2 Metacognition and Stages of Learning

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Metacognition is one of the distinctive characteristics of the human mind that enables us to reflect on our own mental states. It is defined as “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” or “thinking about thinking.”[1] Metacognition is reflected in many day-to-day activities, such as when you realize that one strategy is better than another for solving a particular type of problem, or when you are able to recognize how your own experiences and perspectives may impact how you understand, react to, or judge certain situations.[2]

Metacognition includes two clusters of activities: knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.[3] Metacognitive knowledge refers to a person’s knowledge or understanding of cognitive processes. In other words, it is the ability to think about what you know and how you know it. This includes knowledge about your own strengths and limitations, as well as factors that may interact to help or hinder your learning. Metacognitive regulation builds on this knowledge and refers to a person’s ability to regulate cognitive processes during problem-solving. You use metacognitive knowledge to make decisions about how to approach new problems or how to effectively learn new information and skills. This involves using various self-regulatory mechanisms like planning ahead, monitoring your progress, and evaluating your own efficiency and effectiveness in learning a task.[4]

To give a concrete example of these metacognitive activities, let’s apply them to how you study for an exam. Knowing that your cell phone’s notifications tend to distract you from studying is an example of metacognitive knowledge: you are aware of your phone’s potential to hinder your learning. Metacognitive regulation requires you to take action based on this knowledge and would involve you making the conscious decision to put your cell phone where you cannot see or hear it or to turn it off completely, while you study. In doing so, you regulate your use of your phone to help yourself be more successful in preparing for your exam.

Stages of the Learning Process

We said earlier that metacognitive knowledge involves thinking about the cognitive process, about what you know and how you know it. An important first step in developing metacognitive knowledge about yourself as a learner is to develop an awareness of how we learn new things. Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggling, it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: This will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don’t know what you don’t know yet. During this stage, a learner mainly shows interest in something or prepares for learning. For example, if you wanted to learn how to dance, you might watch a video, talk to an instructor, or sign up for a future class. Stage 1 might not take long.
  2. Conscious incompetence: This stage can be the most difficult for learners because you begin to register how much you need to learn—you know what you don’t know. This is metacognition at work! Think about the saying “It’s easier said than done.” In stage 1 the learner only has to discuss or show interest in a new experience, but in stage 2, he or she begins to apply new skills that contribute to reaching the learning goal. In the dance example above, you would now be learning basic dance steps. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice.
  3. Conscious competence: You are beginning to master some parts of the learning goal and are feeling some confidence about what you do know. For example, you might now be able to complete basic dance steps with few mistakes and without your instructor reminding you how to do them. Stage 3 requires skill repetition, and metacognition helps you identify where to focus your efforts.
  4. Unconscious competence: This is the final stage in which learners have successfully practiced and repeated the process they learned so many times that they can do it almost without thinking. At this point in your dancing, you might be able to apply your dance skills to a freestyle dance routine that you create yourself. However, to feel you are a “master” of a particular skill by the time you reach stage 4, you still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. For example, if you now felt confident in basic dance skills and could perform your own dance routine, perhaps you’d want to explore other kinds of dance, such as tango or swing. That would return you to stage 1 or 2, but you might progress through the stages more quickly this time since you have already acquired some basic dance skills.[5]

Take a moment to watch the following video by Kristos called The Process of Learning. As you watch, consider how painful it can be—literally!—to learn something new, but also how much joy can be experienced after it’s learned. Note that the video has no audio.

You can see that the skater, through repeated practice, must identify where he is going wrong, what he is doing that prevents him from landing the skill. Over time, he is able to isolate the problems and gradually correct them, until he is ultimately successful in mastering the new trick.


This chapter contains material taken from “Chapter 6: Theories of Learning” by Jazzabel Maya, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

  1. Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 10906-911.
  2. Hussain, D. (2015). Meta-Cognition in Mindfulness: A Conceptual Analysis. Psychological Thought, 8(2), 132-141. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5964/psyct.v8i2.139
  3. Cross, D. R., & Paris, S. G. (1988). Developmental and instructional analyses of children’s metacognition and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(2), 2131-142. Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 10906-911.
  4. Cross, D. R., & Paris, S. G. (1988). Developmental and instructional analyses of children’s metacognition and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(2), 2131-142. Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. (2006). Promoting self-regulation in science education: Metacognition as part of a broader perspective on learning. Research in Science Education, 36(1-2), 1-2111-139.
  5. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." DavidMansaray.com. 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016.


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