Motivation: A Metacognitive Perspective

Showtime did a one hour documentary on Kobe Bryant to get a personal look inside his life. It showed his basketball roots in foreign countries and the different progressions he made at various junctions leading up to his current position at that time as a superstar of the Lakers.  In one part, Bryant talked about an early playoff experience. L.A. was playing in Utah with the game on the line with few a seconds remaining. A win would mean advancing to the championship and loss would mean the end of the season. Kobe requested the ball, had a clean look, took the final shot, and missed. The season was over. The team flew back to L.A. disappointed. Upon arrival Bryant went directly to a local high school to mentally replay and practice the final shot. He practiced all night until the next morning. Watching this left a feeling of wonder and admiration. The season was over; he should have taken a few days of rest. How does player harness this kind of will under these conditions? It was at this point that an interest to better understand motivation came about. I wanted to see if there was a systematic way to develop it. If students could better understand and control it, they could use it successfully to affect their learning outcomes. To reach my objective I looked at three areas of motivation. First was to to see where motivation comes from and the factors that contribute to it. Second was to see how it could be cultivated from a metacognitive perspective. Light research showed that strategies for developing it focused on instruction rather the individual. That is an educational professional modifies the instruction to affect the student rather teaching the skills to the student so that he can apply it himself. Finally it was important to examine motivation models designed for instruction. This would help to understand it from an instructional perspective and see differences in models and from self-motivation. Two examples are the ARCS model developed by John Keller and a model developed by Dan Pink, which has a framework that’s more user directed.

Motivation is the desire to engage in an activity and founded on a conglomeration of theories that include the expectancy-value and the ARCS model of motivation. Key principles are personal beliefs, interest, needs, usefulness, goals, and satisfaction. Belief means confidence, the determination in one’s ability to complete a task; and value are the things we consider to be important. Each of the principles work together but the amount of influence that one has determines motivation. For example a person who believes in a healthy lifestyle will regularly exercise. This becomes a goal and the associated activities are both useful and satisfy a need. The satisfaction from exercise fulfills an interest. However, if confidence is low, there may be procrastination or in severe cases avoidance.

Motivation is uniquely different for each person as a result of different factors and conditions that drive and influence it. This occurs within the individual, from the environment, and social connections (Barger & Byrd, 2011; Eccles, 2009). These variables can also change the amount of motivation over a given period of time.  A consistent high level of motivation plays an important role to excellent learning. A colleague and I were talking about students and the difficulty in motivating high school students the day after exams. There were usually two groups of students. The academically strong, who were focused and ready to study the day after the exam, and the regular students who were burned out and unmotivated. A key difference is motivation. Even if both groups had less than favorable test results, the academically strong would recover from their disappointments quicker. It could be that these students naturally or consciously exhibit the underlying skills that contribute to motivation (in addition to good studying habits). Keller’s systematic method focused on the instruction rather than the learner because of the difficulty in adjusting for the individual variations.  However, this aspect of motivation should not be overlooked because much of it is determined by the individual. If the problem is not the instruction, a systematic process should be ready so that the individual can make the appropriate adjustments. One way to do this is from a metacognitive perspective.

Metacognition is when an individual tries to understand how his mind works by being reflective and aware of the cognitive processes. Many say that it is thinking about your thoughts. Research has shown that constant monitoring of thoughts helps to accelerate learning. Learners are able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, adapt their learning, and transfer their knowledge to new contexts (Chick, n.d.). However, John Flavell stated that children are not aware of metacognition. It’s not surprising being that they are not taught to do this kind of thinking. When children learn a subject the focus is to understand and think about the content rather than doing a self-analysis on how the content affects the mind for further improvement. This means that teachers need to overtly teach metacognition to students so that they are able to better recognize and monitor these thoughts. This will provide a transition for students to apply metacognitive principles to motivation. By being aware of and monitoring motivation, student will be able to better control it to help correct problems and fluctuations. My proposed solution has five steps:

  1. Students must understand motivation and the principles that contribute to it both positively and negatively.
  2. They should understand metacognition with examples and exercises for them recognize and practice this method of thinking.
  3. Identify a task or goal.
  4. Assess motivation for that task using the assessment example below.
  5. Apply strategies to fix motivation.

Example Task: _____
Motivation Assessment: (1: strongly disagree 2 3 4 5 strongly agree)
I understand the task and feel good about the level of difficulty.
The task ( information, activities, and skills) used are interesting.
The information, activities, and skills are useful for my personal goals
The level of difficulty was good (challenging but not too difficult).
Fatigue or stress did not negatively affect my motivation.
I can bounce back from disappointments.
There aren’t distractions that could affect my motivation.
Other comments and thoughts:

A key to metacognitive motivation is to monitor it before starting a task. This will help learners to assess and identify potential causes for problems and at the same time to refocus on the task and goals. Learners can organize thoughts and plan a strategy to deal with the situation. If I were to do an example on myself, I would identify the task, think about the overall motivation level for that task, and look at the assessment statements to understand it in more detail.

