Broadly defined, metacognition is any knowledge or cognitive process that refers to, monitors, or controls any aspect of cognition. Although its historical roots are deep (e.g., James 1890), the study of metacognition first achieved widespread prominence in the 1970s through the work of Flavell (1979) and others on developmental changes in children's cognition about MEMORY ("metamemory"), understanding ("metacomprehension"), and communication ("metacommunication"). Metacognition is now seen as a central contributor to many aspects of cognition, including memory, ATTENTION, communication, PROBLEM SOLVING, and INTELLIGENCE, with important applications to areas like EDUCATION, aging, neuropsychology, and eyewitness testimony (Flavell, Miller, and Miller 1993; Metcalfe and Shimamura 1994). In this sense at least, metacognition is a domain- general facet of cognition.

Although theorists differ in how to characterize some aspects of metacognition (see Schneider and Pressley 1989), most make a rough distinction between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation. Metacognitive knowledge refers to information that individuals possess about their own cognition or cognition in general. Flavell (1979) further divides metacognitive knowledge into knowledge about persons (e.g., knowing that one has a very good memory), tasks (e.g., knowing that categorizable items are typically easier to recall than noncategorizable items), strategies (e.g., knowledge of mnemonic strategies such as rehearsal or organization), and their interactions (e.g., knowing that organization is usually superior to rehearsal if the task involves categorizable items). Although even preschool children have some metacognitive knowledge, marked developmental progress occurs in all these areas and, indeed, continues to be made in adolescence and beyond (e.g., Brown et al. 1983; Schneider and Pressley 1989).

Metacognitive regulation includes a variety of executive functions such as planning, resource allocation, monitoring, checking, and error detection and correction (Brown et al. 1983). Nelson and Narens (1990) divide metacognitive regulation into monitoring and control processes, defined in terms of whether information is flowing to or from the "meta-level." In monitoring (e.g., tracking one's comprehension of material while READING), the meta-level receives information from ongoing, "object-level" cognition, whereas in control (e.g., allocating effort and attention to important rather than trivial material), the meta-level modifies cognition. Again, important developmental advances occur in both these metacognitive processes (e.g., Garner 1987).

Although monitoring may occur without explicit awareness, it often produces, and is in turn affected by, conscious metacognitive experiences (Flavell 1979): for example, the feeling of knowing something but being unable to recall it. Even two-year-olds may have some metacognitive experiences, although older children and adults appear to be much better at interpreting and taking advantage of them (Flavell 1987). An important question concerns whether metacognitive experiences such as feelings of knowing are actually veridical indicators of underlying cognition. This issue has received close attention in recent years in the field of adult cognition (e.g., Metcalfe and Shimamura 1994; Nelson 1992). The findings suggest that the presence or absence of feelings of knowing does predict later recognition memory (see Hart 1965 for the seminal finding). However, although the accuracy of such feelings is typically above chance, it is far from perfect and appears to be somewhat task- dependent. Moreover, the mechanisms underlying feelings of knowing are not yet fully clear: Individuals may have partial access to the unrecalled item, or alternatively, they may simply infer the likelihood of knowing from other related information that is accessible (Nelson 1992).

Metacognitive knowledge and regulation are often closely intertwined. For example, knowing that a task is difficult can lead an individual to monitor cognitive progress very carefully. Conversely, successful cognitive monitoring can lead to knowledge of which tasks are easy and which difficult.

Precisely how metacognitive abilities are acquired is not known, but the process is almost certainly multifaceted. Likely contributors include general advances in self- regulation and reflective thinking, the demands of formal schooling, and the modeling of metacognitive activity by parents, teachers, and peers (see Flavell 1987). A critical precursor to the development of metacognition is the acquisition of initial knowledge about the existence of the mind and mental states (i.e., the development of a THEORY OF MIND). Well established by the end of the preschool years, such knowledge continues to develop in tandem with metacognition throughout middle childhood and adolescence (Moses and Chandler 1992). Somewhat curiously, theory of mind and metacognition are often thought of as separate research domains. Certainly, the two areas of inquiry tend to have different foci: Prototypical theory of mind studies assess younger children's appreciation of the role of mental states in the prediction and explanation of other people's behavior, whereas classical metacognitive studies examine older children's knowledge of mental processes in the self, often in an academic context. Still, no absolute distinction between the two areas should be drawn: Both are centrally concerned with the study of cognition about cognition.

