The use of Meta-thinking and Self-regulation in remote learning

Using the principles of High Performance Learning, Neil Thomas suggests five ways in which teachers can encourage self-directed learning during periods of online learning.

Two skill-sets that make a difference

Over the course of 2020 and into 2021, the experience of learning has changed dramatically. Students have been exposed to a challenge that no-one could have predicted. Students, teachers and parents responded brilliantly to suddenly managing their own time, schoolwork and learning spaces. During this extended time of independent learning, what skills have helped young people plan and manage their work effectively? The two essential skills that have stood out for me are those of meta-thinking and self-regulation.

Many will have read and be familiar with the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) guidance report on the Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning. It highlights the importance of developing these two skills within our students. It is an outstanding resource to draw on.

In short, the EEF succinctly explains that metacognition involves “teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.”

Developing self-regulating learners is also a crucial part of the High Performance Learning philosophy developed by Professor Deborah Eyre. Schools are encouraged to teach students specific thinking and behaviour skills (meta-thinking and self-regulation are two of the twenty specific thinking skills highlighted). Training students to become familiar with a range of advanced thinking skills and behaviours is possible. If we can help students direct their learning purposefully, it will not only support pupils and teachers when learning at home, but when we all return to the classroom.

So how can you look to develop these skills to support learning online and in the classroom?

Meta-thinking and Self-regulation in the classroom

Meta-thinking involves consciously ‘thinking about thinking’, giving students the ability to use a wide range of thinking approaches knowingly and to transfer knowledge from one circumstance to another (Eyre, 2016). The key to students developing their meta-thinking skills is explicitly teaching pupils metacognitive strategies, including planning, monitoring, and evaluating their learning. Teaching students these meta-cognitive strategies will allow students to become advanced cognitive performers, and students being able to self-regulate these skills independently will transform their mental abilities into academic skills.

These two skills often interact with one another. This was no more evident than during the periods of blended and remote learning that I experienced in my previous school between March and July 2020. Our students and staff were able to refer back to and draw upon their deep understanding of these skills so that home learning became a little bit easier for both.

Five effective strategies

So how can teaching staff actively develop meta-thinking and self-regulatory skills within their students? Below are five of the most effective strategies I have seen used in the classroom environment:

  1. Stop-think-go. Stop halfway through the task and ask students what strategies they used. List the strategies, discuss and then ask students to vote on which one they think is best. This triggers students to believe that Stop-think-go is a technique they can use themselves anytime.
  2. Boast-your-ability. Ask students to list three things they know they do well and three where they routinely don’t. Ask them to focus on one of those where they want to do better and, every time they start a new task, ask them to focus on developing that skill they wish to build.
  3. Choose-and-Cruise. Give students a choice of ways to approach the task. Let them choose how but also ask them to justify why they think that works best.
  4. What-why-how. Teacher asks… What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does it help you?
  5. Predict-the-possible. Ask students to suggest what they think are possible answers and give their reasons for thinking that. Then see if they are right.
The outcome? Self-directed learning

By actively helping students develop their meta-thinking and self-regulating skills, we allow them to direct their own learning purposefully. Developments in these areas help pupils and teachers when learning at home, in the classroom and in whichever future career path they choose to follow.


A teacher with over 14 years of teaching and leadership experience both in the UK and internationally, Neil Thomas now works as an educational consultant and is an Associate Director at High Performance Learning.




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Eyre, D., 2016. High performance learning: How to become a world class school. Routledge.

Quigley, A., Muijs, D. and Stringer, E., 2018. Metacognition and self-regulated learning: guidance report. Available at: (Accessed 19 February 2021)

Zimmerman, B. J. (2010) ‘Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview’, Theory into Practice, 41 (2).

Quick reference: target qualities and thinking skills:
Zimmerman’s (2010) Qualities of self-regulated learners
1.      Setting goals
2.      Using appropriate strategies to attain those goals
3.      Monitoring their performance
4.      Restructuring their physical and social context
5.      Managing time efficiently
6.      Self-evaluating
7.      Attributing causation to results
8.      Adapting future methods


Meta-thinking Checklist
1.      Have I included clear learning objectives?
2.      How am I going to encourage my students to monitor their learning?
3.      How can I create opportunities for learners to practise new strategies?
4.      How can I allow time for self-reflection?
5.      Does the classroom environment support metacognitive practices?