Metacognitive Theory – Definition, Pros and Cons

metacognitive theory definition types

Metacognitive Theory is a theory of knowledge that is interested in how humans can actively monitor and regulate their own thought processes.

According to Flavell, the theory’s founder, some people are more capable of control over their minds than others.

It differs from cognition in the following ways:

  • Cognition: Thinking skills, such as the skills we develop to store (remember) and retrieve (recall) information in our minds.
  • Metacognition: The ability to control our own cognition For example, the capacity to reflect on which cognitive skills we use to succeed in a given task.

Definition of Metacognition

Metacognition means thinking about thinking. The concept was created by John Flavell in the 1970s. It includes all the processes involved in regulating how we think. Examples include planning out our work, tracking our progress, and assessing our own knowledge. Metacognitive strategies are useful to help us study smarter (not harder) and achieve self-control.

Here’s my video mini-lecture on metacognitive theory:

Origins of the Theory

The theory was first proposed by John H. Flavell, an American professor and child psychologist, in the 1970s.

His theory was developed over a series of years:

  • 1971: Metamemory. Flavell proposes the term ‘metamemory’ to explain thinking about how we store and recall information. This term was later changed to ‘metacognition’.
  • 1976: Metacognitive skill development in childhood. Flavell discusses the importance of regulation of cognition and identifies three stages of meta skill development in early childhood.
  • 1979: Four classes of metacognition. Flavell proposes four classes or types ‘thinking about thinking’ in order to explain the theory. Those four classes are outlined below.

Metamemory (1971)

In 1971, Flavell proposed the term ‘metamemory’ to explain a process of thinking about how we store and recall information in our minds (Flavell, 1971).

For Flavell, metamemory was:

  • Intentional: Thinking about how we think can’t be stumbled upon. It needs to be strategic and based on specific techniques, such as self-questioning.
  • Foresighted: We need to plan our thinking before conducting a task but coming up with a ‘plan of attack’ for our studies.
  • Used to accomplish a goal: We should be using meta strategies to be better at learning or working.

Developing Metacognitive Skills in Childhood (1976)

Flavell (1976) identified three stages of metacognition in early childhood:

  • Stage 1: Storage. Young children begin to intentionally and consciously They use basic strategies such as repetition and focus to ensure information is stored in their minds for future use.
  • Stage 2: Recall. Children learn strategies that help them store information in their working memory to recall it in the near future. They can recall information when they predict it will be useful, such as in a game of ‘memory’.
  • Stage 3: Systematic Strategies. Children use systematic strategies to recall information even when they did not predict that it would be required. They use active recall strategies such as self-questioning, thinking aloud and mnemonic aids so that information can be recalled from longer-term memory.

Four Types of Metacognition (1979)

In 1979, Flavell proposed 4 different classes of metacognition. These categories act as a framework for thinking about the theory.

1. Metacognitive knowledge

Metacognitive knowledge (MK) is a person’s beliefs about how they can affect their own cognition.

A person who believes they have the ability to control their own cognitive processes may be understood to have an ‘internal locus of control’. This person is likely more motivated to try to control their thought processes than someone who does not believe in their own ability to control their thoughts.

The person who does not believe they can control their own cognitive processes has an ‘external locus of control’, meaning they believe control over their thinking is outside of their grasp.

Flavell identified three factors that impact our MK:

  1. Person Variables: Some people believe they have an inherent ability to control their thoughts. Others may not.
  2. Task Variables: When we are given scarce information about a task to complete, we will have a harder time identifying cognitive strategies to use for the task. If we have better grasp on the task, we’re more capable of using our meta-thought to come up with appropriate cognitive strategies to complete the task.
  3. Strategy Variables: Some people have developed more strategies to manage their cognition than others. The goal is to have as many great strategies for regulating your thinking as possible (for example, aim to be skilled at reflecting on and monitoring your thoughts regularly throughout the day). Also see below: ‘Strategies or Activities’.

2. Metacognitive experiences

Metacognitive experiences (ME) are a person’s own ‘in the moment’ subjective applications of their meta-thinking to achieve tasks. Flavell suggested that this is a “stream of consciousness” process.

Examples include:

  • Connecting one current event to a past event.
  • Providing personal feedback throughout a task to ensure you are using the right thought processes to succeed.
  • Measuring progress or likelihood of success at any one time.

ME differs from MK because your experiences are the ways you apply meta strategies, while knowledge is your awareness of your ability to control your cognition.

3. Tasks or goals

Your tasks or goals are the outcomes you want to achieve when thinking about your own thinking.

