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Schemas and Metacognition: Building Self-Aware Learners

In education, understanding student thought processes is key. This article explores the intertwined roles of schemas and metacognition, offering insights to help educators cultivate self-aware and successful learners.

10 mins

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The way that we learn and assimilate information has many threads. There are multiple processes working together to create understanding—a lot going on in the head of any given student! Two important concepts for young learners are schemas and metacognition.

Schemas are the mental structures we use to organise and interpret information. Our previous article, Cognitive Schemas: What They Are and How to Use Them in Education explains the significance of these frameworks in moulding a student’s educational journey.

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of our own thought processes. Cultivating this self-awareness in students encourages self-led, life-long learning. Being aware of our own cognitive processes equips us to be architects of our own knowledge, actively determining which bricks fit and where.

With an understanding of both schemas and metacognition, teachers can sculpt lessons that resonate, deliver content that sticks, and create classrooms where questions, reflection, and adaptation are normal and accepted.


Understanding Schemas

Where do you file any new information you receive? Chances are, new facts are becoming part of the schemas that already exist within your brain.

What Are Schemas?

A schema (plural: schemas or schemata) is simply a mental construct of pre-conceived ideas, a framework representing specific aspects of the world, or a system of organising and perceiving new information. In educational contexts, schemas could be compared to mental maps, guiding learners as they navigate new concepts.

These frameworks are vital for learning. They act as filters through which we perceive the world, allowing us to quickly and efficiently process vast amounts of information. When new information aligns with our existing schema, it’s easily assimilated. However, if it doesn’t, our schemas may need to adjust or accommodate the new knowledge.

Schemas in Action

From the moment we are born, we start developing schemas. A baby might have a basic schema for a dog—and if they’ve only ever seen a small, fluffy dog, they might believe all dogs are small and fluffy. However, when they encounter a large, short-haired dog, their schema for a dog might adjust to accommodate this new information.

In the realm of education, think of a student learning about shapes. Initially, their schema for a triangle might be limited. But upon encountering different types of triangles (equilateral, isosceles, or scalene) their schema becomes more detailed and nuanced.

Classroom Examples

Let’s consider a history classroom. A student might have a schema that ancient Egyptians lived solely by farming. Educators can help them to integrate information about trade routes, social hierarchies, and architectural advancements into that schema, refining it and offering a more holistic view of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Another example would be in literature. Students reading a dystopian novel might refer to their schema of dystopias shaped by earlier books they’ve read. As they take in the new material, their understanding of the text deepens, and their overarching schema of dystopian worlds is enhanced.

In both examples, the educator has a crucial role: delivering information and helping students integrate it into their schemas, solidifying and expanding their understanding.




Understanding Metacognition

Schemas provide the structured framework for our knowledge; metacognition (often called ‘thinking about thinking’) empowers students to be conscious of their cognitive processes. Educators can use an understanding of metacognition to foster introspection and self-awareness in their students, giving them tools to assess their own learning pathways and strategies.

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition is about a person’s awareness and understanding of their own thought processes. It’s a step above cognition, allowing learners not only to understand and process information but to evaluate the effectiveness of their methods in doing so.

In educational settings, metacognition is a big part of how students approach tasks, problem-solve, and optimise their learning. It’s not just about what learners know but how they come to know it—and whether they know how they’ve come to know it!

Metacognition, Self-Awareness, and Enhanced Learning

Self-awareness directly influences a student’s learning ability. Understanding their own strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and strategies means that students can tailor their approach to learning tasks for better outcomes. It puts power over their learning in their own hands; those who can identify their cognitive strategies are better equipped to modify or change them.

Studies like this one conducted on students learning the Indonesian language have shown that metacognitive strategies, like self-assessment or reflective practice, can significantly enhance learning outcomes. A student tackling a mathematical problem might pause to consider their approach, evaluate its effect, and make adjustments if required.


Intertwining Schemas with Metacognitive Skills

A schema, as we’ve established, is a mental blueprint that designs or frames our understanding and expectations of the world. Metacognition is the act of reflecting on our own thought processes. So, how do these two interact?

Simply put, metacognition allows students to evaluate the accuracy and relevance of their existing schemas. For instance, a student who learns a new historical fact can compare it against their existing schema of that period. If there’s a discrepancy, metacognitive reflection kicks in and prompts the student to consciously adjust their schema to accommodate the newfound knowledge.


