Cognition, Metacognition & Epistemic Cognition

Updated: May 31

A three-level model of cognitive processing was presented by Kitchener in a seminal article in 1983 – Cognition, Metacognition, and Epistemic Cognition: A three-Level Model of Cognitive Processing. This model builds upon the literature and research by Flavell (1979), Moshman (1979), Kuhn (1983), and others. The three levels of cognitive processing included:

  • Level 1 - Cognition: Individuals compute, memorize, read, perceive, solve problems, etc.

  • Level 2 – Metacognition: Individuals monitor their own progress when they are engaged in these first-order tasks.

  • Level 3 – Epistemic Cognition: Individuals reflect on the limits of knowing, their certainty of knowing, and criteria of knowing (Kitchener, 1983, p. 222).

Since Kitchener’s publication, there has been extensive research that has further explored each of these cognitive processing levels with the focus on cognition expanding to other areas such as creative cognition.

The etymology of cognition dates back to the mid-1500s and is derived from Latin cognitionem – “a getting to know, acquaintance, knowledge.” According to Bayne (2019), “The term ‘cognition’ refers to all the activities and processes concerned with the acquisition, storage, retrieval and processing of information — regardless of whether these processes are explicit or conscious” (p. R609). Similarly, Kihlstrom (2018) shares that cognition encompasses the ways in which knowledge is acquired, retained, and used, including perception, learning, memory, and thinking. Both Bayne and Kihlstrom discuss in their research the importance of conscious and unconscious cognition.

Flavell is recognized for coining the term “metacognition.” According to Flavell (1979), metacognitive knowledge is “one's stored knowledge or beliefs about oneself and others as cognitive agents, about tasks, about actions or strategies, and about how all these interact to affect the outcomes of any sort of intellectual enterprise” (p. 906). Within the literature, cognition is often referred to as the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding while metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” Incorporating metacognitive strategies teaching in course design and instruction encourages students to manage their learning and supports self-efficacy. There are many resources available to educators to support metacognitive practices. A few resources to get started with include: Vanderbilt University, Columbia University, TEAL Center, Cambridge Assessment, and Retrieval Practice.


Epistemic cognition, as described by Moshman (2014), is “knowledge about knowledge” as it relates to fundamental issues of justification including “objectivity, subjectivity, rationality, and truth.” According Johanes (2017), epistemic cognition is of particular importance to learners as they assess the “validity, certainty, reliability, source, and limits of their knowledge” (p. 61). At this third level of cognitive processing, Moshman (2014) shares a progression for adolescents and young adults from objectivist to subjectivist then to rationalist epistemologies:

  • Objectivist epistemologies (i.e., truth is observable, provable, or known to authorities)

  • Subjectivist epistemologies (i.e., truth is constructed from and determined by one’s point of view)

  • Rationalist epistemologies (i.e., without any claim to absolute and final truths, maintain that ideas and viewpoints can be meaningfully evaluated, criticized, and justified)

Why is understanding cognitive processes – cognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition – important for students? Knowledge is constructed. Therefore, it is important for students to reflect on how they think and learn – what they know and believe, how they process and evaluate information, and how they apply knowledge to solve problems. Students, as 21st century learners, must be able to engage in critical thinking which requires cognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition. Critical thinking, as described by Green and Yu (2015), includes the ability to construct, evaluate, and use knowledge. Understanding cognitive processes is also critical for educators. Research shows there is “growing evidence to suggest that teachers’ epistemic cognition mediates how they conceive of and engage in teaching” (Brownlee et al, 2017). Furthermore, research indicates that teachers’ own epistemic beliefs predict their likelihood of using pedagogies that promote critical thinking (Green & Yu, 2015).


As educators, it is important to integrate activities and assignments that engage students in critical thinking and real-world problem solving both independently and collaboratively. Kitchener’s research discusses both well-structured and ill-structured problems. A puzzle, as described by Kitchener (1983), is like a well-structured problem in which all elements of a problem for solving are “knowable and known” so there is an effective procedure for solving the problem (p. 224). Ill-structured problems are most often associated with the real world and do not have a single, unequivocal solution that can be determined at that moment (Kitchener, 1983). Solutions must be constructed by evaluating information, making judgments based on evidence, engaging multiple perspectives, and monitoring progress to solve the problem. It is through engagement in well-structured and ill-structured problems that students acquire knowledge, skills, and experience to support mastery and transfer of learning. As students prepare for employment post-pandemic, critical thinking and innovative problem solving will be key in a dynamic and evolving global landscape.

One puzzle piece followed by four puzzle pieces followed by a house made of puzzle pieces

In designing new courses, revising current ones, or pivoting across formats, the question to ask is: What’s in your course? Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with cognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition. Dr. Kristen Betts