Metacognition refers to the mental processes we use when we reflect on and try to influence our own thinking, including the ways we learn. Metacognition starts with efforts to become conscious of how we typically learn and think about things. Knowing about our own typical approaches to thinking and learning can help us understand what’s happening whenever we are trying to learn something new.

For example, I know that I learn best by hearing or reading about something, spending time reflecting on it, and then writing about it. Other people might process ideas differently, perhaps preferring first to see a video, then to discuss the ideas with others, and then to reflect on them. Not only can we learn about our preferred approaches to handling new information, we can also learn about our attention span, ability to concentrate when there are distractions, favorite writing strategies, most efficient way to memorize facts, and so on.

Once we understand our typical methods of thinking and learning, we can use these methods more intentionally—as learning strategies. For instance, when I’m tempted to take a shortcut by skimming a reading passage rather than reading it in depth, it helps to remind myself that I often forget written information that I just skim. It’s more efficient in the long run for me to invest the time up front by reading the passage carefully the first time around. But what works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for others.

Metacognition also allows us to change our learning strategies to make them more effective and efficient. We can make changes to how we learn at all stages of the learning process—the planning stage, the actual learning stage, and the reflection stage. In fact, one of the most useful steps a learner can take is to become more intentional about planning for learning and reflecting about it.

As a paraprofessional, understanding your own thinking is important because your work always involves learning new skills, getting to know new students, and working with unfamiliar people. Equally important are efforts you can make to help students learn about their own learning. You can help them plan their learning in ways that make it more meaningful. You can help them monitor their learning by getting into the habit of asking themselves questions (e.g., which ideas in this lesson seem clear and which still need clarification). And you can help them evaluate their learning by testing themselves and applying what they recently learned to new situations.

Research shows that helping students become better at using metacognitive strategies also helps them improve “Executive Functions” such as goal-setting, controlling impulses, and using thought processes in flexible ways. So the benefits of teaching metacognitive strategies include not just improved academic performance but also increased emotional self-regulation and creative output.