Do You Pose Questions That Invite Metacognition?

Bena Kallick is a private consultant providing services to school districts, state departments of education, professional organizations, and public agencies throughout the United States and internationally. Arthur L. Costa is professor emeritus of education at California State University, Sacramento, and co-founder of the Institute for Intelligent Behavior in El Dorado Hills, California.

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Our ‘inner voice’ is what we use to reflect on what we do, how and why we behave in the way we do, how we critique ourselves and how we connect the knowledge, ideas, concepts and concept frameworks developed using each of our four learning systems. It is the voice that challenges us to strive further and the voice that condemns our foolishness.

– Mark Treadwell,
Learning: How the Brain Learns (2014)

One of a teacher’s most important practices is designing and posing questions. Wise teachers pose questions consciously with deliberate intentions. They know that questions engage sometimes subtle and overt responses from students. Questions are the powerful stimuli that evoke cognitive, behavioral and emotional responses in students. They initiate a journey in the mind. Indeed, questions are the backbone of instruction. They must be employed with care.

Building a Thinking Vocabulary

Because thinking words may not be used in students’ homes or in previous classrooms, thinking vocabulary may be a “foreign language” to them. They may not know how to perform the specific thinking skills that a given term implies. It is imperative, therefore, that students develop a vocabulary with which to express their metacognitive processes.

When adults speak using mindful language, using specific, cognitive terminology and instructing students in ways to perform certain skills, students are more inclined to be able to both name and use those skills.


Instead of saying: Use Metacognitive language by saying:
“Let’s look at these two pictures.” “As you COMPARE these two pictures…”
“What do you think will happen when …?” “What do you PREDICT will happen when …?”
“How can you put those into groups?” “How might you CLASSIFY …?”
“Let’s work this problem.” “Let’s ANALYZE this problem.”
“What do you think would have happened if …?” “What do you SPECULATE would have happened if …?”
“What did you think of this story?” “What CONCLUSIONS can you draw about this story?”
“How can you explain …?” “What HYPOTHESES do you have that might explain …?”
“How do you know that’s true?” “What EVIDENCE do you have to sup-port …?”
“How else could you use this …?” “How could you APPLY this …?”
“Do you think that is the best alternative? “As you EVALUATE these alternatives….”

As students hear these cognitive terms in everyday use and experience the cognitive processes that accompany these labels, they internalize the words and use them as part of their own metcognitive vocabulary. Teachers will also want to give specific instruction and provide awareness of experiences so that students recognize and know the meaning of the terminology.

Invite Metacognitive Responses

Teachers can deliberately invite students to become spectators of their own thinking by posing questions that invite a metacognitive response. Some questions invite a behavioral response, others can invite a thought-full response. Notice how behavioral questions can be transformed into questions that invite thinking.

Questions That Invite a Behavioral Response Questions That Invite Metacognitive Responses
“Why did you do that?” “What were you thinking when you did that?”
“What did the author mean when …?” “What cues were you aware of?”
“What are your plans for … ?” “As you envision … what might be …”
“When will you start …?” “How will you decide when to start …?”
“Was that a good choice?” “What criteria did you have in mind to make that choice?”

If teachers pose questions that deliberately engage students’ cognitive processing, and let students know why the questions are being posed in this way, it is more likely that students will become aware of and engage their own metacognitive processes.

Making Internal Dialogue External

Students can become spectators of their own thinking when they are invited to monitor and make explicit the internal dialogue that accompanies their thinking.

They become spectators of their own thinking as they consider questions such as:

  • “What was going on in your head when……?”
  • “What were the benefits of……?”
  • “As you evaluate the effects of . . . ?”
  • “By what criteria are you judging…..?”
  • “What will you be aware of next time?”
  • “What did you hear yourself saying inside your brain when you were tempted talk but your job was to listen?”

Keep Students Thinking About Their Thinking

While such questions will initiate students’ metacognitive journey, you will also want to sustain that momentum by:

Causing Students to Monitor their Accuracy

  • “How do you know you are right?”
  • “What other ways can you prove that you are correct?

Pausing and Clarifying but not Interrupting

  • “Explain what you mean when you said you ‘just figured it out’”.
  • “When you said you started at the beginning, how did you know where to begin?”

Providing Data, Not Answers

(As soon as you confirm that an answer is correct, there is no need to think further about it!)

  • “I think you heard it wrong; let me repeat the question …”
  • “You need to check your addition.”

Resisting Making Value Judgments Or Agreeing With Students’ Answers.

  • “So, your answer is 48. Who came up with a different answer?”
  • “That’s one possibility. Who solved it another way?”

Remaining Focused On Thinking Processes

  • “Tell us what strategies you used to solve the problem”
  • “What steps did you take in your solution?”
  • “What was going on inside your head as you solved the problem?”

Encouraging Persistence

  • “Success! You completed step one. Now you’re ready to forge ahead.”
  • “C’mon, you can do it”
  • “Try it again!”

Ultimately, the intent of all this is to have students monitor and pose their own questions that promote thinking in themselves and others.


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