Motivation and Metacognition

One of the most common issues teachers face is keeping their students motivated and aware of their own cognitive processes during learning experiences. This is because student comprehension becomes more difficult if students lack the motivation to remain present and engaged in the construction of their knowledge. If left unaddressed, this lack of motivation can lead to poor academic performance. Another factor that can impact student comprehension and performance is metacognition. Metacognition refers to an individual’s awareness and critical analysis of their own thought processes and cognitive ability. It is an important determiner of student performance, because if students are aware of their own comprehension and cognitive processes, they are better positioned to revise or discontinue them when needed.

Student Motivation

There are two types of motivation that may influence how engaged students are in a learning experience and the value they hope to or should derive out of it:

  1. Intrinsic motivation. This refers to the internal or personal factors (specific to each student) that a student uses to determine their field of study as well as how well they perform in that field. To put it another way, intrinsic motivation refers to the motivation that stems internally from individual students. Intrinsic motivators can therefore answer questions such as “Why am I studying this subject?” They therefore include personal reasons such as an interest in the subject matter, a sense of accomplishment associated with mastery, and an aptitude for the field (Vanderbilt University, 2017). Due to the personal nature of intrinsic motivation, it is often more sustainable than extrinsic motivation. Attempts at fostering intrinsic motivation should therefore focus on student learning (understanding and growth) rather than focusing on performance alone. That said, there are potential drawbacks associated with this type of motivation. Fostering intrinsic motivation requires teachers to have a deeper understanding of the personal reasons motivating students, and learning this information may be a lengthy process (during which you build and nurture student-teacher relationships). The effects of this process may also take time to manifest in the form of improved student performance (Bain, 2004).
  2. Extrinsic motivation. This refers to the external factors that are used to encourage students to participate and perform well in their learning experiences. (Bain, 2004). Extrinsic motivators are the external factors that influence student motivation and performance. These include the expectations of influential individuals (for example, parents, guardians, role models, and mentors), the earning potential associated with that field or qualification, and academic performance (grades) (Vanderbilt University, 2017). Extrinsic motivators answer questions like “What do I get out of this course?”One of the advantages of extrinsic motivation is that it can be quick to result in improved student performance. For example, if a student fails an assignment, this may motivate them to improve their performance ahead of their next assignment. Extrinsic motivators are therefore also broadly-applicable and not reliant on existing student-teacher relationships. However, extrinsic motivators may become ineffective over time. Students may require stronger rewards (or punishments) to keep them engaged throughout the learning journey. The removal of rewards or punishments may result in demotivation (Bain, 2004).

Bain (2004) identifies numerous research-based strategies that teachers can use to motivate their students. These include:

  1. Engage your students. Let your passion for the content influence how you present it to students. The more engaged you are, the more motivated they may become.
  2. Build student-teacher relationships. Learning about each of your students and investing in their performance will encourage their personal investment in their performance.
  3. Contextualize information. Use examples to show students why their performance and comprehension of the content is valuable beyond the learning experience.
  4. Use active learning techniques. Active learning techniques give students the opportunity to engage with their academic growth, development, and performance.
  5. Create realistic learning goals (outcomes). By identifying the goals that a student is expected to achieve, you make them aware of milestones they can use to measure and drive their performance.
  6. Test and grade students appropriately. Use assignments to gauge what students know, and how well they know it. Students can then use these assignments to identify areas for improvement.
  7. Provide regular feedback. Feedback, both in the form of praise and constructive criticism, will motivate students to hone their knowledge and skills.
  8. Encourage active participation. Give students the opportunity to further participate in their learning journey by allowing them to identify individual topics for their projects, for example.

Grit and Persistence

Grit and persistence can have a significant impact on student well-being, performance, and motivation. Angela Lee Duckworth and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler (2013) define grit as the hard work or effort and persistence an individual needs to pursue and achieve long-term goals in spite of failure, adversity, and stagnated progress. The authors also found that individuals who possess natural talents for or show innate competency in certain fields sometimes display less grit, which may impact the stamina with which they pursue long-term goals. It seems, therefore, that grit and persistence may in some cases serve as better measures of academic success and performance than ability alone.

Through their research, Duckworth and Eskreis-Winkler have found that, as individuals mature and progress through adulthood, their ability to persist at tasks increases. This may be due to increased appreciation of hard work and persistence. Alternatively, this phenomenon may also be the product of continued identity formation, or increased cognitive control compared to childhood. The more individuals explore and are exposed to various professions and areas of study, the more attuned they become to their own desired career paths. Once these are identified, individuals can commit and spend time and effort nurturing their skills in these areas (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler, 2013).

This presence of grit can then be more easily identified and measured by analyzing behavioral mechanisms with which it is associated. One of these mechanisms is deliberate practice, which was touched on in the previous unit of this module. Through a study they conducted around the performance of children in a national spelling bee, Duckworth and Eskreis-Winkler (2013) found that students who measured higher in grit engaged in more hours of deliberate practice. It was also these students who performed better in the spelling bee. This research supports the idea that grit is linked to achievement (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler, 2013).

Students who are committed to learning, regardless of potential adverse circumstances, stand to gain more from their education. As such, it would be helpful if you, as a teacher, knew how to foster or cultivate this trait. Although research on this topic is ongoing, Duckworth and Eskreis-Winkler (2013) argue that grit may be related to students having growth mindsets. A growth mindset refers to the belief that intelligence and academic ability is not fixed, but rather that it can grow and change over time. Growth and fixed mindsets are touched on in greater detail in Module 7; however, at this stage it is worth noting that some studies have shown positive associations between the presence of growth mindsets and grit in students. This suggests that grit may be better fostered in students with a growth mindset (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler, 2013).

