Metacognition as an antidote for mistaken beliefs about learning
January 6, 2020
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg



It is safe to assume that most of what students believe and “know” about studying – and the process of learning – is a result of how they are taught at school. Although there are instances where they are explicitly taught how to study, much of this learning about learning actually happens implicitly, i.e. in the actions of their teachers and parents and the way that content is presented and assessed.


Students, therefore, end up with (mostly non-verbalised, or implicit) beliefs about learning, their abilities, and memory based on “feedback” from the system, e.g. how they are taught, how their teachers react to their good or bad grades, how their parents react to their report cards, adherence of adults to neuromyths, etc., with only this implicit framework of learning as their point of reference. As a result, by the time they get to high school they “know” they are “good” at certain subjects and “bad” at others and likely have a fixed mindset – all as a result of a fairly ingrained, but flawed, learning framework. This is a pity since these mistaken beliefs often prevent them from reaching their full potential. Luckily, this issue can easily be addressed if schools and teachers take the time to do so…

Making teaching and learning frameworks explicit

An obvious starting point is for schools to agree on their teaching and learning framework, to make this explicit and to ensure it is based on sound research about how the brain learns. Ideally, it must include proper training and implementation practices for teachers, students and preferably parents as well. The interdisciplinary field of Mind, Brain, and Education has produced excellent books, articles, conferences, and workshops to bring the latest brain-based research into the classroom – all of which is readily available. 

Start fostering healthy belief-systems in your classroom

What if teachers wanted to do something about this in their classrooms and not have to wait for a school-wide implementation? A great starting point is to help students with their metacognition. The term literally means “thinking about thinking”  and as such, it is the perfect antidote to students’ implicit belief systems about their abilities and their learning. Metacognition is the ability to critically evaluate what you are doing while you are studying and trying to figure out ways in which to do it more effectively. It is an extremely powerful strategy and can be implemented as follows:

Metacognition in the classroom

Initially, teachers need to establish a common, explicit language and framework for learning by familiarising students with basic information about their learning brains, such as memory, neuroplasticity, growth mindset, etc. It is important that these concepts become part of the daily classroom conversation to introduce the idea of metacognition. An easy way to introduce the latter is by asking students to think about what they already know about a particular topic and how the new material ties into that. Alternatively, ask students to list study strategies that worked for them before and to what extent they are relevant to what they are busy with now.

Metacognitive tips and tricks:

1. Make a habit of asking students how a particular lesson ties into the overall theme/topic you are busy with, as well as to the previous lesson.

2. Explain and encourage the use of exam/test wrappers by letting students answer the following questions separately after each test or exam:

a. How did you prepare for your test/exam?

        • I made highlights
        • I completed worked examples
        • I created and studied from mind maps
        • I read through the study material
        • I used flashcards
        • Other tools/methods you used….

b. How will you change your preparation next time to make it more efficient?

c. Which questions did you find the most difficult?

d. Were there questions that you got wrong that you either misunderstood or did not answer properly?  (After the exam/test memo was discussed)   

3. Regularly have students create self-assessments as homework. This will assist with retrieval practice when they are asked to answer questions about this working class.

4. Make use of interleaving during homework assignments as this will force students to think about what they are doing rather than just mindlessly applying a “recipe”.

5. When you hand out or discuss homework and worked examples, have students answer the following questions:

        • What is the actual question?
        • Is this problem similar to the one I already solved?
        • What is the best way to solve this problem?
        • Does my answer/solution to the problem make sense?


Getting students to question their implicit assumptions about learning and their brains is a much needed first step if we want them to become students who take responsibility for their own learning. An easy way to start with this is to help them develop their metacognitive skills. As they become more adept at monitoring and reviewing their own learning activities, their self-regulation will improve and so will their sense of agency – all of which play a significant part in their journey as lifelong learners.



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