Metacognition and self-regulation

Metacognition and self-regulation approaches aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.

Self-regulated learning can be broken into three essential components:

  • cognition - the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning;
  • metacognition - often defined as ‘learning to learn’; and
  • motivation - willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills.

How effective is it?

Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of seven months’ additional progress.

These strategies are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so that learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion.

The potential impact of these approaches is high, but can be difficult to achieve in practice as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.

The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older pupils.

How secure is the evidence?

A number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have consistently found strategies related to metacognition and self-regulation to have large positive impacts. Most studies have looked at the impact on English or mathematics, though there is some evidence from other subject areas like science, suggesting that the approach is likely to be widely applicable.

The approaches that have been tested tend to involve applying self-regulation strategies to specific tasks involving subject knowledge, rather than learning generic ‘thinking skills’.

The EEF has evaluated a number of programmes that seek to improve ‘learning to learn’ skills. The majority have found positive impacts, although smaller in size (around 2 months’ progress on average) than the average seen in the wider evidence base. For three of these programmes there were indications that they were particularly beneficial for pupils from low income families.

A 2014 study, Improving Writing Quality, used a structured programme of writing development based on a self-regulation strategy. The evaluation found gains, on average, of an additional nine months’ progress, suggesting that the high average impact of self-regulation strategies is achievable in English schools.

Guidance report

The EEF has published guidance on applying the evidence on metacognition and self-regulation in the classroom. The guidance report can be found here.

What are the costs?

Overall, costs are estimated as very low. Many studies report the benefits of professional development for teachers, and using an inquiry approach where teachers actively evaluate strategies and approaches as they learn to use them in their teaching. Most projects are estimated as costing under £80 per pupil, including the necessary professional development for teachers.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Which explicit strategies can you teach your pupils to help them plan, monitor, and evaluate specific aspects of their learning? 

  2. How can you give them opportunities to use these strategies with support, and then independently?

  3. How can you ensure you set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition in relation to specific learning tasks?

  4. In the classroom, how can you promote and develop metacognitive talk related to your lesson objectives? 

  5. What professional development is needed to develop your knowledge and understanding of these approaches? Have you considered professional development interventions which have been shown to have an impact in other schools?