Why do kids make seemingly ‘careless’ mistakes? While adults may assume it’s simply a matter of not listening, sometimes it’s about a failure of metacognition.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is often defined as ‘thinking about thinking’. But what, exactly, does that mean? Metacognition has two parts: It is an awareness of our own cognitive processes – knowing and understanding our own thoughts – but also planning, monitoring, and evaluating our thinking processes.

More on metacognition
Thinking about thinking

To understand more about how metacognition can help children learn, I ask Alicia Forsberg, a Lecturer in Cognitive and Developmental Psychology at the University of Sheffield, to explain. “Metacognition is a skill that plays an important role in learning different types of materials in a variety of subjects,” Forsberg tells me. Teaching children to use metacognitive skills and regulate their learning is considered a very high-impact approach to improving children’s school grades.

Helping children develop and use metacognition

How does a failure of metacognition lead to careless mistakes? Forsberg describes an aspect of metacognition called meta-memory, which is “the awareness of and control we have over what we remember and what we’ve forgotten”. Children are less aware than adults of the limitations to their own memories, and may not recognise the possibility that they have forgotten something, Forsberg says. So a child who fails to complete a task may have forgotten the instruction, and not realise that it has been forgotten.

Forsberg’s research has found that children tend to believe that if they don’t remember seeing something, it was never there at all. In contrast, when adults don’t remember having seen something, they know it’s possible they have forgotten it.

“Children are less aware than adults of the limitations to their own memories.”

The good news is that educators and caregivers can help children become more aware of their memory’s limitations. Forsberg suggests asking children what they remember about the instructions for a given task. “Explain that even if they think the instructions were easy to remember, they may still have forgotten something, so double-checking the instructions is a good idea.” She adds that a quiz or a ‘brain dump’ prompting children to describe what they learned in a lesson can help them realise that not everything has stuck in their memory. This can also draw children’s attention to specific areas they need to focus on.

Independence through metacognition

When children develop a better awareness of their own memory skills, they can use that information to tailor their learning. That insight might encourage students to pause and rewind a video they are learning from, or to look back at their notes, Forsberg tells me. As children differ in their metacognitive skills, some require more support than others in developing their meta-memory. They may need reminding more often that it’s a good idea to review crucial information that may have been forgotten.

While there is strong evidence that helping children use their metacognition improves attainment, Forsberg notes that further research is needed to determine exactly how metacognitive skills should be taught to achieve the biggest impact on learning.

It’s complicated, she says, because there are so many possible approaches to improving children’s metacognition, and so many types of learning material. What’s more, children respond in different ways, so what works for one child may not work for another.

“Helping children to develop metacognitive skills can give them independence and agency in their own learning.”

Helping children to develop metacognitive skills can give them independence and agency in their own learning. If they understand their own thinking skills, they should be able to help themselves learn more effectively – and avoid those seemingly careless mistakes. As Forsberg points out, better metacognitive skills can help children achieve their learning goals, whether that means remembering the definition of a scientific concept, learning how to pronounce a foreign word, or mastering a grammatical rule.

Tips for improving children’s metacognition
• Ask children what they remember about the instructions they have been given and highlight what they have forgotten.
• Remind children that it’s a good idea to double-check instructions in case they have forgotten something.
• Give children a quiz or a ‘brain dump’ exercise, prompting them to describe what they have learned. Point out what they’ve forgotten and encourage them to use that as a basis for revision.

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