Early Career Research Grant

Metacognitive processes in development: Assessing metacognitive knowledge and behavior and executive functioning in young children

The Div. 7 Early Career Research Grant winner 's study is designed to measure early metacognition comprehensively in young children.
By Loren Marulis

Historically, early skills and development have been underestimated, largely as a function of the way they were measured (Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983). This is particularly pervasive regarding metacognition (cognition about cognitions), skills vital to development, learning and academic success (Bronson, 2000; Dignath, Buettner, & Langfeldt 2008). Although researchers have argued that metacognition develops in middle childhood (at earliest by age 7-8, Kreutzer, Leonard, & Flavell, 1975; Veenman, et al., 2006), evidence of earlier developing metacognition has more recently been revealed (in preschoolers) through the use of more sensitive observational tasks (Shamir, Mevarech, & Gida, 2009; Whitebread et al., 2007, 2009). Whereas observational methods can be more sensitive to development and better able to capture metacognition in young children, their exclusive use may result in an incomplete depiction of early metacognitive competency.

The present study is designed to measure early metacognition comprehensively by examining its stability, depth, and breadth in young children using both observational and declarative-based (i.e., articulation of metacognitive processes) developmentally sensitive measures across contexts. The conceptualization and measurement of early metacognitive skills and processes will be investigated through the comparison of the data revealed by different measures of metacognitive knowledge and behavior and also the examination of whether these skills are associated with executive functions. A related goal is to examine how the environment—whether and how the teacher facilitates children's metacognitive processes through language, supportive settings, and behaviors—affects the development of these skills.

Participants will be approximately 50 preschoolers and 35 toddlers from a college-based laboratory school and their teachers. All permissions have been received, and the IRB has approved all aspects of this study. The children will be individually assessed on three metacognition processes (a metacognitive interview, metacognitive behavior during a structured problem-solving task and metacognitive skills during an unstructured, child-directed task), as well as an executive function task, the problem-solving task and an expressive language task. In addition, the laboratory school has already given all children an early childhood developmental inventory, which will be used as a dependent variable in analyses to examine whether metacognitive and executive function skills are associated with cognitive, social and academic functioning skills. Teachers' instruction and language will be assessed on how (“formal” instruction such as storybook reading to the whole class and informal such as instructing individual children).

Quantitative data analysis will include examining mean scores across the different measurement tools; partial correlations between the metacognition and executive function skills as well as examining convergent validity between the three metacognitive measures (controlling for age, executive function, expressive language and potentially classroom); and predictive analyses of individual differences on executive function and expressive language for the various metacognition measures and of classroom differences for the various metacognition measures. Qualitative data analysis will include how individual children approach the various tasks, and case studies of several children from subgroups that may emerge.

It is predicted (based on previous work; Marulis, Palincsar, Berhenke, & Whitebread, 2015) that all metacognitive measures will reveal greater evidence of processes and skills in preschoolers than what has traditionally been argued to be achievable prior to age 7-8. It is further hypothesized that there will be evidence of emerging metacognition skills even in toddlers ages 2-3 and that early metacognition will not function as a unitary factor in these children. Also, it is predicted that SES will moderate the convergent validity between these so that metacognition may function more unitarily for the children from low-SES backgrounds (who likely have less experience articulating their metacognitive knowledge for example). Moreover, it is predicted (Marulis et al., 2015) that the children's executive function skills will be related to their metacognitive skills. It is hypothesized, however, that these relations will differ based on the metacognitive measure; specifically that the children's executive function will be more strongly related to their metacognition behavior (particularly control behaviors) than their metacognition knowledge. It is hypothesized that there will be a significant positive association between metacognitive environments and metacognitive skills (Larkin, 2000): Children in the classrooms in which the teachers show more metacognition and are more facilitative of metacognition will have significantly greater scores on all metacognition measures.

This study will contribute to the field of developmental psychology in two significant ways. First, a clearer and more comprehensive conceptualization of metacognition will be revealed through the divergent ways of measuring early metacognition skills, which is central to advancing this concept as well as examining how it both converges and diverges from related concepts such as executive function (both theoretically and empirically). Clarifying this concept has been called for by prominent researchers (e.g., Kuhn & Dean, 2004), and empirical evidence has shown that it is the least defined in research on self-regulated learning (e.g., Dinsmore, Alexander, & Loughlin, 2008). Second, the results will provide information beneficial to the later design and enactment of effective early metacognition intervention programs (e.g., examining what individual and classroom factors are facilitative of different aspects of early metacognition and whether this differs by age, and investigating how executive function and metacognition develop and whether/how they affect one another and children's development and learning) with the long-term goal of enhancing developmental, educational, and life outcomes for all children.


Bronson, M. B. (2000). Self-regulation in early childhood: Nature and nurture. New York: The Guilford Press.

Dignath, C., Buettner, G., & Langfeldt, H. P. (2008). How can primary school students learn self–regulated learning strategies most effectively? A meta–analysis on self– regulation training programmes. Educational Research Review, 3, 101–129

Dinsmore, D. L., Alexander, P. A., & Loughlin, S. M. (2008). Focusing the conceptual lens on metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review, 20 , 391–409.

Gelman, R., & Baillargeon, R. (1983). A review of some Piagetian concepts. In J. H. Flavell & E. Markman (Eds.),  Cognitive development: Handbook of child development (Vol. 3, pp. 167-230): New York: Wiley.

Kreutzer, M. A., Leonard, S. C., & Flavell, J. H. (1975). An interview study of children's knowledge about memory. Monographs of the society for research in child development, 40 (1 Serial No. 159).

Kuhn, D., & Dean, D. (2004). A bridge between cognitive psychology and educational practice. Theory into practice, 43, 268-273.

Larkin, S. (2000). How can we discern metacognition in year one children from interactions between students and teacher? Paper presented at ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme Conference. Leicester, UK.

Marulis, L. M., Palincsar, A. S., Berhenke, A. L., & Whitebread, D. (2015). Assessing metacognitive knowledge in preschoolers: The development of a Metacognitive Knowledge Interview (McKI). Manuscript submitted for publication.

Shamir, A., Mevarech, Z. R., & Gida, C. (2009). The assessment of meta-cognition in different contexts: Individualized vs. peer-assisted learning. Metacognition and Learning 4, 47-61.

Veenman, M. V. J., Van Hout-Wolters, B. H. A. M., & Afflerbach, P. (2006). Metacognition and learning: conceptual and methodological considerations. Metacognition and Learning, 1, 3–14.

Whitebread, D., Bingham, S., Grau,V., Pasternak, D., & Sangster, C. (2007). Development of metacognition and self-regulated learning in young children: Role of collaborative and peer-assisted learning. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 3, 433–455.

Whitebread, D., Coltman, P., Pasternak, D., Sangster, C., Grau, V., Bingham, S., & Demetriou, D. (2009). The development of two observational tools for assessing metacognition and self-regulated learning in young children. Metacognition and Learning, 4, 63-85.

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