Metacognition in Primary

28 May 2018

Author: Aidan Severs

Sir Kevan Collins introduces the EEF’s latest guidance report on metacognition and self-regulated learning with these words:

‘…with a large body of international evidence telling us that when properly embedded these approaches are powerful levers for boosting learning, it’s clear that we need to spend time looking at how to do this well.’

And if the focus here is on embedding and spending time on metacognitive approaches then there are surely strong implications for primary schools. In order for these learning habits (which research says are highly effective) to be embedded, we who are involved in primary education should be thinking about our role in their early development.

The authors of the report have identified several misconceptions surrounding metacognition and self-regulated learning. The first of these misconceptions is that Metacognition is only developed in older pupils.

Keen to quell this myth they summarise:

‘We know from research… that children as young as three have been able to engage in a wide range of metacognitive and self-regulatory behaviours, such as setting themselves goals and checking their understanding. They also show greater accuracy on tasks they have chosen to accept than on tasks they would have preferred to opt out of.

There is clear evidence that the level of security and self-knowledge remains rather inaccurate until about eight years of age, with children being over-optimistic about their levels of knowledge. However, although older children typically exhibit a broader repertoire of metacognitive strategies, the evidence suggests that younger children do typically develop metacognitive knowledge, even at a very early age.’

So whilst the EEF’s clarification on this issue is not without its caveats, the deliberate development of metacognitive and self-regulatory behaviours in our primary-aged children certainly would seem to be beneficial.

With that in mind, some definitions of the key terms will be useful if primary teachers and leaders are going to commit to developing these learning habits:

Metacognition: ‘the ways learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning.’

Self-regulation: ‘Self-regulation is about the extent to which learners… are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn. It describes how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to enhance their learning and to improve.’

An example of metacognition and self-regulation from primary: After receiving feedback on a piece of written work a child knows that he forgot to put full stops to show where some of his sentences ended (he shows metacognitive knowledge of his own abilities). The next time he comes to write something he remembers his teacher’s feedback. He also knows that when he writes, he often gets carried away with his ideas so he decides that, in order to remember full stops, he’ll make himself stop regularly in order to check his work for any missing punctuation (he shows metacognitive knowledge of how he might improve). He also decides to check his work at the end as well before he shows it to his teacher. He demonstrates self-regulation by knowing his weaknesses and trying out strategies to improve.

Metacognitive strategies: ‘The strategies we use to monitor or control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate or selecting the most appropriate cognitive strategy for the task we are undertaking.’

An example of metacognitive strategy from primary: A child has been shown how to use techniques for successfully joining two pieces of clay together. When they come to create a cup which has a handle they think to themselves, what do I know about joining two pieces of clay together so that they won’t come apart when dry? This is the planning stage. Whilst working, they monitor their progress by asking themselves, did I remember to score both pieces of clay and did I use water when I joined the handle to the cup? Is it holding together so far? Once the piece of work has dried they return and evaluate their work asking themselves, did my technique work?

The first recommendation in the guidance report is that teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge. The guidance report is a great place to begin gaining this professional understanding and there are further resources on the EEF toolkit page for metacognition and self-regulation ( However, the final recommendation is that schools should support teachers to develop knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately. Primary school leaders have to ensure that the responsibility for the guidance report’s first recommendation doesn’t just fall on individual teachers. Where this does happen, there will be no embedding of the approaches, and the work of individual teachers will be less effective in the long-run. There needs to be a whole school approach to developing metacognition and self-regulated learning in the primary phase.

Bradford Research School provide training linked to the new guidance report. On Monday 9th July Alex Quigley will be delivering a workshop on the metacognition guidance report from 4-6 pm at St Francis Catholic Primary School. You can sign up to attend here.

If you are after more proof that metacognition and self-regulation has a place in the primary classroom then look no further than the other recommendations of the guidance report:


  • Teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning
  • Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills
  • Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition
  • Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom
  • Explicitly teach pupils how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently

Whilst a minority might take issue with the two recommendations featuring more direct, explicit teaching, it is clear that this is well-balanced by ways of working that will need to be woven into the routines of the school day, regardless of time or subject.

In addition to this, there are elements of all of the recommendations that we would recognise as already being a key part of our primary practice: children are taught to plan writing; teachers model their inner thoughts aloud as they read the class novel; teachers spend lots of time ensuring that children are appropriately challenged; primary schools very much value the importance of discussion in the classroom; and most primary teachers would agree that one goal of education is reaching an age-appropriate degree of independence.

So for most primary teachers, adopting the practices suggested in the guidance report will have two main implications. They will need to:

  • Improve their knowledge of what metacognitive and self-regulated learning is and which strategies work
  • Adapt their current practice to ensure that children are given opportunities to begin to develop as self-regulated learners

The reward for teachers who do this? They will have a class full of children who are motivated to learn, confident and able to persevere when the going gets tough:

‘The most effective learners will have developed a repertoire of different cognitive and metacognitive strategies and be able to effectively use and apply these in a timely fashion. They will self-regulate and find ways to motivate themselves when they get stuck. Over time, this can further increase their motivation as they become more confident in undertaking new tasks and challenges.’

For more resources about metacognition and self-regulated learning please see:


Getting Started with Metacognition

Self Regulation:

Combining Writing and Self-Regulation Strategies

Early Years Toolkit: Self Regulation Strategies

Self Regulation: Calm, Alert and Learning

Posted on 28 May 2018
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