27 Patterns of Thought

April Ring


What you’ll learn to do: explain patterns of thought including metacognition and Bloom’s Taxonomy

Photo of five students seated in class. All look deep in thought.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

—Aristotle, Greek philosopher

By the end of this section, you will be able to identify effective metacognition techniques for learning. You’ll also learn about cognitive domain skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy as they apply to learning.

Metacognition: Thinking about Thought

Learning outcomes

  • Identify effective metacognition techniques for learning

What Is Thought?

Cogito ergo sum. This famous Latin phrase comes from the French philosopher René Descartes in the early 1600s. Translated into English, it means “I think; therefore I am.” It’s actually a profound philosophical idea, and people have argued about it for centuries: the fact that we can be aware of ourselves thinking is the proof of our own existence. Descartes thought that even if we were dreaming, even if some powerful god were deceiving us to believe that there was a physical world outside of our own minds, we could still know that we existed as at least a conscious thinking mind.  Although we could be mistaken that there was a physical world outside our own minds, we could not be mistaken that we existed as a thinking being. Regardless of Descartes’s philosophical point here, he draws on the widely accepted idea that thinking is intimately connected to being human and that, as humans, we are all thinking beings.

What, then, are thinking and thought? Below are some basic working definitions:

  • Thinking is the mental process you use to form associations and models of the world. When you think, you manipulate information to form concepts, to engage in problem-solving, to reason, and to make decisions.
  • Thought can be described as the act of thinking that produces thoughts, which arise as ideas, images, sounds, or even emotions.

Many great thinkers and theorists have dedicated their lives to the study of thought, trying to understand exactly how humans receive, absorb, generate, and transmit thought—and also how they learn. One such thinker was Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist who was particularly interested in how people learn. In 1956, Dr. Bloom chaired a committee of educators that developed and classified a set of learning objectives, which came to be known as Bloom’s taxonomy. This classification system has been updated a little since it was first developed, but it remains important for both students and teachers in helping to understand the skills and structures involved in learning.

What Is Metacognition?

For many of us, our teachers asked us in kindergarten or first grade to “put on our thinking caps.” That phrase may partially have been a clever way for a harried teacher to get young scholars to calm down and focus, but the idea is an apt depiction of how we think. Depending on the situation, we may have to don several very different caps to do our best thinking. Knowing which cap to wear in which situation so we are most prepared, effective, and efficient becomes the work of a lifetime. When you can handle more than one complex thought at a time or when you need to direct all your focus on one crucial task is highly individual. Some people study well with music on in the background while others need absolute silence and see any noise as a distraction. Many chefs delight in creating dinners for hundreds of people in a chaotic kitchen but don’t care for making a meal for two at home.

Metacognition is simply thinking about thinking. The most basic kinds of metacognition involve things like considering whether an idea or thought is true and reflecting on whether your desire for cake is something you should indulge. When we ask whether a statement is true or false we are thinking about a thought (and whether it is true).  For example, “Black swans are indigenous only to Australia” is a claim whose truth we may be in some doubt about. When we wish that we didn’t desire the cake we are reflecting on our desire for cake. Developmental psychiatrist John Flavell coined the term metacognition and divided the theory into three processes of planning, tracking, and assessing your own understanding.[1]

“Becoming aware of your thought processes and using this awareness deliberately is a sign of mature thinking.”

Students use metacognition when they practice self-awareness and self-assessment. For example, you may be reading a difficult passage in a textbook on chemistry and recognize that you are not fully understanding the meaning of the section you just read or its connection to the rest of the chapter. In college especially, thinking about your thinking is crucial so you know what you don’t know. If you can identify what you don’t understand, then you can make choices about what you should spend your limited time studying.

You may decide to highlight difficult terms to look up, write a summary of each paragraph in as few sentences as you can, or join a peer study group to work on your comprehension. If you know you retain material better if you hear it, you may read out loud or watch video tutorials covering the material. These are all examples of thinking about how you think and adapting your behavior based on this metacognition. If you periodically assess your progress toward a goal, such as checking your grades in a course every few weeks during a long semester so you know how well you are doing, this is also metacognition.