Metacognitive impairments are not limited to very young children. Poor metacognitive skills can also be found in learning disabled and mentally retarded individuals. Conversely, gifted individuals often have excellent metacognitive abilities (Jarman, Vavrik, and Walton 1995) which may be especially evident in domains where they have special expertise (Alexander, Carr, and Schwanenflugel 1995). Some aspects of metacognition may also be deficient in the aged, although whether the impairments are a function of aging or some other factor (e.g., lack of college experience) is not always clear (Nelson 1992). Finally, individuals with frontal lobe damage frequently show metacognitive deficits, whereas those with damage to other parts of the cortex typically do not (Shimamura 1996). For example, frontal lobe patients are often unaware of their cognitive deficits, they lack knowledge of and are impaired in their use of metacognitive strategies, and the accuracy of their feelings of knowing is poor. That the locus of metacognition in the brain might be the frontal lobes should come as no surprise, given the extensive overlap between metacognitive regulation and executive functioning, an aspect of cognition long associated with the prefrontal cortex.

Much of the interest in metacognition derives from the belief that metacognitive skills significantly influence cognitive performance. Of course, many factors are likely to affect behavior in a specific cognitive situation (Flavell, Miller, and Miller 1993), including implicit processes of which the individual is unaware (Reder 1996). Nevertheless, in the case of memory (where the issue has been examined most thoroughly), a moderately high correlation is often found between metamemory and task performance (Schneider and Pressley 1989). The association tends to be stronger for older children, for more difficult tasks, and for certain types of metamemory (e.g., memory monitoring). Not surprisingly, the correlation between metamemory (e.g., strategy knowledge) and strategy use is typically higher than that between metamemory and performance, confirming that the links between metacognition and task success are indeed complex.

Given that metacognitive abilities actually do enhance cognitive performance, their acquisition should have far-reaching educational implications. In this respect, it is encouraging that metacognitive strategies can sometimes be successfully taught (e.g., Brown and Campione 1990). The teaching is most effective if individuals are explicitly taught how a strategy works and the conditions under which to use it, and if they attribute performance gains to the strategy (e.g., Schneider and Pressley 1989). Importantly, it is under these teaching conditions that individuals are most likely to maintain and generalize their newly acquired metacognitive skills.

See also


Additional links

-- Louis J. Moses and Jodie A. Baird


Alexander, J. M., M. Carr, and P. J. Schwanenflugel. (1995). Development of metacognition in gifted children: Directions for future research. Developmental Review 15:1-37.

Brown, A. L., J. D. Bransford, R. A. Ferrara, and J. C. Campione. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J. H. Flavell and E. M. Markman, Eds., Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 3, Cognitive Development. 4th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 77-166.

Brown, A. L., and J. C. Campione. (1990). Communities of learning and thinking, or a context by any other name. In D. Kuhn, Ed., Developmental Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Thinking Skills. Basel: Karger, pp. 108-126.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist 34:906-911.

Flavell, J. H. (1987). Speculations about the nature and development of metacognition. In F. E. Weinert and R. H. Kluwe, Eds., Metacognition, Motivation, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 21-29.

Flavell, J. H., P. H. Miller, and S. A. Miller. (1993). Cognitive Development. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Garner, R. (1987). Metacognition and Reading Comprehension. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Hart, J. T. (1965). Memory and the feeling-of-knowing experience. Journal of Educational Psychology 56:208-216.

James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology, vol. 1. New York: Holt.

