Metacognition and Interest in Language Learning

Metacognition and Interest in Language Learning

By: John Eidswick

I can clearly remember the moment I realized I was a terrible language learner.

It was decades ago, at a time I carried fewer kilograms and more hair. I was thinking about enrolling in classes at the local community college. A friend encouraged me to take a French class taught by someone she knew.

The idea wasn’t appealing. Apart from the Spanish classes in high school I barely passed (I can still picture Señor Estrada’s blood-red marks on my vocabulary quizzes), I’d never tried studying a second language. But my friend arranged for me to observe a session, and I gave in. I was surprised to discover that observing the class triggered an interest in learning languages I didn’t know I had.

I enrolled in the class and from the outset really enjoyed it. My first letdown came a couple of weeks into the semester. My vocabulary quiz came back with a low score (Señor Estrada déjà vu). In the same session came my second disappointment. We had to do a self-introduction (name, hobbies, nice to meet you) in front of the class. Easy, right? But when I confidently stood up to speak, what came out of my mouth was gibberish[1]. I recall walking home after class ended, feeling wretched.

I was one of those students who was motivated to learn because of situational interest, but I had poor metacognitive skills with which to do it. In this article, I will go over these two concepts, their relationship to each other, and how teachers can support students as they develop them.

[1] On reading this, the editors were reminded of this video. When he saw it, John commented: “It’s me!”


Metacognition pertains to awareness of our own thinking, our knowledge about how we are doing the task in front of us, and how we use this knowledge to refine our behavior. Two key qualities of metacognition are Monitoring and Control. Monitoring is reflecting upon our own knowledge of something. Control refers to how we use such reflection to modify our behavior.

One area of metacognition, metacognitive strategies, is particularly useful for both language teachers and students. Metacognitive strategies are “general skills through which learners manage, direct, regulate, guide their learning, i.e., planning, monitoring, and evaluating” (Wenden, 1998).

We can see from my painful experience with the French class that sometimes awareness of our own knowledge is lacking. With both the vocabulary quiz and self-introduction, I monitored my knowledge and decided it was suitable for the tasks at hand. My metacognitive belief (the belief I derived from reflecting upon my performance) was that I would do well on both. My erroneous conclusions were caused by associating previous successes in other areas of my life where I’d correctly estimated my abilities. The trouble was, apart from the minimal effort I’d made in high school Spanish, I had never studied a language before, so the strategies I knew weren’t necessarily relevant.

But I was still interested in studying French.


Interest refers to a feeling of curiosity, attraction, or desire to engage with an object (such as a person, thing, or activity). Interest is usually pleasurable and rivets an individual’s attention onto the object of interest. In educational psychology, interest is a motivational variable that involves both our thoughts and our feelings. Evidence from neuroscience (Panksepp, 1998, 2000) indicates that interest has an essentially biological basis, part of the “seeking system” intrinsic to all mammalian brains that modifies subjective experience and stimulates pleasurable seeking and exploration. Interest motivates human engagement in new experiences and thereby makes possible the acquisition of knowledge about those experiences. In other words, interest should lead to learning. In fact, engendering interest might be the most important thing a teacher can do.

A large body of research has confirmed that interest does indeed improve learning. Hidi and Renninger (2006) modelled interest as a four-part process that moves from situational interest (usually short-lived interests triggered by qualities of an object) to individual interest (long-lived interest marked by accumulating knowledge about and perceptions of value for the object).

Here’s an example of how it works. An old friend of mine loves photography. His interest started when he was a kid. When he first encountered a camera, he was fascinated. It was so mysterious, so magical, that this little, boxy device could capture moments of reality. The situational interest he experienced from that first camera blossomed into a lifelong individual interest as he educated himself about cameras, gained experiences taking photos, and eventually earned his living as a photographer.

Situational interest is triggered by qualities that are interesting to almost everyone. These include mystery, romance, unpredictability, conflict, humor, novelty, personal relevance, ease of understanding, and intensity. Qualities that render a situation or object difficult to understand tend to decrease situational interest, so students are also more interested in classroom activities and materials that are coherent. It is no coincidence that qualities that raise situational interest are also those that make some movies hits at the box office.

As we’ve seen, people can feel interested in a topic without good metacognitive skills to learn about it. People can also feel little interest in a topic while having very strong metacognitive skills. But usually, metacognition and interest complement each other. Students who are interested in math, for example, tend to also have better metacognitive skills for learning math. Research has shown that metacognition and interest synergize to increase student engagement (Wang, et al., 2021) and improve learning. It’s likely that interest sparks a desire to learn effectively in the area of interest, which in turn prompts efforts to improve metacognitive skills to do so. Conversely, enhanced metacognitive skills can increase interest. This is probably because with improved metacognition comes a greater feeling of competence or ease in learning, which in turn engenders more interest.