  1. Task: Teach English to 6th grade second language learners
  2. Motivation level: Feels low — I’d rather be doing something else.
  3. Assess
    1. Interest: teaching basic English to elementary students is not particularly stimulating
    2. Need: it’s my job: as a result it’s important to do the best that I can
    3. Goal: there is a connection but not as direct with my long term goal
  4. Solution
    1. Job: must do it well: be the best teacher that I can be
    2. Stimulate: create a lesson and make it a goal to teach it so that students reach it
    3. Don’t procrastinate: start planning the lesson: once I start I notice that attention is diverted and no longer thinking about the negative
    4. Talk to others: see they how deal with this situation

During the self-analysis students should again look at the principles that affect motivation and where the problem could exist – within the individual, task/instruction, or an outside environment. Practicing this exercise regularly with our daily tasks can be beneficial because it refocuses our thoughts on its purpose and how it aligns with our goals. When we do things in routine without reflecting we may overlook and become careless on the details. After identifying the problem one should develop a plan for making changes to correct the problem. The solution for this motivation model should be determined by the individual because of the individual differences in motivation. However, it’s likely to be more effective by applying one or more of the recommended solutions and working with an educator, friend, or family member who can further guide and provide additional insight. Some of the strategies that can resolve motivation issues include: exploring a curiosity, self direct learning, collaborating with others, setting long term and short term goals, recording progress, and having belief. (add description on effectiveness of exercise: consistent application for week, make note of motivation levles, outcome; task: could be any including those less than eager to do)

In a structured learning environment motivation should be addressed in two ways. One is to use a systematic process for self-motivation and the other is the motivational guidelines added to an instructional system. The self-method allows learners to customize the settings within a structured system. It’s similar to the idea that learning is systematically organized in school and created through collaboration, but how we understand and the path we take to achieve it is slightly different for each individual. Keller’s ARCS model recommended a motivational strategy targeting the instruction in the following manner. 1. Instructors analyze the learners to identify motivational gaps within the four motivation categories (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction). 2. S/he would then refer to the motivation table to plan and design a strategy recommended for a particular category. 3. The instructor would further develop the strategy and integrate it into the instruction. 4. Finally, s/he would evaluate the motivational strategy and its effectiveness in terms of “persistence, intensity of effort, emotion, and attitude (Keller, 1987, p. 31).” (possible to measure?) As an example: Add incongruent or humorous information at the beginning to grab learners’ attention; show how the instruction builds on the learners’ existing skills to add relevance; and provide information on the amount of time and effort required to be successful in the course to help with confidence.

An alternate model proposed by Dan Pink gave learners the freedom to learn in their own way but within the constraints of an organization. Data from experiments showed that extrinsic rewards such as financial incentives were ineffective for improving tasks that required cognitive skills. It even showed that results were the same when the experiment was done in a less affluent country. The key to motivation was to cultivate it intrinsically using autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Unlike Keller’s model which is more instructor-centered, this is learner-centered. As an example, a company gave employees the freedom to work in any way they wanted but with the requirement to finish the stated objective within the given time frame. The result was positive in that the workers were more productive than the results that used extrinsic rewards and management control. This model emphasizes that giving learners the control naturally charges motivation, which then creates an interest, relevance, and satisfaction. This will lead learners wanting to achieve mastery or serving a higher purpose. Adding self-motivation to this model may still be beneficial for the same reason as before: More awareness means better control and better outcomes. Similar to a crop that grows naturally in the wild, if a farmer monitors and takes care of it through cultivation, the results will be better and more consistent. The study explained by Pink was done on adults in a company, but it may possible to replicate in a primary and secondary educational system. EDTECH 532 Games and Simulations at Boise State University could serve as a course model that educators could follow and tailor to their institutions. The graduate level online asynchronous course had the course objectives and all the related activities organized inside a learning management system at the beginning of the course. Students worked on any of the activities in a nonlinear fashion based on their motivation. There were no tests. Instead different kinds of assignments were be the main sources of assessments. When students reached a total of 2000 points, they were awarded an A for the course. Class meetings were held once a week for two hours where students were able to interact with one another to explore virtual worlds and participate in instructor-led discussions. Because this was an online course, students spent the majority of the time working independently on the course topics. For a course like this to be implemented into a primary and secondary system, there would have to be some changes or things to consider such as the questions below, but it could provide some interesting results.

Q: How should remediation be done?
Q: How would instruction and activities be managed if it requires prerequisite knowledge?
Q: How would instruction and class time be managed? EDTECH 532 was an online class which emphasized independent time but a traditional class would have a lot of student contact in one room.
Q: Would cheating be an issue?

Motivation is a powerful force that can greatly impact outcome. It’s dynamic so in order to keep it at high levels one must practice at it everyday.  It’s like a mental exercise. We often hear expressions like: the right attitude, staying focused, visualizing the plan, etc. These are exercises that we do to stay motivated.  The only difference is that by adding metacognition, an individual does a more detailed self-analysis and regularly monitors the thoughts and feelings on the actions that could negatively affect it. It looks at motivation from multiple angles to identify the problem and develop a solution. Motivation resides in the the individual and instruction. In an organized learning environment, a systematic method for developing it has focused on the instruction. One reason is that it’s complex to understand and measure but it may be worthwhile to further study and develop an instrument that could attempt accurately measure it. It could then applied to learning activities to further examine the correlations that could result.



Barger, A., & Byrd, K. (2011, May). Motivation and computer based instructional design by Barger and Byrd. Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education, 4(1). Retrieved from

Chick, N. Metacognition. Retrieved from

TED Talk. (2009, August 25). Dan Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation . Retrieved from

Eccles, J. (2009, Dec). Expectancy value motivation theory. Retrieved from

Flavell, J.H. (1979, Oct). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring. American Pyschologist, 34(10), 906-911. Retrieved from

Keller, J.M. (1979, Summer). Motivation and instructional design: A theoretical perspective. Journal of Instructional Development, 2(4), 26-34. Retrieved from

Keller, J.M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of motivation design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3). Retrieved from

Larson, M.B., & Lockee, B.B. (2014). Streamlined ID: A Practical Guide to Instructional Design, 167-175. New York: Routledge.


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