Beyond just being a good idea, thinking about your own thinking process allows you to reap great benefits from becoming more aware of and deliberate with your thoughts. If you know how you react in a specific thinking or learning situation, you have a better chance to improve how well you think or to change your thoughts altogether by tuning into your reaction and your thinking. You can plan how to move forward because you recognize that the way you think about a task or an idea makes a difference in what you do with that thought.

Becoming Aware of Your Thinking

Just as elite athletes watch game footage and work with coaches to improve specific aspects of their athletic performance, students can improve their mindset and academic performance by starting to be aware of what they think. If a baseball pitcher recognizes that the curveball that once was so successful in producing strikeouts has not worked as well recently, the pitcher may break down every step of the physical movement required for the once-successful pitch. He and his coaches may notice a slight difference they can remedy during practice to improve the pitch.

A baseball pitcher in mid throw, pitching the ball.
Baseball pitchers and coaches analyze every component of their motion using video and other technology. (Credit: West Point, The US Military Academy / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))

Likewise, if Shamika, for instance, wants to be more generally optimistic and not dwell on negative thoughts, she may ask her friends to mention every negative post she places on social media. Shamika may go even further by stopping herself when she says something that is not in line with her new, optimistic mindset. She could jot down the instance in a journal and capture her feelings at the time so that later she could analyze or think through why she was negative at that time.

This same practice can be applied to school work. If you know that you procrastinate on assignments, that’s an example of metacognition. If you then take action based on that observation by asking a friend to be your accountability buddy to help keep you on track, you’ve taken action to change. Simply recognizing that you want to avoid procrastination isn’t likely to magically change the situation, especially if procrastination is an issue that you’ve struggled with habitually. Recognition does, however, allow you to contemplate alternatives instead of becoming frustrated or mindlessly continuing to sabotage your sincere goals. Another example of metacognition as applied to school is what we can call active reading, or taking notes on what one reads (see the section in this chapteron “Evaluating Information”). If you don’t know what a word means, look it up and write it down. If you have a question about what something means, write that question down. If you have a thought that ties in a concept you’ve learned in some other course, make a note of it.  If you have an example to illustrate a concept, write it down.

Think now of a personal example of a habit you may want to change, such as smoking, or an attribute such as patience or perseverance you may want to improve in yourself. Can you determine what steps you may need to undertake to change this habit or to develop a stronger awareness of the need to change?

Using Thought Deliberately

If you need to plan, track, and assess your understanding to engage in metacognition, what strategies do you need to employ? Students can use metacognition strategies before, during, and after reading, lectures, assignments, and group work.


Students can plan and get ready to learn by asking questions such as

  • What am I supposed to learn in this situation?
  • What do I already know that might help me learn this information?
  • How should I start to get the most out of this situation?
  • What should I be looking for and anticipating as I read or study or listen?

As part of this planning stage, students may want to jot down the answers to some of the questions they considered while preparing to study. If the task is a writing assignment, prewriting is particularly helpful just to get your ideas down on paper. You may want to start an outline of ideas you think you may encounter in the upcoming session; it probably won’t be complete until you learn more, but it can be a place to start.


Students can keep up with their learning or track their progress by asking themselves the following questions:

  • How am I doing so far?
  • What information is important in each section?
  • Should I slow down my pace to understand the difficult parts more fully?
  • What information should I review now or mark for later review?

In this part of metacognition, students may want to step away from a reading selection and write a summary paragraph on what the passage was about without looking at the text. Another way to track your learning progress is to review lecture or lab notes within a few hours of the initial note-taking session. This allows you to have a fresh memory of the information and fill in gaps you may need to research more fully.


Students can assess their learning by asking themselves

  • How well do I understand this material?
  • What else can I do to understand the information better?
  • Is there any element of the task I don’t get yet?
  • What do I need to do now to understand the information more fully?
  • How can I adjust how I study (or read or listen or perform) to get better results moving forward?

