Research School Network: Motivation and self-regulation: insights from Kornell and Bjork Helen Thorneycroft looks at the role of motivation in self-regulated learning

Motivation and self-regulation: insights from Kornell and Bjork

Helen Thorneycroft looks at the role of motivation in self-regulated learning

by Kingsbridge Research School
on the

In the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report, motivation is described as one of the three essential components of self-regulated learning (the others are cognition and metacognition). The report states that teachers need to know about motivation in order to help their pupils to develop into successful learners’.

Yet as a teacher, how much do I explicitly know about motivating students? I might tell you that I need to make five positive comments for every critical one; I might tell you about the graduated responses that keep students attempting tasks. But if I’m honest, if I asked myself how much I am imbuing the students with the tools and techniques to motivate them, the answer would be vague.

However, I am interested in learning about the part I can play, so I read with interest The Promise and Perils of Self-Regulated Study’ by Nate Kornell and Robert A Bjork (2007), one of the papers referred to in the guidance report.

Looking at private, individual study away from the classroom – a situation in which motivation and self-regulation are necessarily foregrounded – Kornell and Bjork state that students confront three key decisions: knowing the processes to be used to study successfully (‘study strategies’), knowing how to allocate time effectively, and knowing when the learning has been successfully achieved and study can be terminated.

First the good news: if a situation allows studying to the point of mastery (i.e. there are no constraints), then it appears people will be motivated to choose to study the most difficult items. Unsurprisingly, when this is not the case – for example, in situations where there are time pressures – students will give higher priority to the easier items to gain a sense of achievement in a shorter span of time. In other words, they will be motivated, but time pressure will lead them to take an unhelpful shortcut.

This offers support to the EEF’s recommendation that home learning should have planned and focussed activities’ that are beneficial. It is better to create short, pertinent tasks that reinforce learning succinctly than to create tasks that fill an allocated timeslot and thus impose a constraint that directs students towards the easiest option.1

Kornell and Bjork go on to show that the time a student allocates to studying a topic independently is governed by the rate at which they feel they are learning it. Notice the word feel’ – again, this is a matter of perception and motivation. Students have a much higher tendency to stop learning when it appears the rate at which they are learning is dropping. This highlights the EEF’s comments in the Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report that work needs the right level of challenge’ (if it is too difficult it is much less likely to be attempted) to help ensure that students stay motivated throughout the task set and reach the end before terminating their study.

A final thought picked up from this paper was an interesting experiment conducted on students who were tasked with learning the styles of 12 different artists. The students were taught about six of the artists in succession (massed learning); the other six artists were presented in interleaved (spaced) learning intervals. Students were then tested. 78% of the students performed better answering questions about the artists they head learned about in the interleaved sessions. Interestingly – and here’s the motivation angle again – only 22% of students perceived they had performed better when they were in the interleaved’ sessions, therefore showing a lack of awareness in which learning style was in fact more effective.

These findings are valuable for me as a classroom practitioner interested in developing students’ metacognitive awareness. I can explain these insights explicitly to students to help them resist the temptation to consider the last minute cramming’ method as the best one for exams, or to encourage them not to take the easy path just because the clock is ticking. If we are more evidence-informed, we have the foresight to begin planning now how to assist students to timetable their revision in our subjects and to advise them on the most effective study methods.

These are small steps in the right direction, but every incremental step brings gains in self-regulated learning, which, in the brave new world of teaching we are living in, becomes ever more important. As the authors themselves noted in 2007 – and it is especially true in 2020 – there will be an increased emphasis on Web-based learning, remote learning, blended courses, and lifelong learning, all of which place an increased emphasis on the ability to manage unsupervised learning effectively.

1Here, we might also reflect on the fact that GCSEs and A levels are rigorous examinations that impose clear time pressures for students. The research casts a light on how students approach exams and we as teachers would do well to consider the student’s psychology when monitoring their progress. For example, we might ask whether time pressure leads students away from a more perceptive but perhaps riskier’ response.


Kornell, N. and Bjork, R., 2007. The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), pp.219 – 224.

2020. Metacognition And Self-Regulated Learning. [online] Available at: <https://educationendowmentfoun…> [Accessed 16 October 2020].

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