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What is Metacognition 1


What is Metacognition?

Christina Andrade

Fielding Graduate University

PSY725: Advanced Topics in Cognitive & Affective Bases of Behavior

Lee Stadtlander, PhD

October 2006
What is Metacognition 2

What is Metacognition?

Everyday, tons of information just pop up in front of us. Emails, Really

Simple Syndication (RSS), Newsgroups, website articles, and other medium

of information enter in our brain or it is discarded by it. Therefore, how do

you know that you know? How do you know that you have studied some

material well enough that you will remember about it next week? Activities

such as planning how to advance in given task, monitoring comprehension,

and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive

in nature. Hence, Metacognitionis the ability to evaluate or monitor your own

cognitive process, such as thoughts and memories, with the aim of assess

your current knowledge about something and plan about future actions.

Berardi-Coletta, Buyer, Dominowski, and Rellinger (1995) described

metacognition as:

“…an active, reflective process that is explicitly and exclusively

directed at one's own cognitive activity. It involves the self-monitoring,

self-evaluating, and self-regulating of ongoing tasks. We might

compare this to an on-line executive processor that can observe,

check, and alter routines (problem-solving strategies) already in

progress” (p. 206).

Research on metacognition in cognitive sciences emerged around

1970s with John Flavell and colleagues investigating children's knowledge of

their own cognitions. They haveinvestigated children's knowledge about our

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most basic mental states-desires, percepts, beliefs, knowledge, thoughts,

intentions, feelings, and so on. The researchers attempted to find out what

children know about the existence and behavior of the states of the mind

and also what children know about how mental states affects the perceptual

inputs, behavioral outputs, and other mental states (Flavell, 1999).

Therefore, based on extensive research Flavell (1983) explained “What is

metacognition? It has usually been broadly and rather loosely defined as any

knowledge or cognitive activity that takes as its object, or regulates, any

aspect of any cognitive enterprise (e.g., Flavell, 1981A); it is, again,

"cognition about cognition" (p. 6).

According to Flavell (1983, 1999), metacognition consists of both

metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences. Metacognitive

knowledge refers to acquired declarative and procedural knowledge about

cognitive processes and can be used to monitor cognitive processes. “It is

the knowledge and beliefs, accumulated through experience and stored in

long-term memory, that concern, not politics or football or electronics or

needlepoint or some other domain, but the human mind and its doings”

(Flavell, 1983, p. 7). For example, knowing that you have poor memory,

youwill use an aid such as shopping list to remind you what you need to buy

in the supermarket. Metacognitive experiences “…are cognitive or affective

experiences that pertain to a cognitive enterprise, such as the sudden feeling

that you do not understand something you just read” (Flavell, 1983, p. 7).
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It’s part of the person’s subjective experience such as feelings of familiarity,

difficulty, and confidence. Metacognitive experiences also generate responses

and decisions relevant to the task at hand (Salonen, Vauras, & Efklides,


Metacognitive knowledge is divided into three categories: knowledge

of person variables, task variables and strategy variables. The first refers to

the people’s generalknowledge of information-processing and the person’s

own knowledge of one’s learning process. The second means understanding

the task and know what to do with it. Finally, the latter, concerns the how,

when and where is appropriate to use certain strategy.

The person category includes your knowledge and beliefs about people

as cognitive processors. The task category refers to your knowledge

about the cognitive-processing implications of task information and

task demands. The strategy category includes your knowledge about

cognitive and metacognitive strategies. (Flavell, 1983, p. 4)

Metacognition is a cognitive tool with very broad applicability (Flavell,

1983). In addition to a domain-general possibility of metacognition,

metacognitive activities can be applied to a multitude of human experiences,

including learning, workplace activities, therapy, memory recall, and reality

monitoring (Grant, 2001). Although metacognition can be construed as

domain-specific knowledge, “it should be remembered that its "domain"

spans all others” (Flavell, 1983, p. 13).

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In order to achieve successful outcomes in any general-domain or

specific-domain of knowledge, a person must “think about thinking”, that is,

develop metacognitive skills such as prediction, planning, monitoring, and

evaluation (procedural knowledge). According to Flavell (1983),

Metacognitive skills are “believed to play an important role in many types of

cognitive activity, including oral communication of information, oral

persuasion, oral comprehension, reading comprehension, writing, language

acquisition, perception, attention, memory, problem solving, social cognition,

and various forms of self-instruction and self-control” (p. 8).

