud will ensure you really understand them and expose any gaps in knowledge that you might have. Ask yourself questions about what you are doing and why.

Ask yourself questions
Asking self-reflective questions is key to metacognition. Take the time to be introspective and honest with yourself about your comprehension. Below are some suggestions for metacognitive questions you can ask yourself.

  • Does this answer make sense given the information provided?
  • What strategy did I use to solve this problem that was helpful?
  • How does this information conflict with my prior understanding?
  • How does this information relate to what we learned last week?
  • What questions will I ask myself next time I’m working these types of problems?
  • What is confusing about this topic?
  • What are the relationships between these two concepts?
  • What conclusions can I make?

Try brainstorming some of your own questions as well.

Use writing
Writing can help you organize your thoughts and assess what you know. Just like thinking aloud, writing can help you identify what you do and don’t know, and how you are thinking about the concepts that you’re learning. Write out what you know and what questions you have about the learning objectives for each topic you are learning.

Organize your thoughts
Using concept maps or graphic organizers is another great way to visualize material and see the connections between the various concepts you are learning. Creating your concept map from memory is also a great study strategy because it is a form of self-testing.

Take notes from memory
Many students take notes as they are reading. Often this can turn notetaking into a passive activity, since it can be easy to fall into just copying directly from the book without thinking about the material and putting your notes in your own words. Instead, try reading short sections at a time and pausing periodically to summarize what you read from memory. This technique ensures that you are actively engaging with the material as you are reading and taking notes, and it helps you better gauge how much you’re actually remembering from what you read; it also engages your recall, which makes it more likely you’ll be able to remember and understand the material when you’re done.

Use the course materials
This may seem obvious, but think about how you are engaging with the course materials (posted slides, the textbook, posted material to eLC) to maximize your learning experience. Alongside the previous suggestion of Summon Your Prior Knowledge, here you will be recognizing what areas you feel you have established prior knowledge, and what areas would benefit from extra attention on that respective subject. And then use the course materials to enhance your understanding and comprehension of that information.

Teach to others
Teaching information to another is a great way for you to recognize how much you truly grasp and what areas you need to revisit. This can be quite helpful in preparation for an assessment (paper, project, presentation, or exam) so that you cover all of the material and not just want you think you may need to review. When you study as if you are responsible to teach the material to another you will cover all of the content, look at the information for multiple perspectives, anticipate questions that may be asked, and in doing so will address the material much more thoroughly.

Review your exams
Reviewing an exam that you’ve recently taken is a great time to use metacognition. Look at what you knew and what you missed. Try using this handout to analyze your preparation for the exam and track the items you missed, along with the reasons that you missed them. Then take the time to fill in the areas you still have gaps and make a plan for how you might change your preparation next time.

Take a timeout
When you’re learning, it’s important to periodically take a time out to make sure you’re engaging in metacognitive strategies. We often can get so absorbed in “doing” that we don’t always think about the why behind what we are doing. For example, if you are working through a math problem, it’s helpful to pause as you go and think about why you are doing each step, and how you knew that it followed from the previous step. Throughout the semester, you should continue to take timeouts before, during or after assignments to see how what you’re doing relates to the course as a whole and to the learning objectives that your professor has set.

Test yourself
You don’t want your exam to be the first time you accurately assess how well you know the material. Self-testing should be an integral part of your study sessions so that have a clear understanding of what you do and don’t know. Many of the methods described are about self-testing (e.g., thinking aloud, using writing, taking notes from memory) because they help you discern what you do and don’t actually know. Other common methods include practice tests and flash cards—anything that asks you to summon your knowledge and check if it’s correct.

Figure out how you learn
It is important to figure out what learning strategies work best for you. It will probably vary depending on what type of material you are trying to learn (e.g. chemistry vs. history), but it will be helpful to be open to trying new things and paying attention to what is effective for you. If flash cards never help you, stop using them and try something else instead. Making an appointment with an academic coach at the Learning Center is a great chance to reflect on what you have been doing and figuring out what works best for you.


Works consulted
McGuire, S.Y. and McGuire, S. (2016). Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate in Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning. Ten Metacognitive Teaching Strategies. Vancouver Island University. 

Anderson, J. (2017, May 09). A Stanford researcher’s 15-minute study hack lifts B+ students into the As. Quartz. 


This material is adapted from The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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