What Is Metacognition?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 10, 2022
5 min read

If you’ve ever experienced frustration with a tough task, thought about why it was making you feel that way, and developed a solution for approaching the project differently, you’ve successfully used metacognition to solve your problem. Metacognition is the ability to think about your thought processes, determine whether or not they’re working for you, and adjust your thinking (and behavior) accordingly.

What would the lack of metacognition look like? How does someone get better at using metacognitive skills? Learn the answer to these questions in the following guide.

Metacognition learning is different than critical thinking. Metacognition is the ability we have to sift through our thoughts, feelings, and responses and determine whether or not they’re serving us and our current situation. Consider the following metacognition examples in daily life. These people are good at using metacognitive skills:

  • They ask themselves “why” when they feel stuck instead of giving up or proclaiming that they “can’t” complete the task.
  • They're able to determine whether they understood what they’ve read (whether it’s a novel, a textbook, or a document at work).
  • They know what they know and what they don’t know, and they’re able to ask appropriate questions to fill in gaps in their knowledge.

Metacognition affects your entire life: your grades in school, your work, your mental health, your relationships, and even your religious beliefs. To break this concept down further, experts believe that metacognitive thought involves two subtypes of thinking.

Attributive metacognition. This type involves your thinking about yourself. Who are you? What are your personality traits, your goals in life, and your style of relating to other people? Turning your analysis inward can help you develop a sense of self and understand your place in the world.

Strategic metacognition. This type of thinking involves monitoring more than evaluating your personality or belief systems. Did you do a good job on that presentation? Why or why not? What could you do differently when studying for your next Spanish exam?

What happens when you’re unaware of the fact that you’re thinking incorrectly? Metacognition can help you see your thought processes clearly and match them with reality — and with what you know about yourself. If you lack the ability to think about your thoughts, it affects your entire life.

Metacognition failure in everyday life. Everyone fails to use “correct” metacognition strategies at times. Consider how the following metacognition failures could turn into negativity and self-criticism when left unchecked:

  • A parent of three young children feels lazy or directionless when, in fact, they’re simply exhausted and struggling with feelings of burnout.
  • A child struggling to speak in English after immigrating to the U.S. assumes they’re unintelligent.
  • An entrepreneur works 70 hours a week and only has a sense of self-worth when the company is succeeding.

Metacognition failure in psychiatric disorders. While there’s much more to psychiatric illness than metacognition psychology, the failure to think about thinking does factor in. Consider the following scenarios in which people with mental illnesses lose the ability to use metacognition:

  • A person with schizophrenia believes that planes flying near their house have been sent to watch them. 
  • A person with bipolar disorder believes that they will not get hurt if they jump off the roof during a manic episode.
  • A person with severe depression believes that they will never feel good again or that they've never felt good. 

It’s easy to see that all of these people are struggling with their metacognitive abilities. They might understand that their mental illness is causing them to think differently about their own thinking — or they might not. Schizophrenia, especially, is usually accompanied by a lack of insight into your own thought processes. 

In these scenarios, a psychiatrist or therapist can aid the person struggling with metacognition due to a mental illness in getting back on track. In fact, it might be impossible for these people to perceive their thoughts correctly without a professional mental health intervention.

A large part of learning is understanding what you don’t know. The more knowledge you gain about a topic, the more swiftly you’ll be able to determine what questions to ask to gain the rest of it. Metacognition in child development allows students to track their progress and assess the way they learn — as opposed to simply storing information for an upcoming exam. Consider the following questions students might ask themselves when working on an assignment:

  • What did I learn from this assignment?
  • How did this class shape my thinking about a particular topic?
  • What beliefs do I hold based on my current understanding of this topic?

Metacognition may seem automatic once you begin thinking this way, but it isn’t intuitive for everyone. Many educational experts recommend overtly teaching metacognition to students at every grade level instead of assuming that students will begin evaluating their own thinking. 

For example, young students could learn to ask themselves questions like, “Where did I get confused during reading?” to begin to figure out a weakness they need to work on. The more often students engage in this type of thinking, the more proficient they will become. In the future, they will learn to ask themselves more complex metacognitive questions.

At its core, metacognition is a problem-solving skill. Some people are naturally talented problem-solvers — but anyone can strengthen their metacognitive muscles. Using metacognition in the workplace might help someone do the following:

  • Understand the amount of effort a project will need — and assign the right employees and timeframe to each task
  • Determine whether they're using the right software, spreadsheet program, or tool for the job
  • Monitor their expectations before speaking to a difficult colleague, boss, or client, and adjust their behavior accordingly
  • Evaluate their own job performance and learn their strengths and weaknesses

Metacognition is a useful mental tool that can help you problem-solve, control your emotional reactions, and plan for the future. Learning to evaluate and alter your thought processes takes practice, but the more you use metacognitive strategies, the stronger your thinking will become.