Researchers believe that metacognitive skills could be taught directly

to people. Therefore, a person could learn techniques to improve

performance in their metacognition skills and consequently reach successful

outcomes in tasks at hand. The knowledge and awareness of your own

cognitive process would unleash a better self-directed learner who could

develop a plan, implement and maintain the plan, and evaluate the plan and

its effectiveness of reaching that goal.

Neuropsychology of Metacognition

Shimamura (1994) investigated four examples or metacognitive

impairment: blindsight, agnosia, amnesia, and metamemory impairment.

They were chosen because they represent failures of knowing at various

levels or cognitive processing. Moreover, these studies provide evidence that

brain injury can affect specific aspects or knowing rather than causing a
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global impairment in knowing. Thus, blindsight affects conscious knowledge

of primary visual sensations, and visual agnosia affects secondary or

associative processes related to object recognition. These disorders are

related to different aspects or visual processing. Organic amnesia affects

conscious recollection or facts and events and occurs following damage to

the medial temporal lobe or the diencephalic midline. Metamemory

disorders are related to problems in judgment or decision making and can

occur following frontal lobe lesions. Consequently, these four examples or

metacognitive impairment are mediated by different neural systems and

affect knowing at different levels of analysis: perception, object recognition,

conscious memory, and decision making.

These investigations suggest that conscious awareness is not

embodied as a single neural function or operation. Instead, it may require a

convergence of information from many components. It is likely that the

cerebral cortex is necessary for this convergence to occur. Nevertheless,

despite the remarkable experience of conscious awareness,

neuropsychological investigations suggest that a variety or cognitive

components can operate without our knowledge. “Awareness or this fact

may significantly temper our own confidence about the way we think and

behave” (p. 276).

With the recent advances in functional neuroimaging studies,

researches have shown that the prefrontal cortex is particularly active on

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tasks involving selective attention or working memory. The kinds of tasks

associated with attention and working memory place large demands on

online monitoring and control of information processing (Shimamura, 2000).

Therefore, executive control and working memory are strongly linked to

metacognition. The role of the prefrontal cortex in mediating metacognitive

control of object-level information was pointed by findings from patients with

frontal lobe damage from neuroimaging techniques and from basic cognitive


The prefrontal cortex may include many such gating or filtering devices

in its role in monitoring and controlling information processing.

However, it is not appropriate to conclude that self-awareness or self-

knowledge resides in any specific part of the brain; instead, it probably

is represented by the interplay of many brain regions. (Shimamura,

2000, p. 146)

Metacognition and Learning

Byrd and Gholson (1985) researched reading, memory, and

metacognition correlation and they said “evidence suggests that good

readers differ from poor readers in their ability to use efficient reading

strategies” (p. 429). The results of this investigation highlighted that the

good reader uses their logical (executive) processing capabilities and that

they do not rely on memory or reading skills. The strategies that could

improve metacognition of reading could be, for example, delay the judgment
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of learning (JOL) of a textbook instead of trying to recall it right way. When

recalling the material instead of asking if the author’s position is true, try

asking which statement supports or contradicts the author’s claim. (Wiley,

Griffin, and Thiede, 2005)

Berardi-Coletta et al. (1995) conducted an experiment with four

groups of students for the purpose of investigating metacognition and

problem-solving. Only one group received instructions to think-aloud and

was asked to answer questions designed to keep their focus on the problem.

These questions were asked in timely manner:

What are you thinking about in terms of starting to solve this problem?

(at the beginning of a trial)

How are you deciding on a way to work out the order for the cards?

(or How are you working out the order for the cards?) (as they paused

in writing down their solution)

How did you decide that this needed to be changed? (if they changed

their solution attempt, i.e., erasing, switching the order, rewriting the


How are you deciding what went wrong? (following an unsuccessful

trial). (p.217)

The findings corroborate that “…verbalization focuses attention on and

enhances problem-domain knowledge. That is, verbalization slows one down

or makes one stop and think more carefully about salient problem features
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and critical task components” (Berardi-Coletta et al., 1995, p. 205). Other

important finding is that the participant must find the solution of a problem

by metacognitive processing, because when one understands the process by

which a problem get solved the information is attained as knowledge.

Zimmerman (1989) asserted the importance of three elements in

metacognitive development: students' self-regulated learning strategies,

self-efficacy perceptions of performance skill, and commitment to academic

goals. According to the author, self-regulated learning strategies require

actions and processes seeking information or skill through methods such as

organizing and transforming information, self-monitoring, and rehearsing or

using memory aids. Hence, the self-efficient learner develops metacognitive

skills that will increase the perceptions about one's abilities to organize and

implement actions necessary to perform a skill for the task at hand.

