Metacognition: What It Is and Everyday Examples

Metacognition refers to a series of processes aimed at the awareness of one's own thinking. Let's learn more about it.
Metacognition: What It Is and Everyday Examples
Elena Sanz

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 11 March, 2023

Metacognition is a concept that has become popular in recent years. Indeed, in areas such as psychology or pedagogy, it’s frequently alluded to, not to mention its use in the media and in informative articles. In spite of the fact that it has never before been talked about as much as it is now, in practice very few know what it is. Today we’ll try to clear up any questions through some specific examples.

It’s often thought to be an exclusive human ability, but some experts have pointed out that there’s evidence of similar processes in certain animals. Be that as it may, it’s usually understood as the process of thinking about thinking. Let’s see what’s true about it, why it’s important and what benefits it has in people’s daily lives.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is the ability to reflect on thought processes that allow us to interpret reality. It is also the ability to control, monitor, evaluate, and regulate them to the extent that they intervene in cognition. Hence the construction of the word (meta is a Greek prefix that alludes to something “beyond”).

Another great article for you: What Are Cognitive Functions?

What we understand today as metacognition has its origins in the ideas of John H. Flavell. Since then, multiple theories have emerged that seek to explain the development of these processes, all from a specific school (the contributions made by constructivism are especially valuable). To better understand this, we must specify two ideas that regulate the process:

  • Metacognitive knowledge: This alludes to what people know about their own cognitive processes. For example, the knowledge they have of their abilities and skills to complete certain tasks. It also implies knowledge of strategies aimed at enhancing those skills and abilities.
  • Metacognitive regulation: This involves the positive actions that people take about these cognitive processes and strategies. It’s related to monitoring and involves discrimination of results. For example, realizing that a certain strategy used to enhance a skill (or a weakness) is not being effective.

Stages or phases

Any human being, with a little introspection, can develop metacognition for his or her own benefit.

Reference is often made to the phases of metacognition. Each theory and author has established different phases, but, in general terms, we can identify four: planning, monitoring, evaluation, and reflection. Each of these phases are important and combine with each other to consolidate what experts call metacognition.

The process involves a high level of awareness about the tasks being done, as well as the most suitable strategies to voluntarily control those processes. Flavell’s initial theory was that metacognition emerged as a natural mechanism for coping with errors. By actively reflecting on them, man can learn and become more efficient.

We thus return to the definition we gave at the beginning: metacognition is thinking about thinking . These words summarize in a simple way the whole systematic framework involved in the metacognitive process. It isn’t only a process that develops in the early stages of human beings, but one which accompanies them throughout their lives.

Implications of metacognition for learning

Metacognition is often thought of as a very abstract concept that has no place in reality. This is a clearly erroneous belief, since it has been actively used in learning processes for years. In fact, it is very likely that you yourself implement metacognitive strategies on a daily basis without knowing it. Let’s look at three illustrative examples:

Second language learning

For the last decade or two, second language teaching programs have incorporated metacognitive paradigms. No wonder. In fact, experts and researchers have pointed out that it is a very useful strategy to enhance the assimilation of the study of a new language.

In short, including metacognitive processes in foreign language learning helps to overcome the barrier that prevents many learners from continuing. Reflecting on one’s own study strategies, being aware of strengths and weaknesses, learning to manage the process, and objectively assessing the results can make a noticeable difference in this.

Improving musical skills

As in the previous case, music is often a difficult area of study for many people. Even among those who are interested in it, it can be a bit complex to assimilate some of the ideas of music theory. Studies and research have shown that metacognition can help speed up the learning of musical concepts.

This has implications for students, for those who wish to learn to play an instrument, and, of course for those who dedicate themselves to music professionally. The benefits are felt in the short term and increase as the processes are applied on a regular basis.

A greater understanding of mathematics

A boy studying.
Mathematics can be the bane of many. Changing the way this discipline is understood with metacognition could be beneficial.

Finally, experts and researchers also endorse the use of metacognition to improve math skills. Mathematics is often one of the areas of study that causes the most rejection, something that is generally due to the approach or study strategies that are used.

Through these methods, one can come to understand mathematics in a different way, as well as opt for alternative study models to achieve efficient results. In this way, the implementation of the process can help to enhance the teaching and the students’ skills.

Uses of metacognition in daily life

It’s very likely that what we’ve said so far has made you understand that metacognition is not an idea at a theoretical level without any kind of implication in reality.

But you are probably thinking that the 3 examples above don’t apply to you i.e. learning a new language, music theory, or solving mathematical problems. Here are some other uses of metacognition in everyday life:

  • It improves decision making
  • It promotes critical thinking
  • It avoids stagnation or repetition of patterns that don’t get any results
  • It allows you to practice empathy and otherness (through what is known as social metacognition).
  • It can increase your self-esteem by discovering your skills and abilities.
  • It’s an ideal strategy for cultivating success.
  • It prevents failures or mistakes from conditioning what you can achieve.
  • It allows you to have control of your emotions and feelings.

There is still much to be studied about the implications of these processes, as well as how to use them to our advantage. Its usefulness is felt beyond an educational environment, as it explores ideas as varied as self-concept and the way we relate to others.

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