Meta-Cognition Strategies


Before meta-cognition…

When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read through my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.

The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.

Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach better and will help your students learn better. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.


“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.

Why is meta-cognition so important?

Research by a number of educational bodies and cognitive-psychologists have demonstrated beyond doubt that when students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.

The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it was also extremely cheap to implement, compared with other less effective strategies.

The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has begun to be picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. On their blog, they have written extensively on both the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies and on which strategies have proven to be the most effective. You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.

Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?

I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!

Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!

Meta-Cognition Strategies

Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students, in a way that almost prevents them from forgetting the content taught. In essence, you teach your content in whatever manner you choose, but then quickly follow it up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information you have taught as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You would then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information. Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.

Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and when the two are used regularly together, they make a huge difference. Interleaving is a revision strategy where students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc. It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in, so long as there are lots of opportunities to keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow the students to forget, then get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind. I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.

Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for a set amount of time, or for as long as they can, without repetition, hesitation or deviation (much like the BBC Radio 4 comedy show “Just a Minute”). It will quickly become evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker, removing unnecessary revision from the equation.

My Recommendations

If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (my Amazon Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they not only go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies, but they explain how you can put them to use. In fact, rather than giving a broad approach to meta-cognition, they break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group and this book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?

If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (another Amazon Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. In this book, he gives a broad range of strategies you can apply to your classroom immediately, whilst explaining the rationale behind them in clear terms. His writing style is very accessible and you can use this book to dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes at a minimal cost.

Final Thoughts…

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention via their blog and on Twitter (links are above). Please follow them – you won’t be disappointed!

I would also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!

You can follow me on Twitter and now on Pinterest too.

And don’t forget to SHARE this with any teachers you think would find it useful!


2 thoughts on “Meta-Cognition Strategies

  1. Ellen Dubois says:

    I totally agree with your article and appreciate seeing it spread throughout the EFL community. The timely revision of material is the topic of a blog post I wrote sometime back to get teachers to do reviews of vocabulary 10 min. after a lesson , then again after one week. The students would then meed to fill in the other reviews. Maybe you’d like to read it? I’d love your feedback.

    • Andy McHugh says:

      Thanks for your comment Ellen. Meta-cognition strategies like the one you advocated (retrieval practice) have been around for a long time. By the way, did you ever find out where you found those graphs from your post? I’d love to see the data behind them!

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