Why Embracing Metacognition Is the Best Language Learning Method

Remember college chemistry class the night before any big exam?

You didn’t even need to be in the chemistry class—you could still tell exactly who was in the midst of a major, all-night cram session.

But how many times have you heard someone say that rote memorization just doesn’t work?

Or better yet, how many times have you heard someone complain about having to memorize a string of information, whether it be vocab or something more complicated?

Yet, for some reason, we constantly turn to cramming when we want to memorize things.

By now I think we all know rote memorization is a sad excuse for a studying method. While it’s possible to enhance rote memorization with spaced repetition, it’s still one of the least effective tools for getting things to stick in your brain.

But what do most people do? They trudge on through their late night miseries, only to forget everything the day after the test.

Why does this happen? It happens because we don’t spend enough time thinking about how we study. In fact, in the scholarly world of language research journals there’s even a special name for this: metacognition. This literally just means “thinking about thinking.”

If you dedicate yourself to spending a little more time thinking about your thinking you might just be pleasantly surprised by how quickly you start to progress in your studies.

What’s Metacognition?

What’s the first thing that most people do when they decide they want to be a better language learner? They pick up new strategies. They start using things like sentence mining techniques, memes, the newest flashcard apps or language learning games as to improve their learning efficiency.

But these are all cognitive strategies for learning.

In other words, they’re just different tools for us to use. While learning from these different tools is extremely important (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!), we’re still basically learning the same way.

Metacognitive strategies, on the other hand, are a whole other barrel of fish.

This is about planning how you learn, learning the optimal way to use each individual learning tool, evaluating how much progress you’ve made and deciding which tools have served you best. 

It’s like the difference between owning the tools you need to build a house and having the knowledge to use the tools. You need that knowledge to actually assemble the pieces of the house. You could maybe still build a house intuitively with just the tools and no knowledge, but it’ll be a lot more taxing and you probably won’t like the finished product as much.

Metacognition was originally thought up by the American researcher John Flavell in the 1970’s as part of his continuation of the work of the famous psychologist Jean Piaget. By now Flavell’s ideas have been thoroughly analyzed by a slew of scientific studies and, while parts of his overall theory have come under criticism, on the whole his theory hasn’t only survived but become the darling of teachers looking for better language learning methods.

Need more reasons to plunge into the study of metacognition?

Numerous studies have shown that students trained in metacognition significantly outperform those who aren’t.

It’s even said that your general intelligence is linked to how well you understand metacognitive strategies. And since these strategies are something that can be learned by anyone, those of us lagging behind in our race to learn a language should take heart: After learning metacognitive strategies, linguistic victory won’t be far off.

So Meta: Discover Your Ideal Language Learning Method in 3 Metacognitive Steps

Although there are many different views on metacognitive strategies, in its simplest form there are three parts: planning, monitoring and evaluation.


Most people who are learning a language by themselves have probably already done this step to some degree or another.

The first part of planning involves asking the most basic questions that will guide your language learning. For instance, one study by the Canvard Institute of Beijing Business and Technology University gave the following two questions to its test subjects:

1. What do I want out of this? (What are my motives?)

2. How do I propose going about getting there? (What are my strategies?)

The important thing is that you set clear short-term and long-term goals and have clear methods of achieving these goals. Planning how you’ll manage your time is also centrally important. For the best way to plan and achieve your goals, check out how to make smart goals.

This is also the part of the process where you should acquire as many language learning tools as you possibly can if you haven’t already. 

FluentU is, of course, a great resource.

The multimedia approach and active learning tools make for a memorable combination.

Beyond this, the internet can provide more options than you’ll probably ever have time to learn about. 

And while strategies could be as newfangled as that vocab app you just downloaded to your smartphone, they don’t have to be online or tech-based. Learning strategies can be as uncomplicated as knowing to reread a paragraph when you don’t understand something or focusing your reading with specific questions you have. They really can be that simple.

However, we need to do more than simply collect tools.

Once you’ve got your favorite tools line up and you’ve familiarized yourself with how they work, you’ll need to spend some time thinking about the different situations in which each tool shines.

For instance, if you’re trying to use a word part strategy where you break up a word into its constituent parts to try to figure out the meaning, it may not work in every situation. Maybe you’ll come across a word like “deceit” and you try to split it into “de-” and “-ceit” since “de-” is a common prefix. But, in this case, it’s not a prefix and the word part strategy is completely useless in trying to understand the meaning of the word.

That’s why you have to be able to recognize when to stop trying one strategy and when to start trying a new one.


In the monitoring phase you should always think about whether or not you’re meeting goals as well as whether or not you’re using the right language tools. 

For example, maybe you just learned about a new note taking strategy, but after a week or so you stop using it. That’s when monitoring kicks in and you remind yourself to keep using it.

While you’re in the monitoring phase be sure to keep a journal, recording which strategies you used that day, which strategies did or didn’t work and whether or not you’re keeping up with your planned goals.

If you really want to immerse yourself in the benefits of monitoring then you should consider meeting regularly with a language group or a group of your classmates to discuss your journal. This allows you to bounce ideas off of others, absorb their ideas and feel some social pressure to complete the goals you set for yourself.


After about one month, it’ll be time to check in on your progress. This is basically monitoring on steroids with some more planning thrown in.

According to a study made available by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, you’ll want to ask yourself at least four basic questions:

1. What am I trying to accomplish? (This is just like the planning phase, but you’ll want to keep a clear understanding of your goals as they change over time.)

2. What strategies am I using?

3. How well am I using the strategies? (Maybe you learned a lot of strategies, but are you really using them?)

4. What else could I do? (Think about what’s still difficult for you and what new strategies you could start using.)

I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a lot of work.

But just think of it as spending a little time now to save a lot of time banging your head against a wall later when traditional learning techniques aren’t working.

If you keep to the metacognitive strategies, you might just finally be able to say goodbye to cram sessions forever.

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