We often think of studying as just reviewing content repeatedly, in different ways, until it magically just sticks in our head.

But the truth is a little more complex than that.

While repetitively reviewing content does help us learn, there are some deeper cognitive processes help us actually remember content when we study. One such process is the self-reflective activity of metacognition.

Combined with active recall and spaced repetition, metacognition is the secret sauce that allowed Brainscape to develop the world’s most effective flashcard app. It helps you to better internalize the subject you're learning to ensure that you will remember it both for your exams and for the long haul.

In this article, the Brainscape team has condensed decades of cognitive science research into metacognition strategies that will enhance your studying. Let's get to it!

1. What are metacognition strategies?

Metacognition is basically "thinking about your thinking".

Metacognition strategies are a number of processes that we use to plan, monitor our performance, assess our understanding, think critically, problem-solve, and make decisions. It’s also part of the process that we use to regulate our emotions. Another way to think of it, according to Sternberg, is that metacognition is, “figuring out how to do a particular task, and then making sure that the task is done correctly.”

At Brainscape, we’re mostly interested in “retrieval” tasks involved with studying, and in the self-reflection a learner undertakes when assessing his or her confidence in learning a new concept.

2. Why is metacognition important for studying?

It turns out that metacognition is an incredibly important tool for studying, and there are two primary reasons for this:

  1. The first is that metacognition actually creates more neuron pathways in your brain, connecting information. When you ask yourself, “Do I really know this? How well do I know this?” you deepen the learning and increase your chance of remembering the concept.
  2. The second reason metacognition helps you study more effectively is that it makes you better able to strategize how you go about your studying. It helps you make a plan, choose effective study tools, focus on your weaknesses, adopt healthy study habits, and so on.

3. Good students use metacognition strategically

Man playing chess
Use metacognition to create a smart study strategy.

Weaker students tend to have underdeveloped metacognitive skills, which leads to overconfidence in how well they know the material. For example, a weak student might passively highlight a passage of a textbook and think that the yellow color magically means they're going to remember it forever. They may then under-estimate how much time they need to study and review difficult concepts.

A stronger student would instead be able to recognize: "I don't really know this super well; I should probably come back and review this in multiple other ways, using the appropriate effective study techniques for the specific topic."

The stronger student will learn better and probably perform better on tests. But the reason isn’t that they’re smarter or knew the material better to begin with.

Strong students do better because:

  • They are better at identifying what they need to know,
  • They judge what they already know and how well they know it.
  • They use strategies to make a plan to practice their weak points.

Each of these is an example of metacognition.

Students use metacognitive processes to decide what to study, when to study, and how long to study for. It's no wonder that understanding metacognition strategies is essential to studying and learning.

4. Metacognition is also an important life skill

It’s also an important skill for the world more generally; the more you improve your own metacognitive skills, the more you'll recognize applications of metacognition in the real world.

For example, the Dunning-Kreuger effect is the phenomenon where the less people know about a topic, the more of an expert they think they are. In other words, people with low ability often have an inflated sense of their own ability. This is perhaps why Charles Darwin famously observed that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

It also explains why all those terrible singers decided to audition on American Idol—and were shocked when they didn’t make it. This is really just an instance of poorly developed metacognitive skills.

The world's best experts don't necessarily know everything but they have a more acute sense of what they don't know than novices do. Using metacognition could help you identify areas of your work that you need to improve; regulate strong emotions, like anger at a partner; or even develop effective communication skills to support healthy relationships.

The good news is that you can develop your metacognition skills simply by practicing them. More advanced metacognitive skills will help you learn better ... and they might even save you from embarrassing yourself on national TV.

5. Develop metacognition with these 7 tactics

Machine brain to develop metacognition strategies

Here are 7 tactics to improve your metacognition skills to study more effectively.

5.1. Consciously identify what you know and what you don’t

You can guide yourself through metacognitive exercises to improve your knowledge. For example, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What questions do I have? What is confusing me?
  • What has changed about how I understand this topic from before this class to now?
  • Did I understand that last paragraph? Should I read it again?

