InTuition taster: Metacognition points the way for learners to achieve their very best

Thinking skills put the onus on students to examine how they are learning and take responsibility for their progress, but the big challenge for teachers is to bring this all to life, says Patricia Spedding.

As teachers we want the very best out of our learners, and metacognition claims to do just that. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses widely accept that metacognition impacts positively on learning (EEF 2019; 2018). Hattie (2008) identifies metacognition, and its associated activities of providing feedback and teaching students selfverbalisation, as convincing impact measures. However, Hattie does point out that for these to be effective it is the skill of teachers, modelling strategies in practice, that’s really important.

Metacognition, also known as learning to learn or thinking skills, aims to improve achievement by ensuring learners think explicitly about their learning and take increased responsibility for their own progress. Coffield (2010) reminds us that everyone can learn to become more intelligent by engaging in learning in purposeful and thoughtful ways.

Fisher (2013) argues that thinking can be taught and teachers shouldn’t simply impart knowledge, but should help learners develop capabilities to apply and evaluate such knowledge. Thinking processes include remembering, translating thoughts into words, questioning, planning, reasoning, analysing, hypothesising, imagining, forming judgements based on reasons and evidence, and so on.

Many FE teachers already apply metacognition in practice and a number of these can be seen in the work of teachers on the SUNCETT-ETF Practitioner Research Programme. For example, Beth Curtis and Will Cossey, from Exeter College, in their 2017-18 research project, Group Learning Online: Finding space for digging deeper, look at ways to develop dialogic practice which encourage deeper levels of theoretical analysis on Level 3 vocational programmes. Extending dialogue through online discussion spaces allows teachers and students to actively co-participate to promote democratic voices beyond traditional classroom spaces.

Supporting students to develop their verbal interactions is vital, and Beth and Will recommend metacognitive interventions such as ‘community of enquiry’ and Socratic questioning to help improve everyone’s spoken contributions, particularly quieter group members (Lipman, 2003).

There is a growing body of research which supports the view that by working in groups, where talk for learning is used, academic performance and attitudes to learning can be improved (Alexander, 2017; Philipson & Wegerif 2017).

Such strategies organise interaction between learners while letting them think for themselves, relate that experience to an educational topic and make sense of it together with their peers. This is seen in Louise’s case study (Gregson et al 2015, p. 258), which describes what happens when a group of disengaged teenagers participate in a ‘community of enquiry’ and how opportunities for caring, critical and creative thinking were opened up. Robert’s case study (Ibid. p.255) discusses the metacognitive strategies of group work and peer support with Level 3 BTEC students.

Metacognition entails active learning and focusing on the process of learning. This means establishing opportunities for timely review and feedback from teachers and peers, recognising success and identifying improvement needs. Charlotte’s case study (Ibid. p.316) features an ESOL teacher using video feedback software to give formative ‘closing the gap’ feedback.

Applying metacognition strategies that develop self-regulation and planning for progress has been successfully used by FE trainee-teachers through ‘next steps to success’ interventions developed at the University of Sunderland.

These support trainees to develop their practical teaching and extend their understandings of pedagogy. For more examples of metacognition in practice, see Gregson et al, (2015), particularly chapters 10, 11 and 13. Ultimately the power of metacognition is matched only by the challenges presented to teachers in bringing it to life for learners.

Patricia Spedding is associate professor Learning & Teaching and a co-director of the University of Sunderland Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (SUNCETT).


  • Alexander, R. J. (2017). Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk (5th edn), Dialogos.
  • Coffield, F. (2010 ). Yes, but what has Semmelweis to do with my professional development as a tutor? London: LSN (Learning and Skills Network).
  • Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). (2019). Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning Guidance Report, London: EEF.
  • Education Endowment Foundation. (2018). Metacognition and self-regulation: Teaching & Learning Toolkit, London: EEF.
  • Fisher, R. (2013). Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Gregson, M., Hillier, Y., Biesta, G., Duncan, S., Nixon L, Spedding T., Wakeling P. (2015). Reflective Teaching in Further, Adult and Vocational Education. London, Bloomsbury.