Looking back at how you did on assignments, tests, and reading selections isn’t just a means to getting a better grade the next time, even if that does sometimes happen as a result of this sort of reflection. If you rework the math problems you missed on a quiz and figure out what went wrong the first time, you will understand that mathematical concept better than if you ignore the opportunity to learn from your errors. Learning is not a linear process; you will bring knowledge from other parts of your life and from your reading to understand something new in your academic or personal learning for the rest of your life. Using these planning, tracking, and assessing strategies will help you progress as a learner in all subjects.

Metacognition Can Help You Prepare

Have you ever looked back on a situation and wished you had handled it differently? For instance, imagine that after a long day at work or school you snapped at your roommates over a small problem, which then led to an argument that ruined your weekend plans. You’d been looking forward to a fun outing with a large group of friends, but now some people don’t want to go because of the tension between you and your roommates. Afterwards, you think about the argument and imagine several other ways you wish you had acted. You could have explained how tired you were, ignored your irritation, or even asked if you could continue the discussion at another time when you were less tired. That thought process is another form of metacognition.

Imagine how much more effective you could be in general if you were able to proactively prepare before the situation happens. Just the act of pausing to think through the potential consequences is a good first step to accomplishing the goal of using metacognition to reduce negative results.

Let’s apply this concept to school work. Let’s say you walk into your math class on Tuesday afternoon only to realize that you have a major closed-book exam that class session and you haven’t prepared. You look around to see nervous classmates reading notecards or working practice problems. You choose to stay and take the exam wholly unprepared. You end up with a low D on the exam and now must contemplate the consequences of that result.

Five students sitting quietly in a classroom, thoughtfully looking over their tests.
Self-awareness and self-assessment are critical in preparing for tests. (Credit: Magharebia / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))

Scoring such a low exam grade may not be the end of the world, but you may not maintain the GPA you had hoped for, you may need to repeat the course, or you may get further behind in this subject because you didn’t master the skills on this test. Now you need to decide what actions to take as a result of this self-awareness thinking. Contemplating the negative consequences of this low test score may lead you to make an appointment with your instructor to discuss your situation, which is always a good idea. Could you take an alternate exam to replace this atypical low score? Even if the answer is no, you have still made a connection and shown your instructor that you are seriously thinking about your coursework.

Now consider how your results could have been different if you had prepared using metacognition. What if you had entered your exam schedule onto your calendar beforehand and devised a viable plan to be prepared? You likely would have prepared in advance of exam days, studied the required materials, worked through similar problems, and come to the exam session more prepared than you did in the first example. Because you know you need a set amount of time to prepare for exams, you would have blocked that time on your calendar, possibly changing your work schedule for the week, declining social invitations, and otherwise altering your daily routine to accommodate this significant event. Consider how much better your results would be with this amount of preparation and how this would improve your overall performance in the course. You can take advantage of thinking about consequences before they happen so you can employ specific strategies to improve your learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify different patterns of thought, such as those found in Bloom’s Taxonomy

What Are Learning Objectives and Outcomes?

What exactly are learning objectives and outcomes? You may have already noticed them at the beginning of each new section in this textbook. Learning objectives and learning outcomes are goals that specify what someone will be capable of—or what someone will learn—as a result of a learning experience. Learning objectives and outcomes represent the goals for what you’re supposed to get out of this course and may indicate what is going to be on a test. The learning objectives and outcomes will identify what you should know or do.

These learning skills can be divided into three main categories or domains: the cognitive domain, the affective domain, and the psychomotor domain.

The Cognitive Domain of Learning

The cognitive domain of learning is divided into six main learning-skill levels, or learning-skill stages, that are arranged hierarchically—moving from the simplest of functions like remembering and understanding, to more complex learning skills, like applying and analyzing, to the most complex skills—evaluating and creating. The lower levels are more straightforward and fundamental, and the higher levels are more sophisticated.[2] See Figure 1, below.

Bloom's Taxonomy triangle chart. From the bottom to the top: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and finally Creating is at the top.
Figure 1. The new version of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The following table describes the six main skill sets within the cognitive domain.