Based on this research, it may be valuable for teachers to instill in students a growth mindset, which is characterized by viewing failures and setbacks as learning opportunities, thus shaping students with more grit and motivation (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler, 2013).

The Role of Emotion

Emotion is one the most significant intrinsic factors that can affect student motivation and performance. The model of self-regulation explained in this section is premised on the idea that individuals make decisions and select behaviors that will help them achieve identified goals. This model is made up of three processes.

Self Regulation
Figure 1: The self-regulation model. (Adapted from: University of Washington, 2013)

Each of these processes is discussed in turn below. Section 5.2 then looks at the role emotion plays in each of these processes.

  1. Goal selection. As is implied in the title, the first process of this self-regulation model involves individuals identifying the goals they would like to achieve. Often, these goals are influenced by an individual’s expectation of their ability to reach the goal. In selecting these goals and setting expectations, individuals attach positive attributions or values to attaining the goal, and negative attributions to not attaining it. If, for example, a student set the goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, the strength of their motivation would be a combination of the expectations and values associated with this goal. Low expectations and negative values would result in a lack of motivation to attain the goal. (NB: Broader goals, such as becoming a surgeon, can carry more substantial value than specific, narrow goals (such as passing a test) and may therefore be associated with increased motivation over time.)
  2. Preparation for action. Once a clear goal has been set – one that has positive expectations and values – individuals need to prepare to achieve this goal. This can involve creating an achievement plan, carrying out research, and practicing the necessary behaviors. In keeping with the prior example, this could take the form of researching the requirements for successfully obtaining a bachelor’s degree in microbiology (University of Washington, 2013).
  3. Cybernetic cycle of behavior. The final process in the self-regulation model is the cybernetic cycle of behavior or controlling behavior. Cybernetics in this case refers to how individuals regulate their behaviors based on the information they gather. This cycle or process is also referred to using the acronym TOTE, in which the letters denote the four steps of the process:
    1. Test: During the first step, individuals compare a value or situation against a certain standard (University of Washington, 2013). For example, a student could compare their current academic performance with their desired performance.
    2. Operate: In the second step, action is taken to reach the identified standard (University of Washington, 2013). For example, a student may engage in deliberate practice to improve their knowledge and performance in a subject area.
    3. Test: The third step of the process is an additional test phase during which individuals test their new value against the original standard (University of Washington, 2013). A student may compare their new test performance with their original performance goal.
    4. Exit: If the action chosen during step two is successful, the standard or goal will have been reached (University of Washington, 2013). At this stage, individuals can therefore quit the process. For example, if a student has reached their desired performance, their goal is considered to have been achieved.

Cybernetic Cycle
Figure 2: The cybernetic cycle of behavior. (Adapted from: University of Washington, 2013)

In its original form, the cybernetic cycle of behavior, TOTE, does not explicitly account for the complexity of human emotions and behavior. It is also beyond the scope of these notes to explore in detail how human emotions impact motivation. However, as teachers, it is important to be aware that emotions may both positively or negatively affect student motivation and performance. Your role is therefore to encourage students to set broad, personal goals that speak to their passions and interests and will motivate them to remain steadfast and unwavering in their pursuit. These goals and this mindset may then motivate students to invest and see the value in their academic journeys. 

Ultimately, part of your role as a teacher is to understand that your students are not homogenous and will inevitably have diverse interests and goals, and to acknowledge how you may adequately support each student.

The Overconfidence Effect

The overconfidence effect is a phenomenon that can result in the demotivation of previously-motivated students. While grit and high self-efficacy can lead to increased motivation in students, it can also be the case that excessively high feelings of self-efficacy (overconfidence) can have a detrimental effect on motivation (Moore & Healy, 2008). Moore and Healy (2008) define overconfidence as referring to when:

  • A person’s confidence or belief in their ability does not align with their actual, observed ability (overestimation); 
  • A person overestimates their performance compared with other individuals (overplacement); or
  • A person is excessively precise in their beliefs of their ability (overprecision).

In such instances, the observed (objective) ability is misaligned with their perceived ability. Through their research, Moore and Healy (2008) have found that instances of overprecision occur more often than overestimation and overplacement. Additionally, when overprecision appears alongside overestimation or overplacement, it minimizes the scope of these two types of overconfidence.

An example of overconfidence is the planning fallacy. This refers to when a person underestimates the time it will take them to complete a task or reach a goal. Individuals who are unable to complete a task in the time they have allocated are overconfident in their task-completing abilities (within that given time frame). Individuals who are overconfident (or subject to the planning fallacy) may set goals for themselves that they are unable to achieve, which may lower their confidence in their abilities, leading to demotivation (Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1994).

Formative and summative assessments provide students with the opportunity to constantly gauge their objective skill in an area as it relates to their perceived skill, thus providing them with a clearer measure of their ability. Students can then use the results of these assessments to determine if and how they can improve their academic performance to reach their imagined ability or desired skill level. Alternatively, students may also use these assessments to set goals that are attainable and in alignment with their current skill level. Ultimately, by providing frequent opportunities for students to measure their ability, you are better enabling them to create goals that they know they can achieve, which will ensure they remain motivated in their pursuit of said goals.