Jarman, R. F., J. Vavrik, and P. D. Walton. (1995). Metacognitive and frontal lobe processes: At the interface of cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 121:153-210.

Metcalfe, J., and A. P. Shimamura, Eds. (1994). Metacognition: Knowing about Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moses, L. J., and M. J. Chandler. (1992). Traveler's guide to children's theories of mind. Psychological Inquiry 3:286-301.

Nelson, T. O., Ed. (1992). Metacognition: Core Readings. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Nelson, T. O., and L. Narens. (1990). Metamemory: A theoretical framework and new findings. In G. Bower, Ed., The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, vol. 26. New York: Academic Press, pp. 125-141.

Reder, L. M., Ed. (1996). Implicit Memory and Metacognition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schneider, W., and M. Pressley. (1989). Memory Development between 2 and 20. New York: Springer.

Shimamura, A. P., (1996). The role of the prefrontal cortex in controlling and monitoring memory processes. In L. M. Reder, Ed., Implicit Memory and Metacognition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 259-274.

Further Readings

Borkowski, J. G., M. Carr, E. Rellinger, and M. Pressley. (1990). Self-regulated cognition: Interdependence of metacognition, attributions, and self-esteem. In B. F. Jones and L. Idol, Eds., Dimensions of Thinking and Cognitive Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 53-92.

Brown, A. L., and A. S. Palincsar. (1989). Guided cooperative learning and individual knowledge acquisition. In L. B. Resnick, Ed., Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 393-451.

Duell, O. K. (1986). Metacognitive skills. In G. D. Phye and T. Andre, Eds., Cognitive Classroom Learning: Understanding, Thinking, and Problem Solving. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, pp. 205-242.

Flavell, J. H., and H. M. Wellman. (1977). Metamemory. In R. V. Kail, Jr., and J. W. Hagen, Eds., Perspectives on the Development of Memory and Cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 3-33.

Forrest-Pressley, D. L., G. E. MacKinnon, and T. G. Waller, Eds. (1985). Metacognition, Cognition, and Human Performance, 2 vols. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Garner, R., and P. A. Alexander. (1989). Metacognition: Answered and unanswered questions. Educational Psychology 24:143-158.

Kluwe, R. H. (1982). Cognitive knowledge and executive control: Metacognition. In D. R. Griffin, Ed., Animal Mind-Human Mind. New York: Springer, pp. 201-224.

Markman, E. M. (1981). Comprehension monitoring. In W. P. Dickson, Ed., Children's Oral Communication Skills. New York: Academic Press, pp. 61-84.

McGlynn, S. M., and D. L. Schacter. (1989). Unawareness of deficits in neuropsychological syndromes. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 11:143-205.

Paris, S. G., and P. Winograd. (1990). How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction. In B. F. Jones and L. Idol, Eds., Dimensions of Thinking and Cognitive Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 15-51.

Pressley, M., J. J. Borkowski, and W. Schneider. (1987). Cognitive strategies: Good strategy users coordinate metacognition and knowledge. In R. Vasta and G. Whitehurst, Eds., Annals of Child Development, vol. 5. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 89-129.

Schneider, W., and F. E. Weinert, Eds. (1990). Interactions among Aptitudes, Strategies, and Knowledge in Cognitive Performance. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Schraw, G., and D. Moshman. (1995). Metacognitive theories. Educational Psychology Review 7:351-371.

Schwanenflugel, P. J., W. V. Fabricius, and C. R. Noyes. (1996). Developing organization of mental verbs: Evidence for the development of a constructivist theory of mind in middle childhood. Cognitive Development 11:265-294.

Weinert, F. E., and R. H. Kluwe, Eds. (1987). Metacognition, Motivation, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wellman, H. M. (1983). Metamemory revisited. In M. T. H. Chi, Ed., Trends in Memory Development Research. Basel: Karger, pp. 31-51.

Yussen, S. R., Ed. (1985). The Growth of Reflection in Children. Orlando, FL: Academic Press .