Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Thinking About Thinking: Reflection and Metacognition

Thanks to TIm on Flickr for making this image available.

Thanks to TIm on Flickr for making this image available.

by Stewart Hase

A major feature of how we naturally learn, according to self-determined learning (heutagogy), is metacognition. Specifically this involves reflection that leads to double loop and even triple loop learning (see Blaschke, 2012; Hase & Kenyon, 2013). Although having a history going back to Dewey, it was Don Schon who first gave prominence to the notion of reflection as a practice in his book The Reflective Practitioner in 1983.

There is evidence that simple reflection in the classroom can enhance learning (e.g., Boud, Keogh and Walker, 2013; Hartman, 2002; Mezirow, 1990; Phelps, Ellis & Hase, 2001; Scott and Winograd, 1990; Sobral, 2001). Many educators use reflective journals with their students as well as verbally stimulating metacognition. There is now, however, hard edged evidence via brain science for the role of metacognitive processes like reflection and its more complex cousin meditation. In a recent article of Scientific American Mind (Sept/Oct 2014) by one of the pioneers in metacognitive research, Stephen Fleming, summarizes the current state of play about the role of reflection and learning.

It seems that metacognition is a feature of the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically the anterior prefrontal cortex, and is affected when this area is damaged. Impairment has the effect of depriving the person of insight (thank you Freud too for first identifying the notion that our insight can be flawed). This means that people lose the capacity to understand their own behaviour as in the case of a severe illness such as dementia, schizophrenia or alcoholism, for example. But it is possible to lack insight into even what we do on in ordinary everyday activities. It seems that metacognition may take many forms including for memory (reminding oneself to do something) and for perception (reflecting on what one saw or heard).

Metacognition may be stimulated by drugs and by brain stimulation. But it may also be improved by meditation, which involves focusing on one’s own mental state. It seems to directly cause physical change the anterior prefrontal cortex. Whether or not meditation induces neuroplasticity is speculative, according to Fleming.

Understanding the neuroscience of metacognition is in its early stages. But taken together with the other research there is enough evidence, in my view, to warrant incorporating reflective processes in ‘classrooms’ and in informal learning to enhance learning. It might be interesting to see if brief, intense reflection through meditation is able to improve learning further.

Self-determined learning is underpinned by the notion of human agency. Reflection is something that is under control of the learner, natural and certainly something we do everyday as part of our normal functioning. However, it is also a skill that can be improved in learners at every level, with some potentially positive effects on learning.

Now, let me think about whether my thinking is on the mark!



Baird, B., Mrazek, M. D. , Phillips, D. T. & Schooler, J.W. (2014). Domain specific enhancement of metacognitive ability following meditation training. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 143(5), 1972-9Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (2013). Promoting reflection in learning A model. Boundaries of adult learning, 1, 32.

Fleming, S. (14 August 2014). The power of reflection. Scientific American Mind 25, pp. 30 – 37. http://www.nature.com/scientificamericanmind/journal/v25/n5/full/scientificamericanmind0914-30.html

Fleming, S.M. & Dolan, R. J.  (2012). The neural basis of metacognitive ability. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 367, 1338-1349.

Hartman, H. J. (2002). Metacognition in learning and instruction. Dordreecht: Kluwer.

Jensen, E. (2007). Brain based learning. Heatherton: Hawker Brownlow.

Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning in J. Mezirow (Ed.). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. New York: Jossey Bass, pp. 1- 20 .

Phelps, R, Ellis, A & Hase, S. (2001). The role of metacognitive and reflective learning processes in developing capable computer users in G. Kennedy, M. Keppell, C McNaught & T Petrovic (Eds). Meeting at the crossroads: proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE), University of Melbourne, Vic., 9-12 December.

Sobral, D. T. (2001). An appraisal of medical students’ reflection-in-learning. Medical Education, 34(3), 182-187.


2 comments on “Thinking About Thinking: Reflection and Metacognition

  1. Peter
    October 10, 2014

    I completely agree with this. Meditation greatly assist metacognition… I have the story where I was an average student through highschool. Then I read something about intelligence being about greater neuro-transmission between left and right hemispheres. Kinda made sense to me, whether it is true or not wasn’t important, it made sense. So I started to visualize greater left-right brain integration with my evening meditation, I’d also reflect upon the current subject matter of my learning during this meditation. Needless to say, I went from a C+ average high-school student to an honors student in college and university. I know, what I am saying is anecdotal and unscientific… but I would hedge, if any student was to meditate and reflect upon their current subjects of study.. and have a routine of meditation and reflection, and include journal writing as a part of all this… they would see a measurable jump in their cognitive abilities within their chosen subject. It is this realization that has driven me toward self-determined learning, and developing a personalized approach to continuous learning. $0.02

  2. Pingback: Teaching Metacognition: Insight Into How Your Students Think Is Key To High Achievement In All Domains [Briggs]

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