Linking metacognition and pupil motivation

Written by: Anoara Mughal | Published:
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Pupil motivation is a key ingredient to successful teaching but motivation can be a slippery concept and difficult to foster. Anoara Mughal considers how teachers can create an environment which will motivate learners

Keeping pupils motivated and aware of their cognitive processes during the learning process is an all too familiar challenge for teachers.

Keeping pupils engaged when they lack motivation to be present in the moment and engaged in the construction of their knowledge is no mean feat. Pupil performance can not only be affected by the lack of motivation but by a lack of awareness of how they think.

Metacognition is the “critical analysis of thought processes and cognitive ability” and “understanding this will put them in a better position to be in control of their own learning” (Siqueira, 2020).
An important point is that motivation levels fluctuate depending on a whole host of variables and we should therefore be mindful that not all pupils will be highly motivated to learn when they come to school. As such, we must seek to “actively build on motivation for learning” (Mccrea, 2020).

Cognition, metacognition, and motivation are the three elements of self-regulated learning, which are interconnected. In this article, we will focus on the link between metacognition and motivation.

What is motivation?

Motivation is a complex, abstract and invisible device, which we are only now beginning to unravel. We do not yet know enough about it to fully utilise it. However, we can start looking at the science behind it and begin discussions around it (Mccrea, 2020).

First of all, let us consider different definitions of motivation. One definition is that it is “the attribute that moves us to do or not do something” (Gredler et al, 2004).

In other words “it is about our willingness to engage both our cognitive and metacognitive skills and apply them to learning” (Mughal, 2021).

According to Peps Mccrea (2020), not only is motivation a “system of allocating attention” but it also influences behaviour, learning and wellbeing.

It is believed that motivation is something which has developed over millions of years, and it is something which is required to help survival during uncertain times when resources are scarce.

Motivation is defined as beliefs and attitudes that affect the use and development of cognitive and metacognitive skills, when considered within the context of metacognition (Schraw et al, 2006, cited in Lai, 2011).

Beliefs about how to cope with new experiences and solve problems affect our levels of motivation. There must be a connection between prior knowledge and reflection about new knowledge. That connection is metacognition (see later).

Schools are filled with pupils who are highly motivated, those who are not motivated at all, and those somewhere in the middle (just like your typical workforce)!

As children progress through school, motivation levels usually decline (Mughal, 2021). Even though, teachers strive to motivate their pupils to learn every single day and it can be a huge challenge to get everyone on board, largely due to external factors beyond the teacher’s control.

The underlying cause of the constant battle to motivate is not from the lack of dedication but due to “a lack of our understanding about what it is and how it works” (Mccrea, 2020). This is where the science comes in.

The other issue is that we all have different personalities, needs and wants and different things that drive us. How can teachers therefore create an environment which will motivate all pupils?

A motivational environment

In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive (2011), he says that the way we have understood human motivations is wrong. He describes motivation as being in stages and has numbered them 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.

Motivation 1.0 is surviving and hunting – that is motivation at its basic level. Motivation 2.0 is how humans start responding to rewards and punishments, which is roughly where we are with our understanding of motivation (and even then we cannot quite get it right).

Pink argues that we need to upgrade our understanding of motivation to 3.0, where we start to look at how we are wired for learning and developing.

Although Pink’s book is geared towards the business world, we can all recognise some of the drivers for motivation he discusses, such as having a sense of purpose, getting in the flow, providing mastery experiences, creating buy-in and a sense of belonging.

There are some overlaps with Mccrea’s (2020) five important drivers for motivation, which are:

  1. Secure success
  2. Run routines
  3. Nudge norms
  4. Build belonging
  5. Boost buy-in

Unpicking the elements underlying motivation can give us a better understanding of change management when it comes to the complex task of school improvement.

Purpose, belonging and buy-in

Creating a sense of purpose is very important for everyone – not just pupils. Having vision and values, creating autonomy and mastery empowers school communities to have a sense of purpose. Underpinning all of that is understanding “why” we are doing something – crucial in developing motivation.

There are a number of ways of developing the school’s understanding of purpose. Developing relationships, having high expectations, gaining quick wins, being clear, consistent and explicit about the message, and focusing on the “why” are all very important factors for driving motivation.

Getting to know people in teams and middle leaders having strong leadership team links contribute towards building motivation. This is not too dissimilar to teaching a room full of children.

It is important to communicate why we are doing what we are doing whether leading a school or delivering in the classroom. Instead of using a “carrot and stick”, over-communicate with examples (Pink, 2011; Mccrea, 2020). Mention the purpose in every newsletter assembly, presentation, parents’ evening and so on to get everyone on board. Write the narrative and hold yourself to account for the purpose. When the focus shifts to the purpose, sanctions are less frequently needed.