Strategies for Teaching with Schemas and Metacognition

  • Think-aloud

This strategy involves verbalising thoughts while reading or solving a problem. Teachers model the metacognitive process by doing this in front of students, showcasing how they can assess and adapt their understanding in real-time.

  • Metacognitive prompts

Questions like “Why did you choose that method?” or “How does this piece of information change what you knew?” can nudge students towards evaluating their own thought processes (metacognition) and schemas.

  • Self-assessment tools

Provide tools or opportunities for students to routinely assess their understanding of topics, reflecting on gaps in knowledge and areas of strength. This encourages metacognitive thinking and allows students to identify when a schema might need adjustment.

  • Reflective journals

These journals can be potent tools. Encourage students to maintain these, detailing their learning experiences, challenges faced, and strategies employed.

The interplay between schemas and metacognition is like a dance—each one responds to the other’s cues. Educators can use metacognitive strategies to help students refine their own schemas and assimilate new information. Equipped with the right skills, they will be able to self-adjust and become proactive learners. Magic!


African American elementary student gazing thoughtfully out of a classroom window.
An African American elementary student lost in thought while looking out the classroom window, capturing a moment of reflection.


The Journey To Build Self-Aware Learners

Self-aware learners are better equipped as learning becomes more independent and adaptable throughout school, university, and life.

Reflection done well empowers students to review, question, and adjust their learning strategies. Self-assessment complements this as it enables them to gauge their progress, identify gaps, and take ownership of the learning journey. 

In an ever-evolving world and learning landscape, these are very important skills to have. Moreover, studies (this meta-analysis provides a good summary) demonstrate a positive correlation between reflective practices, self-assessment, and enhanced learning outcomes. 


Practical Tools for Nurturing Self-Awareness

  • SWOT analysis

Rooted in the business world but equally applicable in education, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis can help students to assess their standing.

  • Peer feedback sessions

Create safe spaces where students can provide constructive feedback to peers. This promotes self-awareness and fosters a sense of community and mutual respect.

  • Digital self-assessment platforms

Incorporate digital tools where students can routinely evaluate their understanding of topics, pinpointing areas for improvement.

As mentioned in a previous section, reflective journals are also great for unlocking the benefits of metacognition.


Common Hurdles and How to Tackle Them

There are challenges for educators to overcome as they guide students towards self-awareness. To be forewarned is to be better prepared—so read up on the potential challenges and how they can be navigated!

Complexity of concepts

Schemas and metacognition delve deep into cognitive psychology. Introducing them in classroom settings, especially to younger learners, can be daunting. Teachers can begin with simple, relatable examples to introduce these concepts. For instance, likening schema-building to filing books in their personal brain library can make it clearer and more relatable.

Varied learning paces

Each student’s schema-building process and metacognitive ability develop independently, making one-size-fits-all approaches ineffective. To overcome this, teachers should recognise and respect the individual learning journeys of students—which is best practice for all aspects of teaching. Tailored interventions, although initially more demanding, often have better long-term results.

Resource limitations

Not all institutions have ready access to resources and training that streamline the integration of these concepts. Platforms like those suggested here by EdTechist offer resources that promote metacognitive skills. They can be invaluable in situations where traditional resources are scarce.

Resistance to Change

Established educational norms can sometimes stymie the introduction of newer, more introspective teaching methods. Regular training sessions for educators can demystify schemas and metacognition, making their integration smoother. In addition, it’s important for change leaders to emphasise the importance of continuous learning and adaptability. 


In Summary

Schemas and metacognition are both critical to effective life-long learning! Put together, these two cognitive concepts can be used by educators to build self-aware learners. This self-awareness is a form of future-proofing; it equips individuals to assess, direct, and adjust their own learning strategies.

To learn more about these and other cognitive processes and teaching strategies, take a look at our resources and our range of CPD courses for teachers.


Recommended Reading & Resources:

  1. Educating the Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schön – A look at reflection within professional practice.
  2. How We Think by John Dewey – A classic on reflective thought and its importance in education.
  3. Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking by Arthur L. Costa – A comprehensive guide on promoting thinking skills in learners.
  4. Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers – Metacognitive techniques and their applications in the classroom.
  5. The Skillful Teacher by Stephen D. Brookfield – Practical insights into fostering critical thinking in students.

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