Initial Publication Date: November 3, 2008

Encouraging Metacognition in the K-12 Environment

Nicole LaDue, National Science Foundation

The K-12 public education system heavily emphasizes student knowledge but not always student learning and thinking. For the past 6 years, I taught at a high achieving school district in suburban New York. Most teachers in my school readily employ a healthy combination of the techniques described by Hunter (1994). Aside from the typical constraints of a public school system, I have found that the biggest challenge associated with engaging students in metacognition is frustration. This frustration may be considered the intersection of students' confusion as they hit material that is not attached to a conceptual framework and their self-confidence in their own ability. John Dewey (1910) identified this "somewhat painful" experience as "reflective thinking".

The structure of some pedagogy techniques used on the K-12 level encourage student metacognition (ex. anticipatory set, jigsaw, KWL technique (Ogle, 1986)). One technique I used in my classroom is an anticipatory set. The goal is to have students pre-assess what they already understand about a topic and facilitate the process by which the new material attaches to a students' existing conceptual framework. During the learning activities, using jigsaws helps students monitor their learning by expecting them to teach someone else what they have learned. This often reveals weaknesses in their learning, which enables them to find another resource to attempt to understand the subject matter. This technique has been particularly helpful in my plate tectonics unit. During this unit, students are assigned a piece of evidence (ex. plotting earthquake depth and distance from the Peru-Chili trench, determining plate motion using the ages of Hawaiian Islands, etc.) and then meet in groups to teach each other about their findings. The KWL technique, where students make a graphic organizer of what they already know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they learned (L), is a way of teaching metacognition by providing a structured framework for that process. These techniques promote metacognition but are simple and not particularly time consuming.

With science pedagogy in particular, the geosciences have a unique opportunity. Science generally lends itself to the inquiry method and the geosciences specifically focus on a real-world context making it more accessible to a novice. Thus our discipline should be an ideal setting for the implementation of metacognitive strategies. Despite this, I have found the biggest hurdle with K-12 students is the fine line between challenging and frustrating. Duckworth (1996) encourages us to give students time for their confusion and even the exploration of wrong ideas. In order for students to construct meaning, they need time to build the framework. During graduate school, my advisor always met my expressions of frustration with the phrase, "Confusion is good!" Fortunately, I came to understand and embrace this phrase (and torture my students with it!) as an excellent way to help students realize that their confusion is a vital step in the learning process. It is a sign that metacognition is happening because it implies that they have discovered a discrepancy in their thinking. The hardest part of employing inquiry-based learning is the students' readiness to engage in this style of learning. While maturity may play a role, a larger factor is practice. If students are used to the "confusion" as a normal part of the process, they are more willing to be uncomfortable.

As a teacher of primarily ninth graders, I have found that while some students are motivated to learn, others are not so interested. The hard part is encouraging metacognition when a student is not inherently driven by interest in content or style of learning. How can their interest be piqued? The key may be a discrepant event. If they become aware of something that does not agree with their conceptual framework, they begin to ask questions almost in defiance of the learning process (or the teacher!) This is the opportunity teachers must grab to ask the right questions to challenge the student's framework and facilitate metacognition (ex. Why does this happen? What other situations does this remind you of? What should we do next to test your idea?)

There are many simple pedagogical techniques that can be sprinkled in to the curriculum stew to encourage metacognition. Of utmost importance is the patience required by the instructor to allow students to be confused and frustrated by the effort required for higher order learning. Often the structure and expectations of a public K-12 environment impede the successful implementation of these techniques (Smith, 1991). However, the capacity for flexibility in undergraduate environment is an exciting opportunity to implement metacognitive techniques. Conditioning students to have patience with the process is essential. It is encouraging to see greater adoption of these techniques amongst undergraduate faculty.


Dewey, John (1910) How We Think. D.C. Heath & Co, Boston MA, reprinted 1997, Courier Dover Publications, Mineola NY.

Duckworth, Eleanor (1996), The Having of Wonderful Ideas (2nd Edition), Teachers College Press, New York.

Hunter, Madeline (1994) Mastery Teaching, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp 103.

Ogle, D.M. (1986) K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text. The Reading Teacher, 39(6), 564–570.

Smith, M.J. (1991) Put to the Test: The effects of external testing on teachers, Educational Researcher, 20(5), 8-11.