Metacognition, metalearning, and learning how to learn

Fluent in 3 monthsthe 4-hour chef, The first 20 hoursUltralearning – books on rapid learning often reach the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. Claiming to help their readers learn subjects quickly and often based on the author’s own experiences accomplishing amazing learning feats, they promise readers that they too can learn faster and better – if only they follow their method, of course.

In a world where lifelong learning has become the norm for many people, it’s not surprising that these books and accompanying podcasts, blogs, and YouTube channels have become big business. No longer is intensive learning something you put aside after graduation. Fears about automation, obsolescence, job security, and ever-changing technology inspire many people to learn new skills in their free time. It stands to reason that if they could just learn faster, they’d reap the rewards – such as better career prospects, increased salary, or a new job – more quickly.

New methods or well-known educational truths?

While many authors claim that their approaches are revolutionary, nearly all of them have at their core two basic concepts that have long been known by educational psychologists to be effective: metacognition and metalearning.

Metacognition is defined as “awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes” (Merriam-Webster). It’s commonly explained as “thinking about thinking”. Metalearning is a sub-branch of metacognition and can be thought of as “learning how to learn”.

Why are these two concepts important? Research suggests that reflection on and the active shaping of one’s own learning can be extremely beneficial. As reported by Nancy Chick in her excellent teaching guide on metacognition research, one of the three main takeaways from the National Academy of Sciences’ analysis of decades of learning research was that a metacognitive approach to instruction is highly effective. Metacognitive learning approaches can increase learner confidence, increase their ability to transfer knowledge or skills from one discipline to another, and help them better assess their weaknesses and learning blind spots.

One recent meta-analysis of metacognition training in schools summed up its findings as follows: “The available evidence strongly suggests that metacognitive approaches to teaching and learning have the potential to radically improve the outcomes and life chances of children.” (Perry, Lundie, Golder 2019, 496). And when those children grow up, these skills can help them stand above the competition: research also shows that those who achieve expert-level knowledge of a subject tend to employ metacognitive approaches more than non-experts.

Is it necessary to learn how to learn?

But wait a second, you might be thinking. I already know how to learn. After all, I’ve spent years and years in school and university!

Even if you’ve successfully learned subjects, that doesn’t mean that you know the best ways to learn if you’ve never reflected on the process. Sure, you may have learned how to learn and retain certain information simply by doing it, but in many countries, the educational system is focused on outcomes (often measured by exams) rather than on the learning process itself. As most of us go through the school system and then university, we’ll rarely stop to reflect upon why our courses follow a certain structure, why we learn 100 hours of topic one and 50 hours of topic two, why we have to complete homework or write papers, and why that group presentation at the end of the course counts so much towards our grade. Likewise, we probably only ever reflect upon our own study habits if they don’t seem to be having the desired effect.

Even if your methods work for you already, it can still be beneficial to learn more about how people learn and retain knowledge. For example, as a college student, I’d often write up the 1-2 page essays for my literature courses the night before they were due. Since I kept getting good grades, I never changed my method. However, if I had learned more about how memory and long-term retention work, I would have known just how detrimental this method is if you want to retain knowledge long-term. As a result, I might have adjusted my approach from a focus on short-term goals – and I might then have been able to still have a conversation about Shakespearean drama or Paradise Lost today.

Designing your own learning experience

So, how can learners best take advantage of metacognition and metalearning? Taking a cue from the Scott Young’s book Ultralearning, it can be helpful to divide up metacognitive strategies depending on the phase of learning process you are in, i.e. whether you’re at the beginning of a new learning endeavor (for example, a new learning project or a new semester) or in the middle of an existing one (mid-semester in a university course).

Young focuses a great deal on the initial planning phase and recommends that around 10% of the time that will be spent on a particular learning “project” be dedicated to planning. Why’s that? As he explains:

The literature on self-directed learning, as typically practiced, demonstrates that most people fail to do a thorough investigation of possible learning goals, methods, and resources. Instead they opt for whatever method of learning comes up naturally in their environment. This clearly leaves a gap between what is practiced and the efficiency that is possible using the best possible method (Young 66).

During this initial planning stage, he recommends thinking first about why you want to learn a particular subject and what your focus is. Then, you should identify how other people have learned the subject. He cautions against assuming that the methods you identify are the best ones. Instead, he suggests finding experts in the field and then asking them how they would recommend learning the subject.

In addition, it’s important to think of how knowledge in the field is structured: what concepts, facts, and procedures will you be learning and what will be the best approaches for each type of knowledge. Young also recommends identifying potential pitfalls for the most difficult things to learn and then think of strategies to cope. Another technique is to identify benchmarks – how do people usually learn this topic, and at what pace? How can learning be measured, for example, through an exam. Finally, he recommends emphasizing or excluding material as needed depending on one’s own goals.

As an example, let’s say you want to learn how to use Citavi for your dissertation research and writing. Before you start you might search for how people typically learn how to use Citavi and what resources are available. You’d likely find the resources on our Learn Citavi page, but you could go one step further and post a question in our forum asking others what approaches they used.

