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How Metacognition Works in Unexpected Places

By Shane Peek - Greenville County Schools


Recently, my electricity bill left me bewildered. It was a mammoth $600, and in the quest to solve this budget-blowing mystery, a friend with HVAC expertise came to my rescue. While examining my cooling system, he revealed the hidden truth—a heating element was running constantly, which warmed the O2 that my air conditioner was diligently cooling. The thermostat was caught in a loop of confusion, causing the AC to work overtime. It was a classic case of a negative feedback loop.

As we crawled around the dark, dusty crawl space and closely examined my unit, my friend demonstrated a technique as familiar to me as the classroom routines I'd followed for years—metacognition. He verbalized his thoughts, dissected the problem, and explored potential solutions out loud. In essence, he was thinking about his own thinking, just like we want our students to do.

After the sting of the power bill left, the parallels between my HVAC saga and the classroom intrigued me. The unfortunate experience served as a reminder that metacognition is a powerful tool beyond the classroom, a skill with real-world applications.

The Case for Metacognition

So what is metacognition and why is it an important skill for our students? Simply put, metacognition is an awareness of one’s thought process. It is a powerful strategy for problem-solving, and similar to the voice in our head that talks us through problems and solutions. To dig deeper, I recommend exploring this insightful article from Edutopia, which speaks to the importance of metacognition and student learning.  Challenging students to develop this voice is critical for resiliency, autonomy, and long-term success.

  1. Encourages Active Exploration

Just as my friend’s vocal pondering allowed him to identify points of confusion and potential solutions, when we model metacognition and challenge students to use this strategy, they learn to articulate their own thought processes.  They are forced to reconsider misconceptions or errors and as they engage in this internal dialogue, learning becomes active exploration.

  1. Development of Positive Self-Regulation

The challenge of monitoring one’s process while working toward a solution requires self-regulation.  Yes, you could give up along the way, but with the help of a positive internal voice, students chart their course, celebrate small victories, monitor progress, and learn to achieve larger goals.  Small opportunities to develop these skills successfully, in a safe classroom, allows students to develop individual autonomy and leads to an increase in motivation and grit down the road.

  1. Seamless Transfer of Knowledge and Skills

I could be wrong, but, ultimately, one of the most important goals as educators is that our students apply their learning in new, unique situations.  Math skills may be applied in personal finance in adulthood, while exploring pH in science may be applied to gardening, but beyond today’s standards, we also hope our students learn transferable skills. In my opinion, metacognition paves the way for this transfer of knowledge or skills and enables students to adapt to unfamiliar terrain, applying critical thinking and problem-solving in the future.

A Process for Metacognition

I’ll admit - I love acronyms.  My classroom was full of quirky phrases to help make content sticky and memorable for my students.  So, how can we teach our students to be metacognitive thinkers, and is there an acronym we can use to our advantage?  Here’s my suggestion: Check your PULSE. (Let me also give a shoutout to Mrs. Connie Singleton-Murphy who always stopped by to “check my pulse” when I was a young teacher barely surviving.)

  • P - Problem Identification: This stage involves clearly speaking and defining the problem at hand.  Questions students may ask are: What is the problem? What am I truly being asked to do? What is not working in the environment around me?  What needs a solution?

  • U - Understand: After defining their focus, students shift to their current understanding and may ask the following questions: What do I know about the problem at hand?  What prior experiences or knowledge will help me in this moment? What tools or resources do I have available?  What resources will help me learn more about this problem?

  • L - List Solutions and Brainstorm: Internal/external dialogue now shifts to listing possible ideas for solutions or steps required to obtain a solution.  Questions students may consider are: What next steps can I take? Are there multiple options to solving this problem? 

  • S - Step Forward and Solve: This phase requires us to move beyond our thoughts and the list, evaluate our options, and take action.  In the classroom and the real world, this phase can be intimidating, but it’s also liberating to take steps toward a solution.

  • E - Evaluate and Reflect: Sometimes working simultaneously with phase S, in this stage, our brains evaluate and reflect.  Did I solve the problem?  Are there revisions I need to make? Did I answer the question with clarity? How can I improve if I face this challenge again?

Next Steps and Practical Ideas

Let us now consider a few practical strategies or techniques for crafting a metacognitive classroom:

  1. Think-Aloud: Challenge students to independently vocalize their thinking while solving a simple or complex problem. This could even be a multiple-choice question for an upcoming assessment.  Challenge students to walk through the PULSE process and verbalize their journey.

  2. Journaling: I’ll admit, as a former science teacher, I was never much for journaling in the classroom. However, as an adult, I see the process and power of using this strategy to develop metacognitive skills.  In some ways, the pen (or keys) serve as a metacognition mirror, allowing us to brain-dump our thoughts and sort through the confusion.

  3. Your Turn, My Turn: What if we encouraged students to have a collaborative discussion when solving a problem?  Students could take turns sharing their thinking and sharing their thoughts as they take steps toward solving a problem.  This conversation could stimulate introspection and positive discourse.  This exceptional resource from Shifting Schools details various prompts that would be perfectly suited for this strategy.

  4. Goal Setting Session: Challenge students to establish and define a clear objective, then outline the path toward reaching this goal.  Perhaps during a weekly homeroom period, students can evaluate and report their progress to a classmate, mentor, or teacher.  Encouraging students to articulate their dreams and plan actionable steps not only nurtures the development of metacognition but can build transformative lifelong practices.

Still looking for a few resources for your toolbox?  I recommend this article for STEM educators and this video from Cambridge University on the topic.

In closing, while my hefty electricity bill was unfortunate, it did lead to serious reflection on the importance of metacognition beyond the four walls of the classroom.  Truly, the art of thinking about thinking not only holds transformative power in our classroom, but also empowers students to conquer future challenges in life and emerge as self-directed, resilient, and empowered thinkers. 


About the Author

Shane serves as an Instructional Technology Facilitator with Greenville County Schools where he irons the capes of the true superheroes (teachers). As just one member of a dynamic team, his mission is to grow and equip teachers through professional development, co-teaching, model lessons, growth cycles, and one-on-one brainstorming sessions. To learn more, reach out to Shane by email at or follow him on LinkedIn or X (Twitter) @ShaneRPeek.



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