Supporting Student Learning Through Metacognitive and Motivational Strategies

Supporting Student Learning Through Metacognitive and Motivational Strategies

On Wednesday, May 10, we hosted Dr. Cristina Zepeda to discuss her latest research on how instructors can design their courses to help students more effectively use metacognitive and motivational study strategies to regulate their learning.

Key Takeaways

  • Students regulate their learning through various strategies that can work synergistically. These include:
    • Metacognitive study strategies – retrieval practice and metacognitive monitoring
    • Motivational strategies – utility value and reducing cost
  • As instructors, we can support the use of these strategies through the design and structure of our courses, e.g. the types of activities, feedback, and assessments.

How can we equitably and inclusively support students in the effective regulation of their learning? Dr. Cristina Zepeda, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, addresses these questions in her ongoing research to understand the mechanisms that contribute to better student learning outcomes. Dr. Zepeda posits two complementary constructs, metacognition and motivation, that can work together to engage students in evidence-based study strategies that improve knowledge retention and integration of new information. Metacognition involves the application of knowledge and skills that enable learners to monitor their thoughts and take action when they are not learning effectively. Likewise, motivation can impact when and how students engage in learning through persistence and effort or lack thereof. Dr. Zepeda’s talk focused on the application of these constructs to the study strategies that students choose to use throughout their college careers.

Metacognitive Strategies

According to cognitive science, learners engage in four types of processes for acquiring new knowledge: interactive, constructive, active, and passive (aka the ICAP framework; Chi & Wylie, 2014). Evidence shows that Interactive strategies are better than constructive ones, which are themselves preferable to active ones, which are preferable to passive strategies for retaining and integrating new knowledge (H. Chi, 2009). See the table below for a description of each. Moreover, learning activities that result in “desirable difficulties,” i.e., levels of challenge that are neither too large nor too small, typically lead to better long-term retention and application. (Bjork, 1994; Bjork, 1999).

In a sample of undergraduate college students, Zepeda and Nikes-Malach (2021) found that students reported engaging in active learning activities often and constructive learning to a lesser extent when preparing for an exam. If constructive study strategies are associated with improved learning and performance outcomes (Zepeda & Nokes-Malach, 2021), why don’t students engage in them more often? Furthermore, why do we see students from underrepresented minority groups (URMs) use more effective strategies even less frequently than their non-URM peers? Dr. Zepeda explained that it all comes down to motivation. When students were asked to rate their perception of constructive study strategies like retrieval practice and interleaving, students reported these methods as more effortful and therefore perceived them as less effective (Kirk-Johnson et al., 2019). In other words, students avoid these strategies because they perceive the cost-benefit ratio as being too high. To encourage students to use these more constructive strategies, instructors can work to decrease this perceived cost-benefit ratio by engaging students in activities to improve their motivation.

Motivational Strategies

Zepeda et al. (2020) identified five areas of motivation that may help students engage more and persist longer in learning tasks (see table below). For her presentation, Zepeda focused on the two areas that students most often identify as important: value and cost.

Utility-value interventions

If a learner perceives a task as relevant or useful for their life, it has utility value. “Taken as a whole, techniques that promote a positive perception of task value should lead learners to decide to engage with desirable difficulties because it is worth the effort and will be meaningful to them.” (Zepeda et al., 2020). For example, a short writing task (see box), appropriate for any class context, uses self-talk strategies that ask students to reflect upon and explain how the concepts they learned will help them in their everyday lives or future careers. Dr. Zepeda suggests that using a utility-value intervention between exams or other assessments could be an effective way for students to integrate a motivational strategy (finding value) with a metacognitive one (reflection.)

Utility Value Intervention

Objective: The purpose of this written assignment is to help in the comprehension and understanding of some major concepts covered in this course. It is intended to help you recognize the ways in which a particular topic that we covered in the last two weeks applies to your personal life. This assignment will also help you develop your writing skills. One key to effective writing is explaining how the concepts we cover can be used in everyday life. You’ll do this in a 500-600 word paper. You should:

  1. Formulate and answer a question.
  2. Explain how this applies to your life.

Write a 500-600 word essay answering this question, and discuss how the information could be useful to you in your own life.

