Metacognitive Practices

Photo credit: Theresa Malin, Education Specialist in Transfusion Medicine at Mayo Clinic

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of how an individual thinks and learns. Research has shown there are specific strategies that can be used to enhance an individual’s ability to learn and retain information. People who utilize metacognition know which learning strategies are right for them and how to plan their learning process.

Reflective practice is a metacognitive strategy that involves purposeful recall of prior knowledge or experiences. This activity helps the brain to create a new neural pathway for pulling a memory into consciousness, which makes retention stronger. For example, after demonstrating a task or process, ask the learner: What were the critical steps or key points to remember? The learner can recall what they read in the procedure as well as what they heard and saw when you demonstrated the task. They can also recall and review prior knowledge and experiences to determine how this task relates to those experiences. Based on the learner’s response, any knowledge gaps can be identified and addressed.

Reflective practice can also be used as a self-assessment tool. Either the trainer or the learner can initiate this self-assessment at any time by asking the following questions:

What went right? This question can be helpful to identify learners who have overestimated their abilities as well as learners with low self-confidence. The term “illusion of competency” is often used to describe learners who believe they know more and/or are performing better than they actually are. After listening to the learner’s self-assessment, the trainer can provide specific feedback that compares the learner's actual performance to the desired levels of performance. Conversely, for the learner who has low self-confidence, the trainer can reinforce all the things the learner is doing correctly and enhance his or her confidence.

Next, ask these questions: What went wrong? What’s missing (knowledge/skills)? These questions encourage the learner to reflect on what went wrong and why. Was it due to a knowledge gap, skills that need further development, a lapse in attention, or a combination of factors?

Finally, ask the learner: What will you do differently next time? This encourages the leaner to work either independently or collaboratively with his/her trainer to create a personal action plan to improve future performance.

If you would like to learn more about metacognition, read the book, Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.

Also, read these infographics on specific metacognitive strategies:


Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick. Harvard University Press.

Deb Hagen Moe

Deb Hagen-Moe is an Education Coordinator in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic. Deb has a variety of experience in education, with a focus on quality, training modules, and building professional skills.