Setting goals

Setting goals is a fantastic way to get pupils to “see” that they are being successful. It is a way of monitoring and assessing their own behaviour and emotions, in addition to monitoring their levels of effort and attention.

Another advantage of goal-setting is that it helps pupils to evaluate how successfully they have attended to or completed a task. This can also be used as way of monitoring how successfully they have acquired new skills, understanding and knowledge. When goals are set effectively, it can increase pupil motivation, as it provides a structure. When short-term goals are set, pupils are able to see their success more easily.

It is important to focus on the bigger picture, too. Goal-setting supports pupils and staff to self-regulate and helps to foster a sense of success. Effective goals are explicit in nature and increase motivation. When we set short-term goals, it helps us to recognise or see our successes, on the way to meeting longer-term objectives.

As cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham has frequently said, thinking and attention is effortful. Having small picture and bigger picture aims provides a scaffold and alleviates the effortful thinking. It also means attention can be focused on what matters.

Although extrinsic rewards can be used for short-term purposes, these are usually frowned upon because after the reward is taken away, motivation dissipates. Therefore, it is important to develop intrinsic motivation by developing self-efficacy, which is the belief of succeeding at a future task (Mughal, 2021).

According to Lai (2011), those who have higher levels of self-efficacy tend to be more motivated. Metacognition is the bridge between self-concept and self-efficacy.

By managing, monitoring and reviewing how we think (metacognition), we can successfully move from recognising and comparing our feelings of motivation in past events or situations (self-concept) to measuring our expectations about success.

Apart from short-term and long-term goals, we also should consider the use of performance and mastery goals (Siqueira et al, 2020). Performance goals help in the identification of strengths and weaknesses and are concerned with achieving a particular target, whereas mastery goals are about improving performance.

The issue with just using performance goals is that if a particular target is not achieved, it can have negative consequences for wellbeing.

Determination of effort, persistence and goal-setting work together to develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy helps determine the way in which we behave. If we think we are being successful, we are more likely to be motivated to put more effort into a task – success precedes motivation. Having said that it is important to have a collective understanding of what success means and looks like at your school.

Developing flow through challenge

Flow theory was first introduced in the 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied the effects of people taking part in activities for pleasure and not for money or recognition.

He discovered that when people were taking part in intense tasks, they enjoyed them more because their attention was fully absorbed. He named this “flow” because people described it as though they were flowing along a current in the river when undertaking the activities; they described them as intense experiences.

He found that the task had to be challenging enough to and involved risk. He also found that flow state tends to occur during work rather than during free time (for more detail on his theories, see Headteacher Update, 2022).

Being in flow leads to mastery but the task or role must not be too challenging or too easy and it must be enjoyable. Pink (2011) calls this the Goldilocks principle. Flow can usually be seen for example when pupils have lightbulb moments.

When someone is not in the flow state, it is easy to become complacent. If the task is too difficult, they can become demotivated, so it is about getting the balance right. If a pupil is a high-performer and the task is not matched to their level of need to develop flow, it can be quite damaging.

Intrinsic motivation leads to stronger performance, health and overall wellbeing. High-performing people need autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with), and technique (how they do it). It is therefore important to identify which parts of the job require autonomy.

Having autonomy can lead to creativity and when it is not given we can become disaffected. Handing over the reins of autonomy should be carefully managed. If autonomy is given to novice learners they cannot manage it due to cognitive overload. Equally giving autonomy to someone whose purpose does not align with yours will not work either.

Therefore, being clear about which tasks to give autonomy to becomes really important. In addition, when handing over the reins of autonomy, someone needs to hold you to account.

As Siqueira et al (2020) state: “Metacognitive awareness and motivation to learn are closely related.”

Therefore, it is important to concentrate on strategies which promote self-regulated learning (see Mughal, 2022).

  • Anoara Mughal is the author of Think!: Metacognition-powered Primary Teaching (2021). She is a primary practitioner of 15 years and an experienced school leader of 10 years. For details, visit

Further information & resources

  • Gredler, Broussard & Garrison: The relationship between classroom motivation and academic achievement in elementary school aged children, Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal (33), 2004.
  • Headteacher Update: The best learning goes with the flow: The work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, February 2022:
  • Lai: Motivation: A literature review, Pearson Research Report, 2011:
  • Mccrea: Motivated Teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort in the classroom, November 2020:
  • Mughal: Think!: Metacognition-powered primary teaching, SAGE Publications, 2021.
  • Mughal: Metacognition and self-regulation in the primary classroom, Headteacher Update, June 2022:
  • Pink: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Canongate Books, 2011:
  • Siqueira et al: Relationship between metacognitive awareness and motivation to learn in medical students, BMC Medical Education (20, 393), 2020.

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