Exploring a metacognitive approach to learning and support

31st January 2018 by Catia Neves

Learning How to Learn

Diversity and Ability (D&A) are long standing advocates of strategy focused support, integrating study skills techniques with assistive technology (AT). We are living in a digital age, with technology all around us, a naturalised part of many student’s workflows. It’s savvy to build on this, integrating the already formed strategies with relevant study skills that students need to acquire in order to succeed in higher education.

In order to identify appropriate strategies for a student, there is a certain amount of groundwork that needs to happen first. An integral process of reflection and self-interrogation helps illuminate the context in which a strategy may be useful eg. what are the student’s current challenges? What strategies do they already have in place? The student then must be given the space and guidance to explore their individual learning preferences, which may be fluid with many variables. It is the role of study skills tutors and AT trainers, in amongst others, to facilitate this; to help the student form an awareness of the many options and methods in which to undertake different areas of study. It’s imperative that the student gains an understanding of how they think and learn, in other words, a process of metacognition. That way they can uncover tools and strategies that are going to be truly enabling; this is why a metacognitive approach to AT training is integral to its efficacy.

Yet metacognition is not only confined to the realms of AT training or study skills tuition, it is an extremely important process that underpins all learning, a viewpoint also supported by James Zull (2011), who observes how metacognition “is at the root of all learning”. One must learn how to learn, in order to learn at all; and it is that way that everyone is given the opportunity to flourish and navigate their path through education in a way that is productive and fulfilling. It is a way of shaping students to approach learning actively as opposed to passively. As Mortimore observes ‘developing knowledge of one’s own mental processes, or metacognition, is seen as a major part of personal development and essential to the acquisition of learning strategies’ (2008). A metacognitive approach is implicit to successful learning, but perhaps we need to be far more explicit? Since it is so integral to all learning, metacognition should be given a much louder, larger platform, and be explicitly introduced as early as possible during a student’s educational journey.

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition is the term that describes a process, in which one establishes awareness of how they learn, how to approach a task and the variety of tools available to tackle it. It happens before, during and after learning — a form of ongoing curiosity toward thinking and learning. Pursuing continual reflective evaluation enables students and practitioners to evolve their approach to learning with a developed sense of awareness of what is effective or not. In many ways, developing metacognition is parallel to a form of mindfulness over the learning process — being present and self aware, in order to identify the best methods and ensure they continue to be so. Developing an explicit metacognitive approach to learning enables the individual to build a toolbox of useful strategies, by taking a problem solving, solution based approach. A view supported by Hattie (2012):

We need to develop an awareness of what we are doing, where we are going, and how are we going there; we need to know what to do when we do not know what to do. Such self-regulation, or metacognitive, skills are one of the ultimate goals of all learning.

Achieving metacognition in support — exploring ‘thinking and learning’ approaches

Developing an understanding of thinking and learning styles is an important aspect of the metacognitive process and has a fairly strong bearing on successfully identifying strategies that work. The third edition of Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia (Hargreaves and Crabb 2016), chapter Understanding How You Think and Learn (Davis, Easton and Hargreaves) outlines a variety of theories and strategies for exploring thinking and learning approaches with a view to developing a multisensory approach.

Once the student has an insight into their possible thinking and learning approaches, they can start to trial and error strategies from a more informed place. Latterly, explaining the metacognitive process to the student is important — it may be that some aspects are already implicit parts of the way they approach tasks, or it may unveil the need to implement a greater awareness over the way they study. This helps catalyse a proactive approach to assessing the efficacy of certain techniques.

In a nutshell, we believe the following pointers can help students develop metacognition over their learning:

  • Explicitly explore the concept of metacognition with the student — it should no longer remain a ‘mystical word’ used by practitioners, students must be ‘in the driving seat’.
  • Explore the various models of thinking and learning approaches in order that the student is aware of the different multi-modal ways they could approach a task.
  • Foster curiosity by emphasising that there’s no commitment to identify with one particular style or another, as there are many variables and it may change dependent on the time, task at hand, circumstance etc, but having a broad awareness is useful.
  • Encourage a trial and error process to explore strategies and tools, and an openness in doing so.
  • Help the student develop self-confidence to assert whether something works for them or not- create an open non-judgemental environment which facilitates self-advocacy.
  • Ensure there is a system in place to monitor the efficacy of each tool/ strategy that is introduced.
  • A goal setting process is an excellent way of measuring this, allowing the student to continually cross-examine and evaluate the benefits and drawback of said strategy in enabling them to overcome a barrier.

AT training and metacognition — an integrated approach

When it is most effective, metacognition ensures that every time a new strategy is trialled, it should be met with critical reflection, and an alternative sought if it’s not working. Metacognition should inform every aspect of training pedagogy, implemented before, during and after.

  • Before: Plan- develop awareness of task/strategy, integration of AT/Apps. Consider previous models, strengths & challenges. Set goals.
  • During: Curiosity- self-monitor along the way, reflexivity- posing questions and ‘checking-in’. Are the goals being met? Do I need to change something about the way I’m working?
  • After: Evaluate, reflect, improve & embed
Some questions to ask

D&A uses a goal setting system that allows both student and trainer to monitor progress throughout the support. The sessions are documented in Individual Learning Reviews allowing the student to reflect on strategies covered and co-write their response to the training and what it has meant in terms of allowing them to reach their academic goals.

A core skill for all students- universal design

From a tutoring/ training perspective, metacognition needs to be actively enforced within the learning process, rather than spoken about as an abstract academic principle that students find hard to engage with. Once the overarching concept has been introduced, it is important to guide the student through the ‘steps’ that enable an individualised approach in the context of the task at hand. This is to ensure it’s relevant and the immediate benefits are obvious to the student. The underlying principles are simple and commonsensical; when broken down into key themes of reflexivity and self-awareness, it is something that students can easily draw on and absorb as part of their way of working.

Looking at the wider learning landscape and the role metacognition plays in this, it can be argued that it is a much forgotten necessary component of learning for all students at any point in their education. Students must be given the guidance or confidence to explore alternative multi-modal, multi-sensory ways of accessing and understanding information.

There needs to be a shake-up, children and adults alike would benefit from this way of working. Mainstream education forgets to talk about it, unless you are statemented/ diagnosed and getting SEN/ DSA support (or something akin). But if we’re talking about people being neurodiverse and all learning differently, surely there’s value in putting metacognition on the map for everyone. That way we’re moving towards a more inclusive model of education using laws of universal design, with an understanding that each person excels or struggles in different ways and are given their own tool box to flourish. This goes a long way in normalising difference, with the acceptance and celebration that we all approach things differently.

There needs to be a much greater responsibility within educational institutions to weave metacognitive learning into standard pedagogy. There needs to be space on the curriculum, perhaps very early on, to facilitate this shift in learning processes, and then a continual ongoing metacognitive approach to course design and studying, making it a natural part of learning for everyone.


Hattie, (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximimizing Impact on Learning.

Hargreaves and Crabb (2016), Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia, chapter Understanding How You Think and Learn (Davis, Easton and Hargreaves)

Mortimore, (2008) Dyslexia and Learning Style: A Practitioner’s Handbook, 2nd edn. Chichester:John Wiley & Sons

Zull, (2011) Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education

Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia Final Proof Copy (see chapter 2)

Author: Raphaele von Koettlitz

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