GUEST POST: Boosting Metacognition and Executive Functions in the Classroom

GUEST POST: Boosting Metacognition and Executive Functions in the Classroom

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By Heather Branigan and Margarita Kanevski

Margarita is currently pursuing her PhD project at the University of Edinburgh in the division of Psychiatry. Her project, funded by the Carnegie-Caledonian scholarship, is investigating cognitive predictors of mathematics ability in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.   She earned her Master’s degree in Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, funded by the Carnegie-Cameron fund.  Major themes in Margarita’s previous work include exploring the effects of unrealistic television content on executive functions in children, as well as administration of a working memory training intervention in older adults. 

Heather is a PhD student in Psychology and Education at the University of Stirling. Her research investigates how ideas from psychological theory translate into the classroom, with a specific focus on metacognition. Heather’s project is inspired a firm belief that in this ever-changing world, it is critical that students are encouraged to develop key skills that help them to become successful and confident lifelong learners. After completing her psychology honors degree, Heather worked on a project investigating research and impact for REF2014, where she developed an interest in investigating the ‘impact’ of research. Heather is currently creating resources for teachers based around metacognition, and is interested in collaborating with teachers from around the world. She can be found on Twitter at @HeatherBranigan

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During your teaching career, you have probably come across students who can easily complete short, structured, tasks, yet often forget to do their homework or unexpectedly perform poorly on tests. Many psychologists explain this pattern of behavior as arising from students’ difficulties in managing their time, organizing and prioritizing information, monitoring progress, and reflecting on their work (1). Metacognition and executive functions have been identified as key to understanding these critical learning skills.

As researchers, we have noticed that terms such as executive function and metacognition get thrown about at workshops, seminars, and conferences and can become quite a mouthful for straightforward ideas. What might the terms metacognition and executive functions actually mean in your classroom? And what can you do to help students in your class make the most of their learning? This piece aims to provide teachers with a basic toolbox for identifying and enhancing executive functions and metacognition in the classroom.

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

What are executive functions?

Executive functions can be thought of as ingredients that help students to organize their behavior, overcome impulses, achieve future goals, and take control of their own learning.  Lengthy reading, taking notes, and managing long term projects are all supervised by executive functions, as well as day-to-day tasks such as socializing with others and overcoming distractions. Just like an air traffic control system that manages lots of airplanes on lots of runways, students’ minds need to manage a lot of information and avoid distraction (2). Below we highlight the 4 building blocks of executive functions:

  • Inhibitory control helps students suppress automatic impulses that are inappropriate to the task at hand. When doing homework for example, inhibitory control will help the child to avoid procrastination, not rush through homework, and check for mistakes.
  • Working memory helps students juggle information in their brains. It’s responsible for holding relevant information in ‘online’ memory so we can carry out mental tasks. For example, working memory can support students’ ability to take notes while listening to taught material, complete multi-step tasks, and mentally complete math problems.
  • Cognitive flexibility helps students interpret information in more than one way. During classroom practice this process helps students change their approach if the task requires them to do so, and shift attention between different tasks/rules.
  • Planning supports the ability to plan ahead, organize, and prioritize tasks in and out of the classroom. This includes organizing homework in a strategic way (e.g. what is due when and which is more important at this moment in time?). 

What is metacognition?

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

Metacognition is a term used to describe how individuals think about and manage their own thinking (3). Within the classroom, a useful way to think about metacognition is in relation to a learning activity or task, and the things people do before, during and after tasks.

Before tasks, metacognition is thinking about the task ahead of you, and how you are going to approach it. This involves thinking to the past, and what knowledge you have that might help you tackle the task ahead. This knowledge includes what you know about different strategies, including when and why different strategies are useful. Metacognition is using this knowledge and all the information you have about the task, to set yourself goals, and to plan what you are going to do.

During tasks, metacognition is thinking about your progress. Are you stuck? Are you going to achieve your goal if you keep going as you are? Metacognition is using this knowledge to make changes and adapt as you complete the task. Could you tweak things to improve your work? Are there any strategies you could use to help you? For example, could you ask someone for help, or use a tool you have been taught before?