Examples include:

  • Comprehension,
  • Memorization,
  • Creating something,
  • Solving a problem.
  • Writing a paragraph,
  • Improving your own knowledge.

You use your goals to shape which cognitive strategies you plan to use to achieve success.

4. Strategies or activities.

‘Metacognitive strategies’ are all the strategies you can use to achieve your cognitive goals. These can include:

  1. Self-questioning (internal talk): The ability to ask yourself questions when going throughout your work to ensure you’re doing it to the best of your ability.
  2. Meditation: Through pausing and clearing your mind, you can flush out all the extra chatter and focus more on the task.
  3. Reflection: As you work, you reflect on what you’re doing and think about ways to do it better. Schon called this ‘reflection-in-action’.
  4. Awareness of Strengths and Weaknesses: Being able to know what tasks you’re good at, and what tasks you struggle at.
  5. Awareness of Learning Styles: Knowing which ways of learning best suit your skills. Learning styles are also known as ‘learning modalities’ and include verbal, aural, kinesthetic and tactile.
  6. Use of Mnemonic Aids: Ability to use rhymes, patterns and associations to remember things. For example, when you meet someone new, you bank the knowledge in your mind by cognitively linking that person to another person with the same name.
  7. Study Skills: Using study aides such as flash cards, spaced repetition, and other study strategies to remember.

I have a full article on examples of metacognitive strategies that you can check out for more details.

Pros and Cons of Metacognitive Theory


Strengths of the theory include:

  • It is widely accepted as a useful way of explaining a type of thinking that is considered very advanced. Few other animals have achieved this level of thinking, with the exception of some apes, dolphins and rhesus monkeys.
  • It highlights the flaws of behaviorist approaches to education, which fail to encourage higher order meta-thinking.
  • Educators and psychologists can use the theory in their practice. Educators should provide meta-thinking strategies to students to help them study and self-assess.

Criticism and Controversy

The theory is widely accepted in educational psychology. However, some minor criticisms and critiques include:

  • It is hard to measure meta-thought. By its very nature, it is an internal process rather than externally observable ‘thing’. Therefore, the phenomenon is difficult to directly observe.
  • It’s not clear whether meta-thought is entirely conscious or unconscious. Flavell argues that it can be both conscious (when we are learning a task) and unconscious (when we are at a higher and more competent stage of learning). However, others believe it is only a conscious process.

Theoretical Links

The theory is closely connected to cognitive and social constructivist learning theories including:

  • Vygotksy’s Sociocultural Theory: Vygotsky argues the strategy of private speech is central to development. Children learn by talking through issues in their mind. Teachers encourage children to ‘think about’ this ‘thinking strategy’ when they are stuck on a task.
  • Piaget’s Cognitive Theory: Piaget argues that learning develops in stages and children develop cognitive strategies as they move through those stages. In higher stages, children should use meta-thinking strategies to achieve abstract thought and reach conclusion on difficult topics.
  • Jonassen’s Cognitive Tools Theory: Jonassen proposes that computers can help students to think about their thinking, and achieve higher-order cognition. Such computers are labelled ‘cognitive tools’.
  • Metacommentary: This concept refers to reflecting on our own written texts to provide insights into how to achieve self-improvement.

Final Thoughts

The metacognitive theory is widely popular among educational and developmental psychologists. It can effectively explain how people regulate their own thinking to improve their efficiency in learning and work.

The theory has been widely used by educators and psychologists to help people gain control over how they think and act, particularly in regards to learning. By applying meta-thinking strategies in education, learners can be more aware of their own control over their success at tasks. They can also adjust their thinking strategies as they go about their tasks to ensure optimum outcomes.


All references are in APA style:

Brown, A. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of MC. In: Glaser, R. (Ed.), Advances in Instructional Psychology. New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates.

Duell, O.K. (1986). MC skills. In: Phye, G. & Andre, T. (Eds.), Cognitive classroom learning. Orlando Florida: Academic Press.

Flavell, J. (1976). MC aspects of problem-solving. In: Resnick, L. (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231 – 235). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.

Flavell, J. H. (1985). Cognitive development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Flavell, J. H. (1992). Cognitive development: Past, present, and future. Developmental psychology, 28(6), 998-1012.

Forrest-Pressly, D., MacKinnon, G., & Waller, T. (1985). MC, cognition, and human performance. Orlando Florida: Academic Press.

Garner, R. (1987). MC and reading comprehension. New Jersey: Ablex Press.

Livingston, J. A. (2003). Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved from:

Martinez, M. E. (2006). What is metacognition?. Phi delta kappan, 87(9): 696-699.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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