Synergy between students’ motivation and ‘thinking about thinking’ linked to academic achievement

Synergy between students’ motivation and ‘thinking about thinking’ linked to academic achievement

Students with low motivation also consistently display lower levels of certain essential core thinking skills; which appears to lead to underperformance at school, a study in Greece has found.

Using survey and attainment data from more than 1,000 teenagers in Greece during the academic year 2022-23, the University of Cambridge study identified a clear relationship between motivation and ‘metacognitive self-regulation’. Metacognitive self-regulation is often described as the ability to “think about thinking”, and refers to fundamental cognitive skills like planning, focusing and evaluating one’s work.

Students typically displayed comparable levels of both characteristics, and the study found that those with low motivation and metacognitive self-regulation also generally performed worse in Greek language tests. The proportion of students in this low-performing group was about 28%. This corresponds closely with recent data published by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in which roughly a quarter of Greek students were shown to be falling short of minimum academic proficiency levels by the time they were 15.

The study does not suggest that low motivation causes a drop in metacognitive skills; rather, it highlights a consistent relationship between the two which, they suggest, needs to be researched further. Students who were highly motivated also consistently had higher metacognition. This was again reflected in their Greek language test scores which were, on average, five points higher than students in the low-performing group.

If you are deeply invested in your studies, you are probably going to engage more with the process of how you study.

The study was led by Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher, and co-authored by Dr. Ros McLellan, both from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

“Within educational psychology, it has sometimes been suggested that high motivation could offset a lack of metacognitive self-regulation, and vice-versa,” Katsantonis said. “If students are struggling with planning or checking their work, some research suggests that sheer motivation could help them push through and achieve a reasonably good grade.”

“Our findings challenge this. If a student is highly motivated, it is likely they will already have high metacognitive self-regulation, and the reverse is true for those with low motivation.”

“This seems quite intuitive: if you are deeply invested in your studies, you are probably going to engage more with the process of how you study. It means that teachers need to be trained to cultivate both attributes in struggling students, rather than hoping one might compensate for the other.”

The study involved 1,046 Greek teenagers, with an average age of 14. The participants completed a survey which measured various indicators of both motivation and metacognition; such as ‘self-efficacy’ (their belief in their own capabilities), and their approach to planning and evaluating their work.

While most studies in this area focus on average levels of motivation and metacognition, the Cambridge researchers grouped the students according to similarities in their motivational and metacognitive profiles. They then looked at how students within each group performed in Greek language tests.

To the researchers’ surprise, just three dominant profiles emerged from the analysis. Just under a quarter of students (23.3%) displayed both exceptional motivation and high levels of metacognitive self-regulation. Around half (48.2%) had average levels of both. The remaining 28.5% showed poor levels of motivation and very low capability when it came to self-regulating their learning. The gaps between the high-performing and low-performing groups were deemed substantial.

This alignment of motivation and metacognition was strikingly consistent: no group of students emerged, for example, with low motivation but strong metacognitive skills. This suggests that the two traits operate synergistically.

Differences between the average Greek language grades in each of the three groups  suggested that these profiles were clearly linked to academic achievement. In Greece, students are graded on a scale of 0 to 20. Those with ‘exceptional’ motivation and metacognition scored an average of 18.01 out of 20, those in the ‘adequate’ group averaged 16.05, and those in the ‘minimal’ group 13.02. The average performance gap between highly motivated students with strong metacognitive skills, and those in the lower-performing category, was therefore five points: a quarter of the total available.

We might have to reconsider how distinct these categories are when assessing their impact on learning.

The study’s authors stress that high motivation and metacognition does not guarantee better academic results. For example, 15% of the variance in students’ academic achievement was attributed to the school they attended.

Certain factors were also found to predict the likelihood of students belonging to one group over another. Boys, for example, were more likely to fall into the group with low motivation and metacognitive skills, while those from wealthier households were 20% less likely to appear in the low-achieving group. Even taking school differences and demographics into account, however, the data suggest a huge attainment gap in statistical terms.

Within Greece, many secondary-level teachers only have limited pedagogical training. Katsantonis said that more comprehensive initial teacher education would allow new teachers to familiarise themselves with some of the psychological principles behind their work and better prepare them both to build students’ enthusiasm for learning and enhance their metacognitive abilities.

More broadly, the study emphasises the need for accurate and early identification of students who have low motivation and low levels of the necessary metacognitive skills. It suggests that teaching models which adapt to students’ individual needs, rather than one-size-fits-all approaches, might be more effective in this regard.

Katsantonis also emphasised that while educational psychologists often treat different aspects of motivation and metacognition as distinctive, a unifying theory which shows how they interrelate might be required. “We might have to reconsider how distinct these categories are when assessing their impact on learning,” he said. “At the moment, we tend to treat them as if they are separate pieces in a puzzle. I would argue that we should think of them more as a framework: a coherent system where the pieces are continuously working together.”

The findings are published in PLOS One.

Image in this story: Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.