During the course of the four experiments, Metcalfe, Schwartz and

Joaquim (1993) tried to determine how people make metamemory

judgments, and, specially, how they make feeling-of-knowing and tip-of-the-

tongue judgments. They tested four hypotheses: the target retrievability

hypothesis, the cue familiarity hypothesis, the ugly stepsister hypothesis,

and the omnibus retrieval hypothesis. All of the data from the four

experiments was consistent with the cue familiarity hypothesis. In each

case, the familiarity of the cue mapped onto the pattern of metacognitive

judgments, whereas the retrievability of the correct target did not. Finally,
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the omnibus retrieval hypothesis proposes that total retrieval, and not just

correct retrieval, should relate to the magnitude of the metacognitive

judgments. The findings showed that the metamemory judgments are based

on cue familiarity and that the cue familiarity heuristic may result in correct

judgments as long as the familiarity of the cue is correlated with correct

target retrieval.

Personality Differences

Lin-Agler, Moore, and Zabrucky (2004) conducted an experiment in a

classroom for several months. They were exploring the relations between

personality and metacognitive self-evaluation. The results showed a

significant role of some personality factors on metacognitive self-

assessments. Their findings suggest that competitive students seem to have a

goal of maintaining confidence when they provide metacognitive self-

assessments across time. Compared to non-competitive students,

competitive students have a tendency to give high metacognitive self-


Washburn, Smith, and Taglialatela (2005) examined how 124 college

students participants in their research used an uncertain response on near-

threshold trials of a psychophysical task. The researchers found that all

participants showed overconfidence, but women tended to be more adaptive

than men in responsiveness to uncertainty.

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According toFlavell (1992), several researchers have examined

individual variation in cognitive traits such as cognitive style and creativity.

However, it was the developmental behavior geneticists that have not only

documented the power of genetic differences to produce cognitive differences

between children, but more surprisingly, they have also shown how the

different nonshared environments that individual children experience even

within the same family can increase these individual differences.

Metacognition and Therapy

According to Grant (2001), psychological mindedness (PM) is a form of

Metacognition and that“…PM may be assessed by measuring individuals'

metacognitive processes of self-reflection and insight, circumventing many

of the problems associated with previous self-report measures of PM” (p. 8).

The ability to comprehend the triggers and meaning of one's behavior,

thoughts, and feelings are considered to be important variables mediating

the outcome of directed, purposeful change in both clinical and nonclinical

populations. Grant (2001) presented a new metacognitive model, and

argued that PM is most logically understood as being a form of

metacognition, a predisposition, with the intention of encompass abilities

(skills) and motivations (interests) and it can be estimated by assessing the

extent to which they engage in reflective acts of psychological inquiry, and

their level of insight. Assessment of individual differences and tendency for

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self-reflection, PM, and insight could be indispensable tools for therapist

facilitating behavioral changes (Grant, 2001).

Teasdale, Moore, Hayhurst, Pope, William, and Siegal (2002),

conducted three experiments with patients diagnosed with Major Depression

Disorder. In these experiments, they used Cognitive Therapy (CT) as

treatment and the Measure of Awareness and Coping in Autobiographical

Memory (MACAM) as measuring instrument. The findings supported their

hypothesis that changes in metacognitive awareness decrease the relapse in


Increasing metacognitive awareness involves a change in relationship

to thoughts and feelings. Our findings suggest that CT may prevent

depressive relapse by increasing metacognitive awareness and that a

program targeting such a change in relationship, rather than a change

in belief in thought content, can have similar effects to CT. (Teasdale et

al., 2002, p. 286)

According to Bandura (1989), depressive mood affects perceivedself-

efficacy and vice versa. “Mood activates, through an associative mood

network, the subset of memories congruent with it. Thus, negative mood

activates the failure subset, whereas positive mood activates the success

subset” (p.733). The author believes that the metacognition process can be

enhanced by learning self- efficacy-inducing approaches suchas direct

mastery experiences, observing people similar to oneself succeed by

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perseverant effort, social persuasion that one possesses the capabilities to

succeed, and judgments of bodily states and various forms of somatic

information. That is, enhancing the metacognitive process will lead to a

selective recall of past successes and decrease of recall of failures.

Wells (2002) discussed the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder

(GAD) by introducing the concept of mindfulness in the metacognitive

process. “The mindfulness construct, particularly if operationalized in

metacognitive terms of promoting a metacognitive mode of processing and

enabling patients to disengage from perseverative self-focused processing,

has been posited as a general initial strategy for recovering attentional

resources for subsequent cognitive restructuring” (p. 99). The author

proposed that practicing the skill of disengaging from negative thoughts plus

attention training can provide the necessary setting conditions for developing

and strengthening metacognitive plans stored in long-term memory that can

be used to guide attention and thinking in a flexible rather than in a

threatening manner in emotional disorder.

