Metacognition: Components and Characteristics

Do you ever think about how you think or have particular thoughts about your thoughts? This ability to think about yourself is called metacognition. Keep reading to discover more about this fascinating aspect of the human mind.
Metacognition: Components and Characteristics

Last update: 21 April, 2019

Although the term metacognition is complex, you could summarize it as knowledge of knowledge itself. In other words, the ability to know and regulate how you think and what the conscious control of cognitive processes such as memory, attention, and understanding encompasses.

The study of metacognition began with epistemologist and cognitive psychologist J. Flavell and English anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson. The latter focused his research on metacognition in animals.

Metacognition is higher-level thinking in which you’re the object in question. That’s where the prefix “meta” comes from. Metacognition allows you to evaluate executive processes and make changes to improve.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples that make it easier to understand. Let’s say you’re reading something and suddenly stop to ask yourself if you understood what you read. You realize that you didn’t, so you read it again. That’s metacognition. Another example is when you’re trying to solve a problem and realize that the mental strategy you’re using isn’t working, so you switch to another.

The Two Sides of Metacognition

One important thing to understand about metacognition is that it’s a multi-faceted concept. You can discuss metacognition from different perspectives. One way is to understand it from the content of the metacognition and the other from the perspective of the metacognitive process.

Consequently, there’s a difference between metacognition as metacognitive knowledge and metacognition as metacognitive control. Next, we’ll explain these two perspectives and what they mean.

Characteristics of metacognition.

Metacognitive knowledge

This term refers to what people know about their own cognitive processes and those of other people. This perspective refers to the aspects of the content or knowledge. It’s declarative knowledge that you practice when you think about your intellectual capacity, learning abilities, or memory.

This type of knowledge has the following characteristics:

  • It’s relatively stable, like an intuitive model of knowledge and how knowledge works.
  • Observable and communicable (you can access the knowledge to reflect on it and talk about it).
  • Fallible. It can lead to mistaken reasoning and incorrect ideas.
  • Late-developing. This type of knowledge appears in the last stages of development because it requires the ability to make abstractions.

Metacognitive knowledge is made up of three components:

  • Personal variables. The knowledge of yourself as a thinker and learner. That is, of your abilities and experiences as you carry out different tasks. For example, thinking about how you’re better at math than sports or that you’re better at remembering names than your friend.
  • Task variability. Refers to the knowledge you have about objectives and all the characteristics that relate to their difficulty. For example, knowing that studying requires a lot more effort than reading a book.
  • Strategic variables. Refers to the knowledge of the means that can help you execute a task. It involves understanding the declarative, procedural, and conditional tasks of applicable strategies.

Metacognitive control

Metacognitive control refers to the active supervision and consequent regulation and organization based on the processes that act in a given moment. In other words, it refers to the ability to be attentive to possible failures and act accordingly to reduce them. It’s important to understand that the cognitive process plays a role before, during, and after the task in question.

Metacognitive control has the following characteristics:

  • It isn’t stable. Metacognitive control is associated with cognitive activity, meaning it depends on the situation and the concrete task.
  • It’s relatively independent of age. Experts believe that once the metacognitive processes are developed, age isn’t an influential variable.
  • It’s a largely procedural and subconscious process. As a result, many of the aspects of metacognitive control are inaccessible and incommunicable.

The primary components of metacognitive control are:

  • Planning. Refers to making a strategic plan before beginning a task. It implies organizing resources and strategies while keeping the end goal in mind.
  • Supervision. Consists of the revision and adjustment of your actions while you’re carrying out a task so you can get closer to your goals. This implies an interactive process that is two-fold: a bottom-up reasoning (identifying errors) and top-down reasoning (correcting errors).
  • Evaluation. This is the evaluation of the final results to consider corrections and strategy changes for future tasks.
A guy with glasses thinking about thinking.


Metacognition is a crucial part of information processing. In fact, you can observe that metacognition plays a role in most of the tasks you carry out.

You also have to understand that there’s a very fine line between cognition and metacognition, which makes it seem like it’s two dimensions of the same thing rather than static categories.

Researching more on metacognition will help us understand human thinking and reasoning better, which is highly important in many fields (such as education). This is because understanding how the human mind works will help us improve.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.