It is recognized widely that learning is a dynamic and idiosyncratic process of construction and reconstruction of concepts in response to new experiences. It is influenced by the learner's prior knowledge, motivation, and sociocultural context. This study investigated how year 11 and 12 physics students' metacognition influences the development of their conceptual understandings of kinematics. An interpretive case study approach was used to investigate students working in collaborative groups in the context of an amusement park physics program. The metacognitive character of individual learners was demonstrated to have a strong influence on their conceptual development. Moreover, the metacognitive character of individuals within the small group contexts investigated was a key factor influencing the groups' collective knowledge development. A coyote–rabbit metaphor was developed to interpret the resilience and weaknesses of individual and group knowledge construction processes, and elucidates new theoretical understandings regarding metacognition and its influence on knowledge construction. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed91:298–320, 2007