Six Skill Sets of the Cognitive Domain
Remembering When you are skilled in remembering, you can recognize or recall knowledge you’ve already gained, and you can use it to produce or retrieve or recite definitions, facts, and lists. Remembering may be how you studied in grade school or high school, but college will require you to do more with the information. identify · relate · list ·  define · recall · memorize · repeat · record · name
Understanding Understanding is the ability to grasp or construct meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages. Each college course will introduce you to new concepts, terms, processes, and functions. Once you gain a firm understanding of new information, you’ll find it easier to comprehend how or why something works. restate · locate · report · recognize · explain · express · identify · discuss · describe · discuss · review · infer · illustrate · interpret · draw · represent · differentiate · conclude
Applying When you apply, you use learned material (or you implement the material) in new and concrete situations. In college, you will be tested on what you’ve learned in the previous levels. You will be asked to solve problems in new situations by applying understanding in new ways. You may need to relate abstract ideas to practical situations. apply · relate · develop · translate · use · operate · organize · employ · restructure · interpret · demonstrate · illustrate · practice · calculate · show · exhibit · dramatize
Analyzing When you analyze, you have the ability to break down or distinguish the parts of material into its components so that its organizational structure may be better understood. At this level, you will have a clearer sense that you comprehend the content well. You will be able to answer questions such as what if, why, or how something would work. analyze · compare · probe · inquire · examine · contrast · categorize · differentiate · contrast · investigate · detect · survey · classify · deduce · experiment · scrutinize · discover · inspect · dissect · discriminate · separate
Evaluating With skills in evaluating, you are able to judge, check, and even critique the value of material for a given purpose. At this level in college, you will be able to think critically. Your understanding of a concept or discipline will be profound. You may need to present and defend opinions. judge · assess · compare · evaluate · conclude · measure · deduce · argue · decide · choose · rate · select · estimate · validate · consider · appraise · value · criticize · infer
Creating With skills in creating, you are able to put parts together to form a coherent or unique new whole. You can reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing. Creating requires originality and inventiveness. It brings together all levels of learning to theorize, design, and test new products, concepts, or functions. compose · produce · design · assemble · create · prepare · predict · modify · plan · invent · formulate · collect · generalize · document combine · relate · propose · develop · arrange · construct · organize · originate · derive · write · propose

You can explore these concepts further in the two videos, below. The first is from the Center for Learning Success at Louisiana State University. It discusses Bloom’s taxonomy learning levels with regard to student success in college.

You can view the transcript for “Bloom’s Taxonomy” here.

This next video, Bloom’s Taxonomy Featuring Harry Potter Movies, is a culturally based way of understanding and applying Bloom’s taxonomy.

You can view the transcript for “Bloom’s Taxonomy feat Harry Potter” here.

The Power of Thought

From Bloom’s taxonomy of learning skills, you can see that thought and thinking can be understood as patterns—systems and schemes within the mind. There is order and structure in the way we think and in the way we process and internalize information.

As we look at patterns of thought, we can also think about the power of thought. As a result of many amazing and potent research and discoveries, the scientific community is learning a great deal about how malleable and constantly changing the brain is. For example, the act of thinking—just thinking—can affect not only the way your brain works but also its physical shape and structure. The following video explores some of these discoveries, which relate to all the thinking and thoughts involved in college success.

You can view the transcript for “The Scientific Power of Thought” here.


active reading: a form of metacognition where one takes notes while reading so as to be more aware of questions or connections evoked by the material

metacognition: thinking about thinking, or being in a state where we are aware of our own thoughts

cognitive domain: the category of learning skills that addresses what you should know

affective domain: the category of learning skills that addresses what you should care about

learning outcomes: goals that specify what someone will be capable of as a result of a learning experience

psychomotor domain: the category of learning skills that addresses what you should be able to do

  1. Flavell, J. H. "Metacognitive aspects of problem solving." The nature of intelligence, edited by L. B. Resnick, Erlbaum, 1976, pp. 231–236.
  2. Wilson, Leslie Owen. "Anderson and Krathwohl - Bloom's Taxonomy Revised." The Second Principle. 2013. Web. 10 Feb 2016.


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Patterns of Thought Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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