The Illusion Of Learning: Improving Student Metacognition

Reading time: 4
The Illusion of Knowing Metacognition


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

What do you know about ‘metamemory’ illusion?

If a period of time where teachers are discovering metacognition and cognitive science, what can educators do to help their students become more aware of their own learning, and how best to learn.

Carole L. Yue of Covenant College writes how Improving Learner Metacognition and Self-Regulation as a chapter feature in How We Teach Now (2017). I discovered her paper on ResearchGate and then found the entire PDF book is freely available. I’ve read the paper and offer a summary below.

Helping students learn

Yue writes, “One goal many instructors have is for the students to become better learners; to accomplish this goal, a key skill that students must develop is how to recognise when they need to learn more and what they need to do to complete a task or achieve mastery.”

the ability for teachers to help students become self-aware is called metacognition which you will often hear labelled, ‘thinking about thinking.’ students being able to plan and take the next steps necessary to improve the work.

Perhaps at an implicit level, students engage in a selection of tasks in terms of how they access information. As teachers become more interested in retrieval, spaced and interleaving practice, as they develop a repertoire of skills to help students learn better, teachers need to move more towards helping students become more explicit about the strategies they select too.

Monitoring and control metacognition

“Monitoring and control” are recommended by Yue as processes to help the student form beliefs about their understanding and deciding how to respond. both connected strategies, however, “prone to error.”

Carole Yue offers three illusions about learning.

Illusion 1

The first, “if it is easy to process, then it is easy to learn.” Yue suggests that this is ” one reason that certain less effective study habits are so persistent.” For example, rereading – not effective for long-term retention.

We read over a text for a second time, after reading it for the first time, “so readers may feel overconfident in their knowledge of that tax. As a result, they will be less likely to engage in cognitive processes that actually could promote long-term learning.”

Illusion 2

The second allusion is “if I test myself, I should only do it to assess what I’ve learned.”

Yue writes that after students read the material, “they attempt to test themselves at some point during study. Most students who use this technique do so because they believe it is a means to discovering what they still need to learn.”

Retrieval practices often a valid reason to test oneself, which “may lead students to view testing as a diagnostic tool and not as a means of learning.”

The research recommends students “use this technique more frequently or earlier in the learning process to make full use of its benefits.”

Put simply, the testing effect, or answering a question, is more effective than rereading. more importantly for teachers, “even if the student answers incorrectly (or not at all), it enhances later learning of the information.”

Illusion 3

The final illusion, Yue writes “if I know it now, I will know it later.”

Testing is designed to get the correct answers, however, this approach can lead to “metamemory illusion.” This is a new term for me, but on investigation means conflating learning with performance; something which I already knew. I think it is important for all teachers to make note of ‘metamemory.’

Other terms I am familiar with are ‘the illusion of knowing‘ or ‘stability (or belief) bias’. When a student thinks that they can produce the answer now, they will be able to produce it in the future.

Everyone understands that they forget things, but generally  “do not have a complete sense of how much or how quickly we forget new information.”

I wonder if this can be applied to teaching?

Metacognitive strategies

What does your school do to help improve student metacognition and self-regulation? I’m sure your school does something, but why is this often left until the examination years?

In the paper, there are some strategies which are recommended which I’ve summarised below:

  1. Delay judgements of learning
  2. Use self-testing appropriately
  3. Space out learning
  4. Vary contexts of learning
  5. Set specific goals.

Teachers play a key role in presenting and encouraging metacognitive strategies. Examples offered include:

  1. Recommend unexplained specific strategies
  2. Use retrieval practice in the classroom
  3. Model metacognition
  4. Provide feedback and encourage reflection.


The paper also highlights that “students aren’t the only ones who make metacognitive to errors.”

Teachers make them too!

The example offered is a teacher who is teaching a new subject or a challenging class. I remember having to teach history, media studies and psychology in my teaching career to cover for (A level) classes for a couple of years! It was incredibly challenging; I felt like a new teacher again because I had “a heightened sense of what is challenging.”

This is something that we forget as teachers when we are teaching the same material over and over.

In the same way we ask students to provide feedback on their learning, this research recommends that teachers seek feedback from the students “to hone their metacognitive accuracy and select appropriate learning strategies.”

I suspect some teachers will be uncomfortable with this. I have no idea why; some will believe that the teacher is the fountain of all knowledge whilst others believe that students have nothing to offer in terms of how best to teach. The research gives us something to consider.

The research concludes that “although students are ultimately responsible for their own learning, there are steps a teacher can take to help make students aware of common errors.” This starts with teachers asking them about how they themselves teach, as well as making students aware of how they learn.

4 thoughts on “The Illusion Of Learning: Improving Student Metacognition

  1. The work of Edward de Bono is incredibly valuable in regard to metacognition in education. He has developed a whole set of tools that have been tried and tested worldwide. They are well worth checking out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.