5.2. Use good questions to guide your study

You can similarly use questions about your learning and understanding to guide your exam preparation. Here are some example questions to help guide your study:

  • What are my weakest areas of knowledge? What are my strongest?
  • What about my exam preparation worked last time, and what didn’t?
  • What would I put on the exam if I were the teacher or professor?
  • What will I need have a conversation at a restaurant in France?
  • What is the most efficient way to study for the bar exam?

5.3. Prepare properly

A popular old adage, often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, says, “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.”

Whether or not Lincoln said it, the saying has merit. Preparation is essential for being successful on any task.

And the act of preparing yourself for a task requires that you plan and you use your metacognitive skills. Not only that but the more you use metacognition strategies to prepare, the more you will develop them.

5.4. Track your performance

Build in a system to monitor your strengths and weaknesses. Understanding where your errors are and how well you understand material helps you more effectively judge your own ability and can help you practice what to focus your study on.

5.6. Seek out feedback.

When novices engage in a task, they wait until the end to see how they do. When experts engage in a task, they consistently check in to see how it’s going. Be like the experts and find out how you’re doing. Then use that feedback to change your work and the way you engage in it. Seeking out feedback and then using the feedback to guide your actions is great way to practice metacognition.

5.7. Keep a diary.

A diary can help you record how difficult a task was or what you’re struggling with. It can help you build self-awareness and practice reflecting on your learning.

6. How Brainscape uses metacognition to enhance your studying

Brainscape Dashboard to Study Navigation

While you can develop your metacognitive skills on your own, some study tools also have metacognition built within their learning system. This helps make metacognition easier to implement in your studies even if you're not intrinsically good at it.

But what’s even better is that they can actually help you improve your metacognitive skills in general. Brainscape's adaptive flashcard app is one study tool that does just that.

Brainscape is a form of retrieval practice where you think of the answer in your head, before flipping the flashcard to see the answer. You then are asked to rate your confidence, on a scale of 1-5, based on how well you think you'd known the answer (rather than just having the app tell you if you were right or wrong).

This very act of assessing your knowledge confidence is a deep form of metacognition that strengthens your new memory trace.

But the best part is that Brainscape uses your metacognitive self-assessment to determine how soon that flashcard will repeat again, applying a refined spaced repetition algorithm. In other words, your confidence ratings tell the app to show you cards you don’t know more often and show you cards you do know less often.

This ongoing self-assessment will allow the app to automatically regulate your ongoing studies so that you focus more time on your biggest weaknesses, while avoiding wasting time on concepts you already know well.

[Go study in Brainscape!]

The even bigger benefit is that you end up improving your metacognitive skills over time. Even if you sometimes over-confidently rate yourself a 4 or a 5 on a card you actually didn't know so well, that's ok, because Brainscape will still repeat those flashcards occasionally. And when they come up next—and you see that the card was already green or blue (4 or 5) but realize that you actually didn't still know the answer—you end up re-calibrating your understanding of the strength of your knowledge going forward.

This recalibration process helps you actually develop your metacognitive skills. So the app not only uses your metacognition to help you study on the material you’re weaker at, but it also helps you get better at metacognition.

7. Study effectively with metacognition

Good students aren’t good because they’re smart. They are good students because they study effectively. Metacognition is an essential part of studying effectively. It helps students:

  • Accurately estimate how much time they need to study.
  • Manage their time time by creating a study plan.
  • Prioritize their studying by focusing on their weaknesses.
  • Adequately prepare for exams and tests.

Metacognitive skills are just that—skills. You can practice and develop them. Brainscape builds this practice right into the application, so that you get better at it with every use, but there are a number of other ways to develop these skills.

The key is to reflect on how you’re learning not just the information you’re trying to remember.

Sources

Dawson, T. L. (2008). Metacognition and learning in adulthood. Northampton, MA: Developmental Testing Service, LLC.

Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one's own ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247-296. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6

Efklides, A. (2006). Metacognition and affect: What can metacognitive experiences tell us about the learning process?. Educational Research Review, 1(1), 3-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2005.11.001

Fleming, S. M. (2014). Metacognition is the forgotten secret to success. Scientific American, September/October 2014, 31–37. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/metacognition-is-the-forgotten-secret-to-success/

National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.

Sadler, P. (2006). The impact of self- and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31.

Sternberg, R. J., & Kagan, J. (1986). Intelligence applied: Understanding and increasing your intellectual skills. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.