You would also want to consider your goals: since your focus is using Citavi to write a dissertation, you may not need to learn how to use the citation style editor to create a style. Knowing this helps you focus only on what content is most important to you. As a benchmark to test whether you really know how to use a feature, you could close the tutorial in your browser window and then try to apply the steps you just watched or read about. To identify and avoid potential pitfalls, you could read blog articles about the do’s and don’ts of working with reference management software, such as this one.

Employing specific learning techniques

But what if the semester is already well underway and you want to improve how you’re learning now? There are a number of metacognitive techniques you can employ that are backed up by education science and neuroscience findings. For an overview of these techniques, I (and many others) recommend the online course Learning how to learn. In it, an Engineering professor and a Neuroscience professor team up to teach the principles behind how we learn and ways to make learning more effective.

While a summary of all of the techniques is outside the scope of this blog article, here a few of my favorite takeaways from both Learning how to learn and Ultralearning:

  1. Retrieval is the most effective study technique
    When reviewing material, for example, for an exam, the best method to use is to test your retrieval. For example, you should close your book, ask yourself questions you think might be on the test, and then write down the answers on paper. You’ll quickly see where there are gaps in your knowledge by using this approach.
  2. Reviewing notes is ineffective
    The worst method of reviewing material to see if you’ve learned it is to simply re-read your articles or review your notes. You may feel like you’re learning, but if you then try the retrieval approach, you’ll often see that you didn’t retain as much information as you thought you had.
  3. Take a direct approach
    Wherever possible, apply your learning in as direct a way as possible. For example, to learn Citavi, instead of watching the entire series of Ready, Set, Go videos, watch a step in a video, pause the video and minimize your browser window, and then try out the steps you just saw in the program. To help you practice, you can use the example project included with Citavi.
  4. Chunk information
    To retain information long-term, you need to “chunk” or connect smaller pieces of information or steps together into one easily remembered unit of information. Using Citavi as an example again, you might want to learn how to create a task list of the books you want to check out from the library.
    Mastering this skill requires you to first know how to create a task, how to add your library catalog for location searches, how to search for library locations, how to sort and select tasks in the Task Planner, and how to print a task list. While this sounds like a lot of steps, once you’ve performed them a few times, your brain will have chunked them together, and you’ll simply remember how to print out a task list with the books you want to check out.
  5. Space out your learning sessions
    To remember information long-term, it’s helpful to use “spaced repetition”. This just means that you should re-test your knowledge after a certain amount of time to see if you still remember what you learned. Flash card apps, such as Anki, automate this process for you and can be very helpful, especially when you need to memorize facts.
  6. Take breaks
    Rest is incredibly important for processing what you’ve learned. If you have the time in your learning schedule, it can work well to focus very intensely on a tough topic and then take a long break, ideally involving some physical movement. When you come back to your learning, you’ll often find that it’s easier the second time around. In addition to breaks, getting enough sleep is also crucial for the brain to create the necessary connections needed for learning.
  7. Give interleaving a try
    While it’s good to have sustained focus during study sessions, switching between different subjects during a learning session can also be beneficial. This “interleaving” approach can help you make connections between different subjects, which can help deepen your interest and retention of them long-term.

Should you always try to learn as quickly as possible?

While metacognitive approaches to learning can be very helpful indeed, their use alone doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to transform yourself into someone who can master any subject in a much shorter time span than usual. For that, additional skills are required, many of which Young outlines in Ultralearning. In addition, periodic usage is necessary to avoid ultimately forgetting what you've learned. So, while you can use a bootcamp or language immersion class to get up to speed in a subject quickly, you will need to continue to practice and expand your knowledge over time to truly become an expert.

Indeed, the research on becoming an expert indicates that time is an important element. Learning researcher Dr. Anders Ericsson has found that true expertise takes deliberate practice over the course of approximately 10 years. This research was the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s popular “10,000-hour rule” described in the book Outliers. While there has since been research that has called the exact findings on the amount of deliberate practice needed into question, no one would dispute that honing skills over time is extremely likely to increases one’s expertise.

This doesn’t mean that rapid learning doesn’t have its place, but it does mean that if mastery is your ultimate goal, you shouldn’t get discouraged if the going is slower than you expect. However, not every subject you’ll learn in your lifetime will need to be mastered at the highest possible level. You will often have to get to know the basics of a new field relatively quickly, and for that the metacognitive techniques popularized by authors such as Young can be extremely valuable.

Summing up

Even if most of us will never want to take part in extreme feats of learning in a very compressed span of time, the concepts of metalearning and metacognition can still be applied to our studies and work even if we are learning at a more leisurely pace. Above all, the idea that we are in control of our own learning process is perhaps the most helpful takeaway and will hopefully inspire you to think more about how you learn best and where you might be able to improve your methods.

What do you think about popular books (and other media) on learning? Are they more hype than anything else or would you try some of their approaches? And are there any techniques you’d recommend? We’d love to continue the conversation with you on our Facebook page!

For Further Learning

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academies Press.

Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3), 363.

Perry, J., Lundie, D., & Golder, G. (2019). Metacognition in schools: what does the literature suggest about the effectiveness of teaching metacognition in schools? Educational Review, 71 (4), 483–500.

Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2020). Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects [Online course].

Young, S. (2019). Ultralearning: Timeless techniques for mastering hard skills. HarperBusiness.