What are Metacognitive Skills


Metacognition pertains to the knowledge and skills for organizing, guiding, and controlling one’s own thinking, actions, and learning processes. It concerns the skills for task orientation (what am I to do?), goal setting (what am I to achieve?), planning (how do I reach that goal?), a systematical approach (step-by-step), monitoring oneself during task execution (am I not making mistakes, do I understand all of it?), evaluating the outcome (is the answer correct?), and reflection (what can I learn from this episode?).


Students with good metacognitive skills are at the helm of their own learning process, through which they can execute a learning task more effectively.

Metacognition and learning performance


Metacognition determines learning performances to a large extent (up to 40%). As such, metacognition is more important to the learning process than intelligence, social-economical background, and motivation (Veenman, 2015).

Metacognitive skills can be acquired and enhanced by instruction and training. Research has shown that adequate metacognitive instruction and training lead to lasting improvements in metacognitive skills and, consequently, to better learning performances (Veenman, 2013).

Development of metacognitive skills


The development of metacognitive skills commences around the age of 8 yrs. These skills reveal a strong increment throughout late childhood and adolescence, even into adulthood.

However, there are huge individual differences in the spontaneous development of metacognition. Some students remain metacognitively weak, whereas others outperform their peers of the same age.

Until the age of 12 yrs., metacognitive skills are task-specific by nature. Some students are metacognitively better in math, while others are metacognitively better in language. Around the age of 13-14 yrs., metacognition becomes general and task surpassing, that is, metacognitive skills are no longer dependent on the nature of the task. This general metacognitive repertoire is of great importance to learning new tasks or, later, to getting acquainted with a new profession (Veenman, 2015).



Executive functions


Executive functions (EF) are basic mental capacities that become available to the child through maturation of the brain. An important example is inhibition or the control over impulses: A stop function by which action tendencies can be interrupted when something goes wrong. Think of a child that runs after a football into the street, when a car suddenly comes up. A second example is elementary planning of action sequences (first a, then b… etc.). Elementary planning is required for the execution of complex actions, such as long division.

In very young children (< 4 yrs.), EFs are still absent. But from 4-5 yrs. on, the brain has become matured for developing EFs.

Inhibition and elementary planning are prerequisite to applying metacognitive skills. Inhibition is needed to first read the assignment before starting with task execution, or to check your outcome before giving the answer. Elementary planning is prerequisite to goal-directed planning as a metacognitive skill. Thus, the development of EFs precedes the development of metacognitive skills.

Metacognitive skills can be trained, provided that…



Metacognitive instructions should be integrated with a learning task in order to be successful. By applying metacognitive skill to a concrete learning task, students are informed of What to do When and How. Therefore, separate study-skill lessons do not make sense.


Students should be explicitly informed about the benefits of metacognitive activities in order to make them exert the extra effort required for these activities. This concerns the Why of metacognitive skills. Students are especially sensitive to concrete arguments of gaining time, making fewer errors, and obtaining higher marks.


Metacognitive instruction should be given over a prolonged period of time to bring about (enduring) effects. Practice makes perfect.


Therefore, instruction of metacognitive skills should explicate to students What to do When, Why that is needed, and How to do that (the WWW&H rule; Veenman, 2013).




Intelligence and metacognition



Although being moderately related to intelligence (20% overlap), metacognition has an independent role in the learning process.

Research has shown that almost half of the intellectually gifted students appear to be metacognitively weak to very weak (Veenman, 2015). Possibly, these gifted students are insufficiently challenged in regular education to develop their metacognitive skills. Regular education allows them to rely on their intelligence. Whenever the learning matter becomes more complex, however, they are at risk for study delay and drop out.

Conversely, students with good metacognitive skills may compensate for a relatively lower level of intelligence. In addition, good metacognition may compensate for dyslexia.


Research Erasmus+


First, Czech and Dutch primary-school teachers were trained to give metacognitive instruction to their students. Next, teachers trained their students (about 12 yrs. old) in applying metacognitive skills during math and reading lessons for three months. Control groups consisted of comparable students who did not receive that training.

The metacognitive skills of students were assessed with a computer task, prior to and after the training. This individualized task required students to design and implement experiments in order to investigate how five variables may affect an outcome variable. Student activities were logged into an external file and analyzed.

Metacognition posttest scores were corrected for students’ initial levels prior to the training. Both Czech and Dutch studies show that trained students revealed a higher level of metacognition, relative to students from the control group. Thus, metacognitive training of students during math and reading lessons improved their metacognitive skills, even when assessed with a dissimilar task.