According to Wells (2002), people suffering from GAD have a tendency

of use worry to cope with anticipated danger and threat. A trigger of GAD

symptoms can be encountered in an image or intrusive thought and it is

followed by positive metacognitive beliefs (e.g., "worrying helps me cope";

"worrying keeps me safe"; "if I worry I'll be prepared"). The individuals with

GAD frequently “…continue the execution of worry sequences in which a

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range of "what if" danger-related questions are contemplated and potential

strategies for dealing with threat scenarios are generated” (p. 97). That is,

the person with GAD will continue to worry until he or she assesses that he

or she will be able to effectively cope with threat. Hence, the aim of

metacognitive-focused treatment is to modify patients' negative beliefs

about “worry concerning uncontrollability and the danger of worry and to

challenge positive beliefs that lead to an inflexible execution of worrying as a

means of coping with anticipated threats” (p. 98).

Effective cognitive therapy relies on the establishment of a

metacognitive processing mode which strengthens alternative beliefs

for guiding cognition and action that break the constraints imposed by

maladaptive processing (e.g., threat monitoring, self-focus, worry) on

cognitive modification. (Wells, 2002, p. 95)

Metacognitive Accuracy

The study of human metacognition and its relation to other cognitive

processes seems burdened with technical and methodological difficulties.

For this reason, Schwartz and Metcalfe (1994) performed a review of the

literature concerning metacognitive accuracy and discovered that restricted

range on either the judgments themselves or on the criterion variable can

influence the accuracy or metacognitive predictions, problems may arise

when comparing groups that show a different mean level or problem

solving, recall, or recognition, and that dissociations in Metacognition

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among groups may have implications for our understanding or the

architecture or cognition. However, Schwartz & Metcalfe (1994) argued that

these problems are solvable and with prudent experimental and theoretical

techniques, valuable and valid results could be reached that would advance

our understanding in human cognition.

Similarly, Lin-Agler, Moore, and Zabrucky (2004) stated that

researchers have examined variables that may influence metacognitive

accuracy, including subject, text, and task variables and it has been

suggested that metacognitive self-judgments, as a form of self-perceived

ability, is likely to involve personality variables such as confidence,

motivation, and optimism.

Metacognition and Consciousness

Nelson (1996) declared that ”Metacognition is a prime example of

synergy between philosophy and psychology” (p. 113). According to the

author, the data from research on metacognition seem particularly valuable

as monitoring and control, which are also key constructs in the conception

of consciousness.

Similarly, Shimamura (2000) stated that metacognition seems to

imply conscious control of information processing in many situations, such

as selective attention and task switching. Also, he said that recent theory-

of-mind views suggested the importance of flexible control in taking the

perspective of others or of oneself in a different context. Additionally, a

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recent study suggests that performance on some theory-of-mind tasks are

affected in patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex considering

issues of self-awareness and metacognitive control. Therefore, it is

necessary to avoid a homuncular view of cognition.

By this view, a little person in the head monitors and supervises

cognitive function. Yet it is clear that top-down or voluntary control of

cognition exists. As a way to avoid an ill-defined homuncular view, it is

important to note that even simple devices can act to monitor and

control. (Shimamura, 2000, p.146)


Metacognition is a skill that can be developed and a tool that can be

learned. The metacognitive skills can be applied to a variety of fields such as

psychotherapy, school settings, workplace, and others. Actually, we use

metacognition in our everyday life, however, some people have developed

more accurate metacognitive skills, while others still struggle with their

personal learning process or difficulties. Researches have shown that

metacognitive skills can be taught, however, there is a lack of studies

investigating the long-term efficacy of such techniques.

Learning “thinking about thinking” would enrich one’s world with

greater understanding of planning, execution, and monitoring one’s

activities, which would increase performance, knowledge , and well-being.

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Besides that, the psychotherapeutic process could be enhanced by

metacognitive skills development, which would bring a better understanding

of one’s perception of self. It would lead the therapeutic process to a level of

preventive, rather than just curative.

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Bandura, A. (1989). Regulation of Cognitive Processes Through

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Berardi-Coletta, B., Buyer, L. S., Dominowski, R. L., & Rellinger, E. R.

(1995). Metacognition and Problem Solving: A Process-Oriented Approach.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition

[PsycARTICLES], 21(1), 205.

Byrd, D. M., & Gholson, B. (1985). Reading, Memory, and

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Flavell, J. H. (1983). Cognitive development during the postinfancy

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