Critical-Thinking Basics: Metacognition and Skill Building

Jan 09, 2024
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Critical thinking is one of the imperatives of education, and research shows that openly practicing basic thought routines can make huge differences for learners. Some of these thinking skills are so commonplace, so ingrained in our daily mental processes, that we may not even realize we’re already doing them. Building thinking skills can bring great dividends and lay the foundation for life-long learning.

So how can teachers lay the foundation for critical and higher-order thinking? What are the building blocks of critical thinking?

The term metacognition was first introduced by developmental psychologist Dr. John Flavell in 1976, who recognized that metacognition consists of both self-monitoring and self-regulation of thought processes. In an educational context, metacognition refers to students’ self-understanding and knowledge about themselves as learners. In short, how they think about thinking. Take, for example, practices like using an internal monologue to solve a math problem or using a mnemonic device to help recall specific information.

As part of the suite of executive function skills, metacognitive abilities like self-control and self-assessment are strong indicators of learning success and complex thought. Let’s take a deeper look at metacognition and see how it can be applied in the classroom.

Why Metacognition Matters for Learning

Teaching cognitive processes through direct instruction allows students to foster and develop these learning strategies so that they can call on them efficiently and effectively as they learn. Metacognition not only allows students to take more ownership in their learning process by prompting them to evaluate what they are learning and confront challenges, but it also can help students develop more self-awareness as they learn, where they can better understand their own strengths and weaknesses and develop learning strategies for easier problem-solving. Metacognition lets students own their learning by prompting them to evaluate what they are learning and confront challenges. As students develop self-awareness, they form learning strategies, problem-solving techniques, and study habits.

Practicing Metacognitive Techniques in the Classroom

One aspect of metacognition, distinguishing between what we know and what we don’t, can be built by taking quick, informal assessments like mini quizzes. Through timely, effective immediate feedback, students can differentiate their strengths and weaknesses.

The self-monitoring aspect of metacognition, knowing what you know, allows students to take more ownership over their learning journey through self-assessment. Strong learners know when they need more study, how long the study will take, and how much they can trust their recall in the future. They take corrective action like taking notes or looking up words they don’t know.

The self-regulation aspect of metacognition is often an internal list of instructions we give ourselves to work through tasks. At an advanced level, this inner monologue is a curated list of “if-then” conditions. With self-control, students can think through the consequences and implications of their actions by visualizing outcomes and setting up strategies to maneuver around potential obstacles.

It’s important to be transparent about the value of engaging with your own thinking and evaluating ideas when discussing metacognition with students so that they can better understand how such practices will benefit them. When educators verbalize their thinking process, the example leads students along a problem-solving journey. Remember that it’s important to demonstrate mistakes too. Show how to own your mistakes, then go back and fix them.

Ready to get started? Take a look at a few techniques you can try out in the classroom to help your students develop metacognition and other critical-thinking skills:

Mind Map

When shared in groups, metacognitive techniques are empowering. Creating a community of inquiry is fun too! Imagine that your classroom shares an interactive neural “brain” hanging from the ceiling. It’s a great introduction to brain science and active thinking!

Diane Dahl, a teacher in McKinney, Texas, created a mind-map class activity for her elementary students using pipe cleaners, a hole punch, and notecards. Students built a physical model of their shared, connective knowledge like a mind map. Every time that students made a connection, like linking the Mississippi River to the Nile River when studying different units, they created a physical representation of the information.


Another great way to practice cognitive skills is with “think-pair-share” activities. After a short period to write, study, or read a short passage, students explain their thought processes to a partner. Eventually, the pair presents its thoughts to the entire class for questions, discussion, and ways to build more ideas. Through discussing ideas openly, teachers can evaluate students’ thought processes and ask open-ended questions for future reflection.

It's also a great chance to consider both sides. Taking different perspectives into consideration is important for critical thinking (and everyday life).


A “think-aloud” activity is an easy metacognitive technique to demonstrate ways monitoring thinking. Use think-aloud activities to show the process of problem-solving or reading for summarization.

By checking math, making notes, or rereading parts of a text, learners can become self-corrective and self-directed. Incidentally, think-aloud activities are also useful assessments of creative skills that improve comprehension.

You can also try these metacognition steps with reading assignments:

  • Activate thinking before concentrated learning activities like reading new passages. Research shows that by stimulating recall, learning pathways are stronger. Ask students: “What do we already know about this subject? What do we want to learn?”
  • Assess the task. Ask students to look at subheadings and the form of the assignment. By paying attention to the length and structure of tasks, students can plan their reading or practice time.
  • During reading, students should check their knowledge and understanding of terms. They can recap the action of the story or go through the steps of problem-solving to check their work.
  • Use student learning journals to allow them to reflect on knowledge. The best learning journals go beyond simply recording behaviors. Encourage active goal setting, questioning, and self-assessment.
  • Develop conditional, adaptive learning strategies with “if-then” statements. For example, a student could approach a reading assignment with this general strategy: “After I read the chapter, then I can summarize the plot and setting. If I finish that, then I’ll start fresh tomorrow and re-read it to check my knowledge.”
How to Create Motivated Learners

As students develop metacognitive control, they begin to plan and check their work. In later stages of development, they will be able to evaluate their progress and reflect on prior knowledge with skill.

Motivated students will think through the consequences and implications of their actions by visualizing outcomes and setting up strategies to maneuver around potential obstacles.

Metacognition is the ability to monitor thinking and strategy through self-examination. Ask students to practice active learning and measure themselves with these questions:

  • What do I know?
  • What do I want to know?
  • How will I get there?
  • How will I know when I meet my goal?
  • Am I making progress?

Remember that building mental fortitude is a long process. It’s important to have patience. Cognitive skills don’t fully develop until the teenage years or after. It’s different for everyone, but it can be scaled quickly in learning communities like schools and classrooms.

Looking for more ways to incorporate critical thinking into your lessons? Learn more about how you can elevate your teaching and empower your students to become inquisitive, reflective thinkers.

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