Building students' metacognition and self-regulation

In their latest article, Dr Tanya Vaughan and Susannah Schoeffel share seven evidence-based recommendations on how to encourage metacognition and self-regulated learning to improve students' learning outcomes, and investigate how to explicitly teach students to organise and effectively manage their learning.

Metacognition and self-regulation can be encouraged by getting learners to explicitly think about their learning, through teaching specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their academic progress (Education Endowment Foundation, 2019; Quigley et al., 2019). Self-regulated learning has three essential components:

  • Cognition The mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning e.g. subject specific - making different marks with a brush or using different methods to solve equations in mathematics;
  • Metacognition Learners monitor and purposely direct their learning e.g. checking our memorisation technique was accurate or selecting the most appropriate cognitive strategy for the task we are undertaking; and,
  • Motivation Willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills e.g. undertake a tricky revision task now – affecting current wellbeing – as a way of improving our future wellbeing (Quigley et al., 2019).

Evidence for Learning's upcoming Guidance Report investigates the metacognition component in detail. There are three types of metacognitive knowledge that can be used when approaching a learning task:

  • Knowledge of ourselves as a learner – our own attitudes and abilities;
  • Knowledge of strategies – what strategies are available and effective; and,
  • Knowledge of the task – this particular type of activity (Quigley et al., 2019).

Learning techniques that encourage metacognition and self-regulation are impactful on students' learning, adding up to seven months' worth of learning progress, or a weighted mean effect size of 0.54 as shown in Figure 1 (Education Endowment Foundation, 2019). The spread of the studies is wide, ranging from -0.14 to 0.90, indicating that different approaches will have varied impacts on students' learning.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

How best to encourage metacognition and self-regulation?

Evidence for Learning – in collaboration with the Education Endowment Foundation and Australian experts – is publishing a Guidance Report on metacognition and self-regulated learning in late December, 2019. It presents seven evidence-based recommendations that outline how to encourage metacognition and self-regulated learning to improve students' learning outcomes. These are:

  • Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their students' metacognitive knowledge;
  • Explicitly teach students metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning;
  • Model your own thinking to help students develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills;
  • Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop students' self-regulation and metacognition;
  • Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom;
  • Explicitly teach students how to organise, and effectively manage their learning independently; and,
  • Schools should support teachers to develop their knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately

Here, we investigate the second recommendation.

Teaching students to organise and effectively manage their learning

In order for students to become effective independent learners they need to know the relative effectiveness of learning techniques and know how to apply these within their specific learning contexts. Independent learning is when students are ‘learning with a degree of autonomy, making active choices to manage and organise their learning' by deploying metacognitive strategies (Quigley et al., 2019).

The context-dependent nature of self-regulated learning and metacognition are described by Alex Quigley and colleagues (2019). ‘Self-regulated learning and metacognition have often been found to be context-dependent, so how you best plan in upper primary art may have significant differences to planning strategies in senior secondary mathematics. This means that a student who shows strong self-regulated learning and metacognitive competence in one task or subject domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may or may not be effective, depending on the specific task, subject, or problem tackled. This does not, however, mean that metacognitive knowledge and skills will automatically develop through content knowledge teaching.'

Professor John Dunlosky outlined 10 learning techniques and their relative effectiveness as detailed in Table 1. The study was extensive and determined if the benefits of the learning techniques generalised across learning conditions, student characteristics, contexts and different outcome measures.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

Table 1: Adapted from (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013; Leggett, Burt & Carroll, 2019; Quigley et al., 2019).

Metacognition and self-regulation can be encouraged by scaffolding students in planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Self-regulated learning has three components of cognition, metacognition and motivation. Metacognitive knowledge includes information about attitudes and abilities, strategies and the particular type of task. Fostering independent students is facilitated by building awareness of different learning techniques and their relative effectiveness.


Metacognition can be encouraged and developed in students of all ages – but what it looks like at different stages will vary considerably – so expect a wide range and adjust your techniques to meet students at their point of need.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2019). Evidence for Learning Teaching & Learning Toolkit: Education Endowment Foundation. Metacognition and self-regulation. Viewed 9 December, 2019

Leggett, J. M., Burt, J. S., & Carroll, A. (2019). Retrieval practice can improve classroom review despite low practice test performance. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33(5), 759-770.

Quigley, A., Muijs, D., Stringer, E., Deeble, M., Ho, P., & Schoeffel, S. (2019). Metacognition and self-regulated learning.

As a school leader, have you worked with your staff to develop a shared understanding of metacognition and self-regulation that can be translated to the classroom?

As a teacher, how can you model learning techniques when working with your students?