Meta-cognition: The Thinking Teacher’s Secret to Nurturing Independent Learners

By Laura Robb

Meta-cognition is often defined as thinking about thinking. However, a three-word definition does not explain the benefits of becoming meta-cognitive to students in elementary, middle, and high school. Three words—thinking about thinking– are not specific enough to help teachers show students how to be meta-cognitive. When students are aware of what they understand and don’t understand, they can clarify their thinking on their own or seek their teacher’s help. The combination of being self-aware, taking action, and experiencing success leads to independence in learning.

Defining Meta-cognition

Meta-cognitive learners are tuned into how they process new information, what they do and don’t comprehend, and the emotions they experience while learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at the University Southern California’s Brain Creativity Institute have drawn conclusions about the relationship between emotions and students’ learning capacity.

  1. If students emotional associations with tasks are positive, feelings of “I can do this” and “I enjoy this” develop and accelerate their learning.
  2. However, if associations are negative—“I’ll never be able to figure this out” and “I hate this work”—it becomes difficult for students to succeed. The replay of in-the-head negative thoughts prevents students from taking the risks that are characteristic of meta-cognitive learners. The possibility of failure negatively affects their lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy.  

Meta-cognitive learners welcome new learning tasks and have  life experiences that enable them to access strategies for learning. Taking risks and risking failure don’t affect their willingness to keep  trying.  

So, two big questions for us as educators to wrestle with are, How do we teach students to be meta-cognitive? How do we transform negative emotions toward learning tasks into positive ones? The answers may lie in encouraging students to do four things: plan work, monitor comprehension, confer frequently, and self-evaluate.

  1. Planning Work

When students plan their work—drafts, revision, book talks, projects, speeches, and group presentations, etc– they think, select, discard, and research to learn more. The planning process supports thinking before taking action and reveals to students what they understand and don’t understand, and what they need to do and don’t need to do. Learners who grapple this way are using their meta-cognitive skills.

  1. Monitoring Comprehension

Students who read independently at school and home feel a range of emotions while immersed in a text. They also can step into the shoes of the person they’re reading about and experience life from his or her perspective. They visualize, predict, infer, and pause to savor words, phrases, figurative language, and their feelings about and reactions to texts. In a nutshell, those students are monitoring comprehension while reading. An effective way to determine whether students are monitoring comprehension while reading is through bookmarks.

Bookmarks for Monitoring Comprehension

Bookmarks help students track in-the-head-conversations they have during reading. To create a baseline bookmark, ask students to write what they think and feel while reading. Then, have them read and respond using a specific strategy such as predict and support, infer, visualize, determine important information, or name specific feelings they have about a person, character, event, or conflict. What students write or don’t write–offers a window into their thought process while they read. Avoid over using bookmarks or asking students to record their thoughts and feelings for several pages of text.  

When you assess students’ bookmarks and then coach them in frequent, short conferences, you can help students experience success with learning tasks and develop a rich and rewarding personal reading life. Kahmariah’s story below illustrates this.


Kahmariah’s Story

Fourth and fifth grade teachers at the Discovery Charter School in Rochester, New York, have been meeting with me on the telephone about using bookmarks and conferring to improve students’ instructional and independent reading.  Fourth grade teacher Jean Hoyt recently emailed me Kahmariah’s story. A reluctant reader, Kahmariah, slightly below grade level with instructional reading, had difficulty making inferences and recalling details. During independent reading she would “fake read” and was unable to retell the text.   

What helped Kahmariah begin to “real read” were the conferences and coaching sessions that followed Jean’s assessment of her bookmarks. Jean moved Kahmariah from quoting text phrases and “fake reading” to making predictions, showing empathy for characters, and connecting the story to her own life. Kahmariah now reads a variety of genres, has read five books during the third quarter, up from only one book the first half of the year.  Kahmariah sees herself as a “reader” who chooses to read at school and at home. Independent reading combined with Jean’s support ramped up Kahmariah’s instructional level to mid-fourth grade!  

The message here is that bookmarks alone won’t help students find meaning and joy in reading. Teachers must analyze students’ bookmarks to figure out how to support them. That means conferring with students, coaching them, modeling for them, pointing out their successes, and encouraging them to self-evaluate.

  1. Confer Frequently

Coaching students for three-to-four minutes during a conference enables you to help them apply a new strategy, concept, or task—and enjoy the feeling of success. During conferences you can show students who aren’t meta-cognitive how to reflect on their learning and point out any progress they made. Conferring with students briefly and frequently allows you to turn negative feelings and attitudes toward learning into positive ones–gradually.

Jean Hoyt told me that through continual but short conferences she was able to develop students’ self-confidence and feelings of self-efficacy—“Yes, I can reach that goal!” After several months of conferring and teaching students how to reflect on their work and progress, Hoyt observed that positive feelings toward reading and writing among students she coached outnumbered negative feelings. And equally important, students were able to express feelings of pride in writing and pleasure in reading.

  1. Self-Evaluate

Self-evaluating progress in reading comprehension invites students to call on their meta-cognitive skills. They study their readers’ notebooks and reflect on what they did well along with how to improve comprehension.

Coaching students to be meta-cognitive requires us to raise students’ awareness of what they do and don’t understand about reading. This is a tough task for teachers and students, but one that’s important because meta-cognition creates independent learners who find pleasure in reading and writing about reading and have the fix-up strategies necessary to comprehend what they read. And after all, developing students’ independence in learning should be the goal of every teacher!

Independence in Learning

During conferences, engage students in planning, monitoring comprehension, and self-evaluating their work so they can pinpoint strengths and needs. Then, think aloud and coach them to show how reflecting on their reading highlights what they do well and points out areas that need improvement. In addition, help them be positive about their needs so they understand that learners take risks and work hard to make progress. By developing students’ meta-cognitive skills, you put them on the road to lifelong learning.


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