How can  learning about ‘how we think’ improve self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy? Find out in this article about helping your pupils to develop metacognitive strategies, from Anoara Mughal.

What is metacognition and self-regulated learning?

Metacognition is commonly known as ‘thinking about thinking.’ It may be useful to broaden the definition before simplifying it further. The book, Metacognition in Science Education, refers to it as being about ‘one’s declarative knowledge.’1 Flavell describes it as the ‘interplay between person, task and strategy characteristics.’ 2

For me, “Metacognition encompasses motivation, cognition, emotional awareness and intelligence, managing behaviours, improved well-being, the development of human connections and relationships and much more. Everything is interrelated.” 3

A more useful definition of metacognition may be that it is a set of behaviours to help you to manage, monitor and review your thinking. Being human means that all the other factors which influence our thinking and learning are inextricably linked. According to the EEF , self-regulated learning can be broken down into three important components: ‘cognition subject knowledge and subject-specific strategies in knowing understanding and learning,’ ‘metacognition or understanding how we think,’ and ‘motivation or the willingness to undertake a task.’ 4

Although pupils develop some metacognitive skills and strategies naturally, when it is taught explicitly, it can develop self-confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. It helps pupils understand themselves as learners and become aware of the processes and actions they use during learning. It can also help those from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds make additional progress of 7 months in their cognitive development and other areas of learning. 3


Tasks should be challenging enough for pupils to develop deep reflective skills and understand themselves as learners.

“Having the knowledge of task requires pupils to work out whether a task is too challenging for them. This could be where explicit teaching about recognising what is challenging and how we recognise challenge could be useful.” 3

When setting challenging tasks, consider how difficult the tasks should be based on previous and immediate assessments; if it is too challenging, pupils will become cognitively overloaded and give up, thus not accepting the challenge.

We are all too aware that pupils need to be motivated to accept challenges. Since motivation is a ‘system of allocating attention’ 5, the challenge must be difficult enough to ignite the motivation required to strive towards it.

“There is a misconception that in order to develop self-esteem, teachers should plan easy activities. However, this can lead to all sorts of problems, from switching off and becoming withdrawn in lessons to displaying both low levels and extreme behavioural issues.” 3

Classroom strategy 1: Metacognitive cycle

Metacognition can be divided into two strands: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge requires certain thinking processes to be developed to enable pupils to understand who they are as learners and how they learn, whilst metacognitive regulation is the planning, motoring and evaluating process, which is subject or task specific.

Effective learners subconsciously think about the stages of planning, monitoring and evaluating implicitly. However, less effective learners cannot – and this must be taught explicitly. The ‘Metacognitive Cycle Strip’ can be used when teachers are modelling. It can also be added onto the end of a ‘success criteria’ for pupils to comment on. For younger pupils, the questions could be written up on the board for them to refer to as they complete independent or group tasks. It is important to note that as teachers are monitoring learning during a lesson, regular feedback is given to those pupils who get stuck.


Title - 'Metacognitive Cycle Strip'<br />
Section 1-'Metacognitive Knowledge: How am I feeling about this task? How am I getting on? Am I on the right track? How do I know? What can I do if I'm stuck?' Section 2 - Metacognitive Regulation - 'Planning: What is the ask asking me to do?' (Notes box underneath). 'Connecting: Have I done something similar before?' (Notes box underneath) 'Monitoring: What strategies do I know? What is the best way to tackle this?' (Notes box underneath) 'Evaluating: Was I successful? What would I do next time?' (Notes box underneath).

Metacognitive Cycle Strip (c) Anoara Mughal, 2022

Classroom strategy 2: Challenge check

When a task is too easy for a learner, they may think that they are good at what they are doing because they are not getting anything wrong and feel quite happy about it. In the classroom, they may then start talking about the task with a partner, become easily bored and distracted and start talking about something else.

When a task is too difficult, some pupils may verbalise that they do not understand what is being asked of them, but others may not. Even when they talk to a partner, they may not be able to work out what to do or where to start. When a task is at the correct level of challenge, pupils will have a mixture of feelings. They will recognise that they can complete some parts and not others. This usually motivates
them to be brave and just have a go, or sometimes they may need encouragement. Deeper discussions usually take place when working with a partner, and they find the process quite enjoyable.

A ‘Challenge check strip’ could be added onto the end of your success criteria; or you could label up three book trays with: ‘Too easy,’ ‘Just right’ and ‘Too hard’ and ask pupils to leave their books in the most appropriate one.

'Challenge check strip' Options are: 'Too easy', 'Just right', 'Too hard'.

Challenge Check Strip (c) 2022, Anoara Mughal.

Classroom strategy 3: ‘My turn, our turn, your turn’

Activating prior knowledge: the teacher may test or discuss previous learning and make notes.
My turn: modelling of learned strategy through questioning of pupils and discussion.
Our turn: checking for memorisation through testing and guided practice with pupils verbally contributing ideas.
Your turn: independent practice, pupils either work on their own or in a group.
Structured reflection: the teacher gets pupils to reflect on the appropriateness of the model, how successful it was, and how they might use it in the future.

This approach allows the teacher to develop solid knowledge and understanding which then forms the basis of increasingly independent practice as they change their guidance and gradually withdraw the scaffolding.

Classroom strategy 4: ‘Then and Now’ Venn (developing self-efficacy)

By managing, monitoring and reviewing how we think (metacognition), we can successfully move from recognising and comparing our feelings of motivation in past events or situations (self-concept) to measuring our expectations about success e.g., determination of effort, persistence and goal setting, which is known as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy helps determine the way we behave. If we think we are being successful, we are more likely to be motivated to put more effort into a task. Success in learning precedes motivation but often pupils cannot ‘see’ that they are being successful.

The ‘Then and Now Venn’ is a visual way of comparing the same piece of work over time. For example, in English, a pupil may have written a non-chronological report in the Autumn term and one in the Spring term. Although they may be aware that they have improved in their writing, they often cannot ‘see’ it. One way of comparing their progress would be to fill in a Venn diagram, according to given criteria.

Venn diagram with 'Autumn term' as the top ring, 'Spring term' as the left ring and 'Summer term' as the right sring. The rings overlap creating 4 inner sections between the rings.

Classroom strategy 5: Retrieval practice

Although I have listed retrieval practice as a classroom strategy, it is a curriculum issue in the sense of where to plan it in and how much of it to use.

Without research to suggest how much retrieval practice is required for optimal learning, here is a rough guide:

  •  For pupils with poor working memory, more isolated and less embedded retrieval practice (due to faulty retrieval) is beneficial.
  • For pupils with good working memory, less isolated and more embedded retrieval practice is required, leading to schema development and greater depth learning.


  1. Zohar, A. and Dori, Y.J. (2012) Metacognition in Science Education. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
  2. Flavell, J. (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34: 906–911
  3. Mughal, A. Think!: Metacognition-powered Primary Teaching (Corwin Ltd). SAGE Publications.
  4. EEF (2018) Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning: Guidance Report [online]. Available at:
  5. Mccrea, Peps (2021) Motivated Teaching. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.


  • Anoara Mughal

    Anoara is an educational consultant and CPD provider with 15 years+ experience in teaching and leadership. She is the author of 'Think!: Metacognition-Powered Primary Teaching', the regional leader of WomenEd London and part of the HealthyToolkit Steering Group. Anoara is also a writer for @HeadteacherNews.
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