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Self-regulation concerns the extent to which learners are aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and the strategies they use to learn.

In their guidance report, the EEF (2018) state that cognition and metacognition are important parts of self-regulation.


Simply put, cognition is thinking. It’s the mental process of knowing, understanding and learning (EEF, 2018). A good way to understand what cognition is, is to think of it as pupils thinking through a cognitive strategy. Pupils will learn many cognitive strategies when at school, and they will be subject specific. For example, if in maths pupils need to solve multiplication, they might have different cognitive strategies for doing so, such as using times tables, the box method, or long multiplication. These different strategies for solving multiplication are the pupils’ cognitive strategies that they draw upon when working independently to solve problems. All these strategies are important for the pupil to know. However, the pupil needs to understand which strategy would be best to apply when solving different problems. For example, using times table facts to solve 7 x 8 would be efficient, but using times table facts alone to solve 1365 x 189 would be much more challenging. Pupils need to decide which strategies they should use and when. That’s where metacognition comes in.


Simply put, this is pupils’ thinking about their thinking (EEF, 2018). When approaching any task, pupils do so with metacognitive knowledge about:

  • What the activity is asking them to do
  • What cognitive strategies they could use
  • Their own abilities and attitudes - knowledge of themselves as a learner

When undertaking a learning task, pupils start with this knowledge, then apply and adapt it. This is metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive regulation

Metacognitive regulation is when pupils plan, monitor and evaluate their thinking using their metacognitive knowledge. The diagram below helps to illustrate this process:

Diagram showing how metacognitive regulation occurs as a cyclical process. Pupils use their metacognitive knowledge to plan their cognitive strategy. Then they will monitor this strategy during use and evaluate it after, therefore improving their metacognition.


When approaching a task, effective metacognitive learners have knowledge of what the task is asking them to do, knowledge of the cognitive strategies they could use, and knowledge of their own ability. They should use this information to plan the best cognitive strategy to use.


When using a specific cognitive strategy during a task, pupils should monitor how effective that cognitive strategy is. If they find it unsuccessful, then they should try a different cognitive strategy.


Once pupils have completed the task, they should evaluate how successful they were, so they know which strategies to use next time. By doing this, they begin to learn from their own experiences and refine their approach to completing similar tasks.


To help make this clear, let’s link back to session 1 and the maths example we explored when thinking about avoiding working memory overload. Imagine a pupil has been set the question of solving 1365 x 189. Effective learners will apply metacognitive regulation whilst answering that question. An example of their metacognitive thinking is shown below:

Step 1: planning

First, the pupil examines the question. They can see it’s multiplication from the operator symbol used. They know they are good at their times tables, so they decide to use their times tables to work it out.

Step 2: monitoring

Second, when using their times tables, they become a little confused about which numbers they have multiplied and which numbers they still have left. They think they need to add some amounts together but are unsure. They realise that the strategy isn’t very successful, so attempt to use long multiplication instead. They find this strategy much easier because they can keep track of which numbers they have already multiplied, and they are able to complete the question.

Step 3: evaluating

After the task, they reflect on their initial approach and decide that when trying to multiply large numbers, they will use long multiplication rather than their times tables.


In the above example, the pupil has been able to self-regulate their learning. They were able to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses when completing a task and, as a result, identified which strategy is most successful for them when multiplying large numbers together. When they come across a similar problem in the future, they can use what they have learned to inform their choice of cognitive strategy. This will refine their ability to solve these types of question.

As you progress through the modules in this programme, sessions will return to the concept of self-regulation and metacognition several times. As you revisit and retrieve these concepts, the content within the modules will help build your knowledge of strategies that you can use to support the development of metacognition in your pupils.

The importance of subject knowledge

"Self-regulated learning and metacognition have often been found to be context-dependent, so how you best plan in Key Stage 2 art may have significant differences to planning strategies in GCSE maths.

This means that a pupil who shows strong self-regulated learning and metacognitive competence in one task or subject domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may or may not be effective, depending on the specific task, subject, or problem tackled."

(EEF, 2018, page 24)

Pupils cannot use metacognition if they do not have a good understanding of the subject upon which the task is based. For example, if pupils do not understand what multiplication is, or only have one strategy to solve a multiplication problem, they will not be able to implement metacognitive regulation. In order to evaluate how successful a cognitive strategy is, pupils need to have sufficient knowledge of the strategy itself. They also need alternative strategies they can draw upon when one doesn’t work. For expert learners, cognition and metacognition become largely unconscious and automatic, but in novice learners they are not. Therefore, it is important that teachers support pupils to use cognitive and metacognitive strategies in all subjects across the curriculum. This is something that will be explored further with your mentor in your next session and will be explored in different modules throughout the programme.