Psychology Metamemory
Matthew G. Rhodes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0238


Metamemory is a subdiscipline of the study of metacognition—those processes involved in monitoring (assessing) cognition so as to modify and control behavior. Accordingly, research in metamemory is concerned with how individuals monitor and control learning and memory. Although thinking and writing about memory dates back to the ancient Greeks, formal scientific study of metamemory is a comparatively young endeavor that started to gain impetus in the 1960s. Much of the earliest work was concerned with children’s understanding of memory. Research on children’s metamemory has continued unabated, but mainstream cognitive psychologists became increasingly interested in metacognitive processes in the 1980s, with a steady increase in the volume of work on metamemory since that time. Modern research in metamemory is guided by a fundamental assumption that one’s understanding of one’s own memory guides behavior. For example, a student who believes that he or she has fully mastered the content covered by an upcoming exam may cease further study. Given the presumption of a strong relationship between monitoring and self-regulation (control) of learning, researchers have focused on the accuracy of metamemory and proposed a number of accounts of judgment. Such theories have been informed by a diversity of methodological approaches and measures, many of which reflect the specific memory process being studied. Findings from research on metamemory have significant implications for theoretical approaches to learning and understanding of consciousness and self-regulation. They also have applications in a variety of field settings, such as within education and eyewitness memory. Recent developments have sought to better situate research in metamemory within such applied contexts and to consider more complex experimental and statistical models of metamemory to better understand how multiple sources of information are integrated to inform judgment. These developments underscore a central theme in the field, as new theoretical approaches are driven by refinements in methodology and measurement.

General Overviews

Although there is only a single textbook devoted to metamemory, the field is characterized by a number of excellent reviews and overviews. Probably the most famous was penned by the American developmental psychologist John Flavell. His short treatise on metacognition, Flavell 1979, framed it as a worthy field of study. Flavell defined metacognition and outlined its key components, metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences, establishing a delineation of metamemory research that carries forward to this day. However, although less well known outside of the field, one might also argue that the chapter Nelson and Narens 1990 on metacognition was similarly influential, if not more so. Most notably, Nelson and Narens addressed key conceptual issues related to the study of metacognition and proposed a more formal framework to guide research, highlighting the interplay of monitoring (assessments and understanding of memory) and control (self-regulation of memory) processes. Moreover, their chapter addresses a key guiding assumption of all research in metacognition—namely, that monitoring processes are presumed to have a causal influence on control processes. Nelson 1996 covered much of this ground several years later in an excellent review produced for a non-specialist audience. Dunning, et al. 2004 and Bjork, et al. 2013 are accessible reviews of metacognition for a generalist audience. Perhaps the broadest view of the field can be found in Proust and Fortier 2018, which includes contributions considering metacognition within communication and religion, as well as cross-cultural perspectives. For researchers in metamemory, Koriat 2007 remains one of the best single-chapter overviews of the field.

  • Bjork, R. A., J. Dunlosky, and N. Kornell. 2013. Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology 64:417–444.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

    Excellent overview of self-regulated learning, highlighting the information an individual must appreciate to be an effective learner and reviewing key data on illusions that often hinder understanding of learning.

  • Dunning, D., C. Heath, and J. M. Suls. 2004. Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5:69–106.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2004.00018.x

    A generalist overview of metacognition that includes a component on education that comports with a great deal of research in metamemory. The paper is a strong introduction to metacognition in a context that extends beyond traditional lab-based cognitive tasks.

  • Flavell, J. H. 1979. Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive–developmental inquiry. American Psychologist 34:906–911.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.906

    The most cited paper in metacognition, Flavell’s classic (and brief) overview outlined and delineated many of the key concepts that are the focus of research in metamemory. The paper distinguishes between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences. Flavell’s work gave metacognition a place as a worthy area of research.

  • Koriat, A. 2007. Metacognition and consciousness. In The Cambridge handbook of consciousness. Edited by P. D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson, 289–325. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816789.012

    A brilliant overview of metacognition, primarily focused on metamemory. To this day, it likely stands as the best single chapter review of research and key questions in metamemory.

  • Nelson, T. O. 1996. Consciousness and metacognition. American Psychologist 51:102–116.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.51.2.102

    A superb overview of metacognition that concisely describes early work, discusses key conceptual debates, and lays out the framework that informs most research in metacognition. The accessibility of this review makes it essential reading for anyone beginning research in metamemory.

  • Nelson, T. O., and L. Narens. 1990. Metamemory: A theoretical framework and new findings. In The psychology of learning and motivation. Vol. 26. Edited by G. H. Bower, 125–173. New York: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0079-7421(08)60053-5

    Although Flavell 1979 has been cited much more frequently, a case can be made that this is the most important overview of research in metacognition, as it proposes a framework regarding the interplay of monitoring and control processes that underlies most research in metamemory.

  • Proust, J., and M. Fortier. 2018. Metacognitive diversity. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Wide-ranging edited volume covering metacognition in a variety of contexts, including with communication, religion, and self-regulation, with several chapters that also incorporate cross-cultural perspectives.

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