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An Effective Five-Minute Lesson On Metacognition


I often write about helping students exercise, and be aware of, metacognition (see Another Lesson Combining Metacognition, Writing, Speaking, & Listening) and include extensive lesson plans about it in my latest book.

Today, I did a five-minute unplanned lesson on metacognition that I believe was extraordinarily effective.

We were looking at writing “hooks” — openings for their biographical essays on either George Washington or Ben Franklin — and comparing several examples of good and bad ones. Students were to work in pairs and choose the best ones and write a one sentence explanation of why they thought it was better.

Prior to their beginning the activity, and after I had modeled it, I introduced the word “metacognition” as part of an explanation of why I wanted them to write their reasons.

Students know I play basketball a lot (it’s not unusual for me to come to class with a black eye from someone’s elbow or I might be limping), so I crunched up a piece of paper, threw it, and intentionally missed the garbage can. The paper fell to the right (of course, students loved that I missed). I told the class, “Okay, now I know that I have adjust my shot. I’m thinking about it, and maybe I need to adjust to the left. I think I’d have a better chance if I threw it underhand, too, because it would have a higher arc.”

I crunched-up another sheet of paper, threw it, and it landed just short, hitting the rim of the can (again, great cheers from the class). I said, “It looks like I’m getting closer. I think I’ll just have to throw it a little harder and it should go in.”

I got another piece of paper, and threw it — bulls-eye!. I said, “Now, the next times I want to try to make a basket here, I’ll know to throw it underhand and aim better. That’s the kind of thinking I go through on the basketball court, and how we improve in lots of ways. We take the time to think about “Why?”

I then told the class, “Let’s see how I do shooting the ball without using metacognition.” I crumpled up three pieces of paper and just threw them one-by-one in the direction of the can. None went in. I told the class, “I’m going to ask a question, and I don’t want anyone to call out an answer. Why didn’t those three balls go in? Tell a partner.” Students shared and then I called on one, who responded, “Because you didn’t think about it first.”

“Exactly, I told the class. If we don’t ‘think about our thinking,’ we won’t learn from our mistakes or from our successes. We’ll always start from scratch when we face a problem. By using metacognition, we’ll be able to more effectively apply what we learn now to the future.”

Students immediately got to work without any whining about having to write their reasons for choosing the “hooks.” It seemed to me that they really got “it.”

What do you think? And do you have effective short lessons that get the idea of metacognition across?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Very cool. I always love it when teachers take their time to properly demonstrate why a particular activity is useful. Seems like you really made them understand why thinking about what you’re doing is an important step towards doing great things!

  2. My favorite activity to cause student to metacogitate is asking them, at the end of the school day, to create a 15 minute interval plan for finishing their homework that starts at 3:00 pm, say, and proceeds forward every 15 minutes until the homework is done.

  3. AWESOME IDEA!!! I teach elementary school and I’m always looking for more ideas for teaching metacognition. Have you ever used the “Reading Salad” from the book called “Comprehension Connections” by Tanny McGregor? It works very well!!!

    • Becky,

      Never heard of it. Can you give a quick synopsis?


      • Tanny McGregor uses a reading salad to demonstrate metacognition. “Thinking” is represented by lettuce and the “text” is represented by tomatoes. I have two students stand on either side of me, each holding a green and red bowl while I read a book. When I am reading the “text” a red card in placed in the red salad bowl. When I stop reading and “think” out loud, a green card is placed in the green salad bowl. Then, at the end of the text, the cards are then dumped into a large salad bowl and mixed together to make a “reading salad”. The students notice that there is a lot of thinking that occurred when they see all of the green. You will HAVE to check out her book, it has a lot of wonderful ideas!!!

  4. Love this! Will definitely be using it next term (this one is just finishing) for all my classes and this term for those with whom I have feedback classes! 🙂

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