Metacognitive skills – what is it and why is it important?

In a previous blog, I discussed the equal importance of teacher and learner responsibility. This idea is further explored in N Joseph’s “Metacognition Needed: Teaching Middle and High School Students to Develop Strategic Learning Skills” (2010).

The author equates those students who are aware of their learning strategies with self-regulated learners, or those learners who are able to study independently. The opposite, she considers “passive and dependent”. To rectify the situation, Joseph (2010) recommends teachers to instruct these students in higher level thinking. This higher level thinking or metacognitive skills, the author believes will aid students who don’t have the practical skills to study independently.

One important note about this article is the author’s emphasis that students without metacognitive awareness are “deficient” and therefore need additional instruction from their teachers. In addition, the author stresses that it is the teacher’s responsibility to take the time in addition to teaching content to also teach students how to learn. There is a lot of “shoulds” in this article indicating what the teacher should do, and that research has shown when teachers do teach metacognitive learning, it is successful. While this article specifically teaches to instruction in reading comprehension, it may be the author’s intention that metacognitive skills are transferable to other subjects.

Is it possible that those students who can’t immediately integrate instruction into action are simply not aware of their innate learning strategies? Second, is it reasonable to ask teachers to take on the task of instructing learning strategies? And, third, do teachers have the skills needed to teach their students metacognitive skills?

First, it is important to note that learning strategies differ from learning styles. Learning styles could best be defined as the type of learner one is, i.e., visual, auditory, kinesthetic; while learning strategies defines the action one takes based on the type of learner he is. The goal, then is to not necessarily adapt the instruction to a learning style, but rather help the student to use learning strategies so that he might benefit regardless of the instruction.

It is my opinion that students should never be viewed as deficient. While this may be PC thinking, I would argue that learning and instruction, when viewed as “can’t do” or “won’t do” can have a negative effect on students. While some students may look at “can’t do” or “won’t do” as a challenge to improve, there is always a risk that such spoken perceptions could result in an even poorer ability to learn. Perhaps the better analysis is that a student does not know how to learn and needs assistance in recognizing those strategies he finds best useful for his learning. This view takes on a new vision, taking away the idea that a student can’t learn.

While there is research to suggest that instruction in metacognitive awareness has proven successful, should the teacher be responsible for that instruction? The author acknowledges “For many teachers—especially secondary school content teachers—thinking about the mental processes a novice learner needs to comprehend the subject-area material is not a natural activity” Joseph, 2010, p. 100). Further, she acknowledges the added responsibility of “teachers responding to the pressures of state assessment testing and to the demands of local curriculum guidelines”. If it is known that teachers view that teaching metacognitive skills is not a natural part of content teaching, nor that it is a possibility with the added responsibility of assuring students have the knowledge required to pass tests, it is my opinion that it is not reasonable to expect middle and high school teachers to take on the task of metacognitive instruction. This task might be better reserved for elementary school teachers; however, the instruction at the earlier levels of education are not needed, according to Joseph (2009) because “cognitive demands become more complex from one grade to the next” (p. 100).

Finally, educators may not be the most skilled at teaching metacognitive skills. Joseph (2009) argues that metacognitive instruction “can be embedded into traditional learning activities” (p. 100). This may be true, but additional instruction would be needed for teachers to be best equipped to integrate learning skills into content instruction. Joseph (2010) further acknowledges “for struggling adolescent learners, discussions about introspective thinking may cause cofusion and anxiety because they have become comfortable with a passive and dependent approach to learning” and “some students may be uncomfortable with (metacognitive thinking) because they prefer to take a less active role by having the teacher pose the questions” (p. 100 & 102). The relationship between student and teacher is pivotal in successful learning; however, in Joseph’s (2010) article, she puts the emphasis on instruction being more important than learning. Joseph (2010) also makes the supposition that teachers who instruct from their own metacognitive instruction will be able to effect students because all metacognitive thinking is the same. While higher level thinking is required for successful academic competence, there may be various methods to get there, and emphasis on any specific means of arriving there could be beneficial or detrimental to the student.

It is essential that teachers recognize that not all learners learn the same, however, it is not efficient to recognize that some learners are deficient because they do not immediately learn in response to the content instruction. Instead of the teacher taking on the additional task of teaching metacognitive skills based on his own learning abilities, it may be beneficial for an objective third party who is skilled in both learning styles and strategies to work with a student. This removes the teacher from taking on a new role and maintains the teacher student relationship as the student understands it. Once the student is able to understand not only the way he learns but also strategies he can take into any learning environment, he can then return to the classroom and demonstrate competency, regardless of how his other classmates learn and be successful.

Joseph, N. (2010). Metacognition needed: Teaching middle and high school students to develop strategic learning skills. Preventing school failure, 54(2), pp. 99-103.


About debhalasz

I am a free-lance writer, skilled in writing press-releases, profiles, web copy, articles, and album reviews. I also am a skilled researcher in all areas. I have a MS degree in Educational Pscyhology and am currently in the dissertation phase of my PhD program. My passions are second language learning, learning strategies, music, musicology, neuroscience, and neuroeducation. I am a fan of all genres of music and love learning more about both indie and major-labeled artists as well as the behind-the-scenes people who make them look so good! View all posts by debhalasz

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