After tasks, metacognition is reflecting on the task by thinking about the process as well as the product: Did you use strategies well? Was your plan useful? Metacognition is using reflection as a tool to develop understanding to take forward into the future: Would you do anything differently next time?

How are metacognition and executive functions related?

To think metacognitively, it is important to hold goals in working memory, inhibit behaviors that don’t help for the current task, and shift attention when adapting strategy – these are all key executive functions (4). In early development, executive functions “might be needed to master metacognitive demands in a task (self-initiated stopping and double-checking: error monitoring and inhibition; shifting strategies: switching; using monitoring for control: updating)” (5). As executive functions and metacognition have traditionally been researched in very different ways, there are lots of opportunities to further understand how they interact during development.

5 Metacognition and Executive Functioning Strategies:

  1. Planning and organizing - Strategies to think ahead and systematically organize material include the use of color coordination or use of folders. For older children, strategies include writing templates that separate different parts of the paragraph (e.g. opening sentence, argument, evidence, concluding sentence).
  2. Memorizing instructions, facts, and methods - These strategies can help to reduce working memory load, so students can focus on the task at hand. Strategies include breaking instructions up step by step, and using memory aids such as useful spellings or multiplication tables (6).
  3. Checking and correcting errors - Strategies to encourage monitoring and control include personalized checklists in the form of acronyms for most common errors (e.g., writing or math errors). For example, the STOPS checklist reminds students to check Sentence structure, Tenses, Organization, Punctuation and Spelling (7).
  4. Flexibly shifting mind set - These strategies can support students to more efficiently learn new information by shifting attention and adapting. Strategies include pausing to explore meanings in riddles or newspaper headlines, swapping pens when editing written material and self-questioning – Do you know another way to solve this problem? Is this like a problem you have solved before?
  5. Reflection – strategies for reflection can be embedded throughout everyday tasks. For example, writing down estimated versus actual time for homework completion for each of assignment can help students reflect on their time-management abilities. 

No matter what strategy you focus on, it is important to:

  1. Be Explicit - Being explicit and concrete about learning strategies makes the learning process visible and develops the language for learning (8).
  2. Be a role model – modeling is critical for making the thinking process clear (9). A way to model metacognition is to emphasize the process of monitoring progress through self-questioning, noticing an error in work, and then flexibly adapting strategy.
  3. Embed and consolidate - students need to practice these skills throughout everyday tasks. For example, mini plenaries can be ideal opportunities to encourage students to monitor their own progress. Structured activities such as learning logs can act as platforms to reflect more widely on developing skills.


(1) Meltzer, L. (Ed.). (2011). Executive function in education: From theory to practice. Guilford Press.

(2) Welsh, M. C., Friedman, S. L., & Spieker, S. J. (2006). Executive Functions in Developing Children: Current Conceptualizations and Questions for the Future. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), Blackwell handbooks of developmental psychology. Blackwell handbook of early childhood development (pp. 167-187).

(3) Branigan, H.E. and Donaldson, D. I. (in review) I think therefore IAM: Characterising Metacognition throughout the Learning Process with the Iterative Account of Metacognition.

(4) Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Executive functions and self-regulation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16, 174-180.

(5) Roebers, C. M. (2017). Executive function and metacognition: Towards a unifying framework of cognitive self-regulation. Developmental Review.

(6) Alloway, T.P. and Gathercole, S.E. (2006). How does working memory work in the classroom? Educational Research and Review, 1, 134–139.

(7) Meltzer, L., Pollica, L., Barzillai, M., & Meltzer, L. (2007). Executive function in the classroom: Embedding strategy instruction into daily teaching practices. Executive function in education: From theory to practice, 165-193.

(8) Paris, S. G., & Paris, A. H. (2001). Classroom applications of research on self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 36, 89-101.

(9) Wall, K., & Hall, E. (2016). Teachers as metacognitive role models. European Journal of Teacher Education39, 403-418.