Metacognition: 3 Questions That Matter

In my recent graduate work as well as in my classroom, I read, write, and think about metacognition constantly. I’ve read, heard, and said that “metacognition is thinking about thinking.” That concise statement is handy enough to elicit a few nods and grins, and it is the graduate school equivalent of using the word “hegemony” in an undergraduate Literary Analysis course. It makes you sound smart, and we all want to sound smart.

But I’m ready for more.

So what? What does this have to do with my teaching? How do I actually allow my students to do this? How does one metacognate?

Out of this desire for more came the development of the three most important questions I can ask as a teacher. These questions push my students to reflect upon their learning and they actually lead to thinking about thinking. Even better, the three metacognitive questions are conducive to writing and writing instruction.

What did we do today?

How did we do it?

How did it change your thinking?

The beauty of these questions is that the last one is sneaky. I tell students that it is the ninja question that sneaks up on them. It makes them think even when they were certain they would make it through the day without thinking. That’s right. Sometimes we need to go into ninja teacher mode, and that’s okay.

The first two questions are easy. Students are quite willing to answer these two as they can do so without much thought.

“What did we do today? Easy. We read Act I of Macbeth.”

“What did we do today? No problem. We drafted the first two paragraphs of our argumentative essays.”

“What did we do today? No sweat. We peer-reviewed essays.”

“How did we do it? We wrote in the margins of our books while Mr. G. pretended to be Macbeth on the battlefield.”

“How did we do it? We used the Prewriting #2 handout to connect events in the book to important quotes.”

“How did we do it? We made a ‘Most Common Errors’ list as a class and then followed the checklist.”

My joke is that if you were breathing today in class, you can answer the first two questions. They are the fastballs right down the middle. The low-hanging fruit. I’ve teed up the golf ball for you. Just swing.

The third question is a bit tougher for two reasons. First, students have to fight the impulse to take the easy route. It’s too easy to pretend to be superior and say that the lesson didn’t teach you anything because you already knew it. You are the resident expert on Macbeth and you don’t need some teacher pretending to slice a dude in half on the battlefield in order to understand the play. You already know everything there is to know about argumentation, so you didn’t learn anything today. You’re too cool for school.

But, Anonymous Student, remember that it’s okay to learn. Recognizing that you learned today is not an admission of a weakness. In fact, if you didn’t learn today, then we have a problem. What if you took another look at your answer to that third question to see if you can explain something you learned today?

This is, admittedly, an impulse that only a few of our students have. The vast majority want to learn, and they want to tell us how they did so. So, don’t shy away from the Anonymous Student. Push them further and use your “Holier than Thou” student voice while doing it. It’s not mockery if it prompts metacognition.

The second reason the third “ninja teacher” question offers some hesitancy is because it is

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difficult. Students aren’t asked this question often. We ask them to choose between A, B, C, and D. We ask them for their opinions. We ask them to offer insight into what the author is thinking, saying, and doing. But we are now asking them to reflect upon what they knew before and what they know now based on the near-craziness we offered them in class today. I mean, I know Shakespeare said Macbeth unseamed the guy from the nave to the chops, but did Mr. G. really have to jump on the table to do it?


This is a tougher question, and it needs to be. It’s an important question. We are in full ninja teacher mode and we are asking the question that will prompt the real metacognition.

Some students will take this as an opportunity to explain a flaw in their thinking.

“I used to think Macbeth was the most unstable character, but now I think Lady Macbeth might be even more unstable.”

Others will use the third question to justify something they were considering.

“I was thinking about splitting my counter argument into two paragraphs, and now I see that I definitely need to do that.”

These questions have provided me with a fantastic starting point for prompting metacognition in my class. They offer authentic opportunities for students to reflect upon what they knew, know, and will know. As I proceed, I’m looking forward to seeing how they evolve in my instruction and how I can use them in different settings. Right now, they are the three most important questions I can ask my students.

How do you encourage students to think about their thinking? How do students reflect upon what they knew before they walked into your room and what they know now. You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at

– Matt

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