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Metacognition: Helping Students Know What They Know

question mark photoOne day, I was reviewing with a high school student for a final exam in history. It was rough going; the material was detailed and complex, and this young man’s grasp of the facts and the concepts was poor.

We plowed on for two solid hours, and then he turned to me and floored me with this question: OK, so, do you think I know this stuff?

Isn’t that a remarkable thing to ask? This student couldn’t tell for himself whether or not the hard mental work he had just done had resulted in “knowing.”

But what, indeed, does “knowing” feel like? How do any of us know whether or not we know?

Truthfully, I can’t claim he “knew” the material solidly, though I definitely felt he had improved, and I told him so. (I can also report that he continued to work hard in this difficult history class; he never made As, but he learned a great deal. I’m glad he never switched down into an easier class.)

At least this student was self-aware enough to doubt his understanding, a good sign that he did acquire some knowledge.

The ability to “know what you know” is called metacognition, and it’s one of the big developmental tasks for maturing students. Kids notoriously under-prepare for tests and are overly optimistic about the quality of their writing, and though parents may suspect laziness or lack of motivation, much of the problem is often the student’s fuzzy sense of what “knowing the material” means or what “a good essay” is.

To help develop metacognition,

  • Students should NOT rely on their gut feelings to decide they are ready for a test; they need to actually do a practice test and find out.
  • Students need adults to respond to their writing. Kids are very poor self-editors and have a lot of trouble telling if their writing is “good” or “makes sense.”
  • Adults should give specific feedback. “This sentence is unclear,” “this word doesn’t fit,” “these two ideas don’t connect,” “you need some more facts to back up your claim,” etc.


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Metacognition: Helping Students Know What They Know

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2016). Metacognition: Helping Students Know What They Know. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Apr 2016
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