Be sure to include some concrete information that was covered, explaining why the information is relevant to your life and useful for you. Be sure to explain how the information applies to you personally and give examples.

Reducing-cost interventions

There are different ways to view cost – two dimensions of cost commonly identified by students are (1) effort cost – the drawbacks and amount of time, effort, or work required to complete a task successfully, and (2) emotional costs – the negative psychological states (such as anxiety, boredom, and frustration) that occur when working on a task. A cost-reduction intervention designed by Emily Rosenzweig et al. (2020) at the University of Maryland aimed to help reduce the perception of these psychological costs of challenges faced by undergraduate students in a physics course. The activity had students read quotations from prior students describing their challenges and how they overcame them. Then students were asked to think about how they could address their challenges and reframe them to seem either: less challenging than initially thought, or as a normal, and expected opportunity for growth over time. The results showed that this short activity reduced students’ perceived costs and improved their course performance.

Integrating Metacognitive and Motivational Strategies

According to Dr. Zepeda’s latest research, simultaneous implementation of motivational strategies (e.g., finding value or reducing cost) and metacognitive processes can help students persevere through “desirable difficulties,” leading to more productive and efficient learning.

How to structure your course to support the use of these strategies:

Provide resources that are conducive to students quizzing themselves

  • Questions on a study guide
  • Sample problem sets

Incorporate reflection spaces to allow students to check their understanding

  • What was confusing or difficult?
  • What are you unsure of how to do?
  • What did you learn today?

Providing feedback to acknowledge the challenge or difficulties and model how a student might overcome it – draw upon past student experiences. (Also shows you care)

Dr. Zepeda is looking forward to continuing her research in this area and is seeking collaborators. If you are interested in a potential collaboration or would like more information about her work, please visit her website:


  • If you’d like to learn more about elaboration and self-explanation, there are some strategies in this TLL resource:


Chi, M. T. H., (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(1), 73-105.

Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219–243.

Eccles, J. (1983). Expectancies, values and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motives: Psychological and sociological approaches (pp. 75–146). W. H. Freeman and Company.

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational Beliefs, Values, and Goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 109–132.

Hulleman, C. S., Thoman, D. B., Dicke, A., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2017). The Promotion and Development of Interest: The Importance of Perceived Values. In Springer eBooks (pp. 189–208).

Kirk-Johnson, A., Galla, B. M., & Fraundorf, S. H. (2019). Perceiving effort as poor learning: The misinterpreted-effort hypothesis of how experienced effort and perceived learning relate to study strategy choice. Cognitive Psychology, 115, 101237.

Koedinger, K. R., Booth, J. L., & Klahr, D. (2013). Education research. Instructional complexity and the science to constrain it. Science (New York, N.Y.), 342(6161), 935–937.

Koedinger, K. R., Corbett, A. T., & Perfetti, C. (2012). The knowledge-learning-instruction framework: bridging the science-practice chasm to enhance robust student learning. Cognitive science, 36(5), 757–798.

Rosenzweig, E. Q., Wigfield, A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2020). More useful or not so bad? Examining the effects of utility value and cost reduction interventions in college physics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(1), 166–182.

Rozek, C. S., Svoboda, R. M., Harackiewicz, J. M., Hulleman, C. S., & Hyde, J. S. (2017). Utility-value intervention with parents increases students’ STEM preparation and career pursuit. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(5), 909–914.

Wolters, C. A. (1998). Self-regulated learning and college students’ regulation of motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 224–235.

Wolters, C. A. (2003). Regulation of Motivation: Evaluating an Underemphasized Aspect of Self-Regulated Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(4), 189–205.

Zepeda, C. D., Martin, R. S., & Butler, A. C. (2020). Motivational strategies to engage learners in desirable difficulties. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(4), 468–474.

(PDF) Motivational Strategies to Engage Learners in Desirable Difficulties

Zepeda, C.D., Nokes-Malach, T.J. (2021). Metacognitive study strategies in a college course and their relation to exam performance. Memory & Cognition, 49, 480–497.

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