Cognitive and metacognitive definition

We have learned that cognition allows us to perceive our environment, learn from it and remember the information we have obtained, as well as solve problems that arise during life or communicate with other people, but have you heard about metacognition?

In this article we will describe what exactly cognition is and what are the main cognitive processes, on the other hand, define what metacognition is and how they are related to each other.

Cognitive and metacognitive definition

The meaning of the term cognitive is related to the process of acquiring knowledge (cognition) through the information received by the environment, learning. While metacognition refers to the ability of people to reflect on their thought processes and the way they learn.

Regarding the terms cognition-metacognition, as well as others in the field of psychology, it is very difficult to find a single definition that is commonly accepted by all researchers in this field of knowledge, which necessarily determines the analysis of its components in order to offer a suitable approximation.

The term “cognition” can be defined as the ability of some living beings to obtain information from their environment and, from its processing by the brain, to interpret it and give it meaning. In this sense, cognitive processes depend on both sensory capacities and the central nervous system.

It is a very broad concept of meaning that can be roughly equated with that of “thought.” However, as we will see later, this term can also refer to one of the processes or phases that make up cognition: reasoning, which in turn overlaps with problem solving.

In the field of psychology, cognition is understood as the processing of any type of information through mental functions. From a historical point of view this conceptualization is derived from the traditional separation between the rational and the affective; however, today emotion is often viewed as a cognitive process as well.

Throughout history, many authors have proposed that cognition, particularly that which takes place consciously, should be the main object of study in scientific psychology. Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus or William James began to study basic cognitive processes such as memory or attention at the end of the 19th century.

Current developments in the study of cognition owe much to the theories of information processing and to the cognitivist orientation in general, very popular since the mid-20th century. These paradigms favored the consolidation of interdisciplinary fields as relevant as neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Main cognitive processes

The faculties that make up cognition are multiple; we will focus only on some of the most general and relevant, such as attention, language and metacognition (or knowledge about one’s own cognition).

Likewise, and taking into account current knowledge, we will include emotion as a full-blown cognitive process.

1. Perception

The term “perception” refers to the capture of stimuli from the environment by the sensory organs and their transmission to higher levels of the nervous system, but also to the cognitive process by which we generate a mental representation of this information and interpret it. In this second phase, prior knowledge and attention are involved.

2. Attention

Attention is the general ability to focus cognitive resources on specific mental stimuli or content; therefore, it has a regulatory role in the functioning of other cognitive processes. This ability is divided into several facets, so that attention can be understood as selection, concentration, activation, vigilance or expectations.

3. Learning and memory

Learning is defined as the acquisition of new information or the modification of existing mental contents (together with their corresponding neurophysiological correlates). Different types of learning have been described, such as classical and operant conditioning models, which are associated with synaptic enhancement mechanisms.

Memory is a concept closely related to learning, since it encompasses the encoding, storage and retrieval of information. Structures of the limbic system such as the hippocampus, amygdala, fornix, nucleus accumbens, or the mammillary bodies of the thalamus are key in these processes.

4. Language

Language is the faculty that allows human beings to use complex methods of communication, both orally and in writing. 

From an evolutionary point of view, it is considered a development of nonspecific vocalizations and gestures that were used by our ancestors and that resemble those used by other animal species.

5. Emotion

Although emotion has traditionally been separated from cognition (understood equivalently to thought), increasing knowledge in psychology has revealed that the two processes work in a similar way. The level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the motivation to approach or move away from a stimulus are determining factors in emotion.

6. Reasoning and problem solving

Reasoning is a high-level cognitive process that is based on the use of other more basic ones to solve problems or achieve objectives around complex aspects of reality. There are different types of reasoning depending on how we classify them; If we do it from logical criteria we have deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning.

7. Social cognition

The popularization of social psychology, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, led to an increase in interest in the study of cognition applied to interpersonal relationships. From this perspective, transcendental models have been developed such as attribution theories and schema theory on the representation of knowledge.

What is metacognition?

Responding to the question that gives the article its title, we could say that metacognition is knowledge about one’s own knowledge. It implies the active examination of the cognitive tasks that we are carrying out and the consequent regulation and organization of the processes related to memory, attention, calculation … at the service of a specific objective.

It is about the level of consciousness and knowledge that we have about a task and its monitoring. Illustrating this definition with an example, when doing a mathematical problem, we first analyze the knowledge that we know we have in this area, then the different tasks that we must carry out for its solution and the coordination of all these.

Once the process is developed, we will evaluate the degree of precision we have had at the end.

