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Metacognition and Executive Function: A Dynamic Relationship of Cognitive Functioning

Executive function and metacognition both help with behavior regulation, problem solving, and more — skills that are crucial to success in school and in life. These two sets of cognitive processes have more in common than not, but they’ve traditionally been studied separately rather than in conjunction by research communities.

Metacognitive thinking has been studied by researchers conducting experiments in natural environments to observe and gather information about practical applications. Executive function has largely been studied by cognitive neuroscientists with an emphasis on how executive function skills link to brain structure and neural networks.

Let’s take a closer look at these two approaches.

Executive Function

Executive function is the set of neurocognitive processes that help with impulse control, attention, working memory and cognitive flexibility. These skills are associated with the prefrontal cortex as well as other areas of the brain.

Metacognition

On its most basic level, metacognition is thinking about thinking. It is defined as the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Metacognitive thinking strategies allow people to be aware of their own learning and memory and improve them.

A Dynamic Cognitive Relationship

Metacognitive strategies and executive function skills can both be taught and have similar timetables of development, but metacognition is considered to be the behavioral output of executive functions. For example, metacognitive skills are crucial in reading comprehension. In order to understand text, readers must be able to monitor their comprehension and apply strategies to improve it, such as re-reading a sentence that wasn’t fully processed. EF skills assist with this, such as using working memory to hold in mind the information at the beginning of a passage to the end. EF also helps to support the focus and reflection needed to complete these metacognitive tasks. Therefore, the relation between these two cognitive processes is dynamic — they function separately but are interconnected.

Do stronger EF skills improve metacognition skills? More research on these processes in tandem is needed to gain further understanding of exactly how they work together. Researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland are doing just that. They are using the MEFS by Reflection Sciences along with several measures of metacognition to study the development of these key skills for academic achievement. Stay tuned for the results!