Many times we are not aware of our own thinking, we do not reflect on what we think. We are not aware of all those processes, large and small, that lead us to act in a certain way or to resolve a certain activity. Sometimes, the difficulty represented by a task is given by the lack of evaluation of our own aptitudes and of the different metacognitive strategies that we use.

Metacognition, analyze our thinking

Flavell was one of the pioneers in dealing with this topic, and he had his own definition of metacognition. He implicates two important factors in metacognition:

  • Knowledge of the cognitive processes and products of each one.
  • The examination, regulation and organization of that knowledge.

For a correct use of mental processes, it is important to use metacognitive skills. They are necessary for the acquisition, use and control of knowledge. They serve to plan and regulate the effective use of one’s own cognitive resources.

It is not only important to have a good memory or to be very good at mathematical operations, you have to know how to organize this knowledge or prioritize and sequence the processes.

Brown, was another professor who researched on this topic, and he proposed the points that it is good that we know about our own knowledge.

Ultimately, according to this author, it is about the control and organization of metacognitive skills strategies. Self-awareness (knowing what one knows) is important so as not to incur secondary ignorance (not knowing that one does not know).

Metacognitive modalities

The metacognitive modalities are the different types of existing metacognition. Each of them is linked to a different cognitive ability and helps to plan and organize thinking and different cognitive processes.

  • Meta-memory: refers to the knowledge of our own memory. Know our skills in this area and the ability to relate previous knowledge with new knowledge. 

In addition, the ability to contrast and connect existing knowledge with new ones is very positive for analytical ability.

  • Meta-attention: it deals with the control of one’s attention. The ability to focus attention on a specific moment when it is necessary to do so and the external and internal factors that we know can make it difficult to maintain attention. 

It is important to know what capacity we have to attend and strategies that can help us, such as taking breaks every hour, for example. Attention is the first filter to record information so it is important to optimize it.

  • Meta-understanding: knowing the understanding capacity we have. Sometimes when we skim through a text, we think we have fully understood the meaning just at a glance. 

However, if we were asked questions about the content, we would discover that we have not understood the text in all its nuances. To know to what extent we can understand a concept and use it.

  • Meta-thought: thinking about one’s own thought. It is unusual to reflect on our own thoughts. That is to say, we all think about different issues that concern us, but we rarely really stop to do reflective thinking about our own ideas and beliefs. 

It is about how to think and not so much about what to think, a tool that can be useful in schools to encourage creativity.

Theory of mind

The theory is closely linked to metacognition, although the latter is more related to the thinking of others and not so much with one’s own. We can take the brain as a predictive machine whose objective is to reduce the uncertainty of the environment. 

It refers to the ability to predict and understand the behavior of other people, their knowledge, intentions and beliefs.

One of the most recognized researchers on the theory of mind is the psychologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

According to him, this function develops in both animals and humans, although at different levels. What’s more, he demonstrated with his studies that the dog puppies were able to distinguish if they were in a real or simulated fight with other puppies, they saw the intentionality in the mind of the other animal.

The theory of mind allows us to predict reactions in others and intuit what they think or feel at a given moment. It is an extremely useful function for survival and adaptation to different environments.

Understanding others and anticipating what they are going to do is tremendously useful and necessary. As social animals that we are, it is essential to facilitate coexistence and maintain good relationships.

Both metacognition and theory of mind refer to the control and supervision of thought, ourselves and others. Some people may have difficulties in this supervisory and regulating mechanism of thought, causing them some problems when it comes to performing cognitive tasks and understanding others.

FAQS: Cognitive and metacognitive definition

What is cognitive and metacognitive?

Cognitive abilities include instructional priorities, elements in a hierarchy of learning, and components in the retrieval of knowledge. Strategies for reading comprehension, drawing, and mathematics provide metacognitive ability.

What does metacognitive mean?

Metacognition refers to the knowledge, awareness, control, and nature of learning processes.

What are examples of metacognition?

  • Reflect on whether a task is going to be difficult.
  • Control the use of learning strategies in each situation.
  • Assess our strengths and weaknesses at the level of cognition.
  • Be aware of the mental processes that we use in each situation.

What are the 5 metacognitive strategies?

Some examples of metacognitive strategies are doing self-assessment exercises after having studied something, in particular, trying different ways of doing the same activity to assess which strategy suits us best, or making concept maps to relate different concepts, among many others.

What are the 3 categories of metacognition?

1) Personal metacognition.

2) The metacognition of the task.

3) The metacognition of strategies.

In this article we described what exactly cognition is and what are the main cognitive processes, on the other hand, defined what metacognition is and how they are related to each other.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Pedhazur, E. J. y Schmelkin, L. P. (1991). Measurement, design and analysis: an integrated approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.