I’ve witnessed this process in my teenage son, who seems to live for playing soccer. Occasionally his soccer club engages in a match with a team from another school. After these matches, my son comes home and relates a detailed self-examination of what he did “wrong” and how he could have done better. This usually is followed by meeting with his friends (and fellow team members) at the local park to kick the ball around some more, even though he already has played soccer for much of the day. Having his soccer skills tested in an actual game, and reflecting on his performance, leads to even more interested engagement in the sport.

He’s a great kid, even if as a teacher I sometimes find myself wondering what I can do to engage him as powerfully in his academic studies! And how I can do the same with the students in my English classes.

Improving Metacognition in the Classroom

Metacognitive skills are improved when learners face challenges that reveal gaps in their knowledge and they make plans to close these gaps. These gaps in knowledge might be related explicitly to language use (“How do I ask for directions to the train station?” “What is the word for __________?” “What is the polite way to ask someone’s name?”) or can be related to knowledge about learning strategies (“How can I prepare to do this speaking activity better?” “What are good ways to deal with my anxiety about making mistakes?” “What steps can I take to get a better vocabulary quiz score?”). Teachers can improve students’ metacognitive skills by providing plenty of opportunities for students to be challenged.

"Teachers can improve students’ metacognitive skills by providing plenty of opportunities to be challenged."
John Eidswick
TT Author

These opportunities can take the form of frequent small-stakes quizzes or other evaluated language-learning tasks. Teachers should follow up with activities that encourage students to reflect on their knowledge and to make plans to fill in knowledge gaps. Such activities can also serve as encouragement for students who are disappointed by their performance, by highlighting the fact that concrete ways exist for them to improve. For students who find it difficult to make such plans, follow-up questions can be asked with a range of suggested actions. For example, a vocabulary quiz could be followed with self-evaluating questions such as:

“What words did you not know on this quiz? List them here:”

“Why do you think you didn’t know these words?”

①  I spent too little time studying.

②  I tried to do all my studying in one day instead of spreading out my studying over a longer time.

③  I didn’t rehearse the words by speaking them out loud.

④   Other: _________________________________________.


“What will you do to learn the words you didn’t know?”

①   I will spend more time studying.

②   I will space my studying out over several days.

③   I will review my words __ number of times over the next week.

④   I will (student’s idea) _______________________________.

Using these kinds of questions can help students learn to independently evaluate their knowledge (they shouldn’t be required to submit their answers to the teacher) and consider strategies they used or didn’t use. It can also provide them with practice with planning remedies for areas where their knowledge or skills are lacking.

Other ideas for improving metacognitive skills include starting each class with an activity reflecting on what was covered in the previous class (“How much can you remember about last week’s class?”) and having students predict what they might forget in the week following a given class.

Increasing Interest in the Classroom

Students with a good grasp of metacognitive strategies learn better. When students are also interested in what they are applying these strategies to, learning becomes better still. Situational interest can be aroused by the topics embedded in learning activities and materials or by removing unnecessary impediments to comprehension. Injecting qualities like unexpectedness and unpredictability in the classroom environment can be as easy as varying the members of discussion groups and changing the kinds of activities used from week to week. Using textbooks and materials that include topics relevant to the age and cultural background of students can make a class more interesting to its members.

Basing activities on frameworks that include qualities like mystery, excitement, romance, danger, conflict, etc., instantly increases the interestingness of those activities. The classes of teachers who deliberately insert humor into activities are intrinsically more interesting (See Rucynski, 2016 for good ways to use humor in classrooms). Removing unneeded obstructions to comprehension by giving instructions in very simple language or in students’ native language, by assigning homework that provides students with necessary background knowledge for classroom tasks, and by making sure texts have coherent structures (such as a clear beginning, middle, and end), and, of course, by improving students’ metacognitive strategies, all will increase student interest.

Working to improve metacognition and interest in my classes has had a positive effect on my students through the years. It also did on me. After those initial disappointments in my first French class, I figured out ways to get better results from my efforts at language learning. That eventually led me to study other languages, to earn graduate degrees in TESOL and applied linguistics, and to become an instructor of the kinds of students I once was myself.

I’m still not the greatest language learner, but I’m far better than I once was.

Je m’appelle John. Je suis très heureux de faire votre connaissance.


  • Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.

  • Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotion. Oxford University Press.

  • Panksepp, J. (2000). Emotions as natural kinds within the mammalian brain. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed.), (pp. 137-156). Guilford.

  • Rucynski, J. (Ed.). (2016). New ways in teaching with humor. TESOL International Association.

  • Wang, M.-T., Binning, K. R., Del Toro, J., Qin, X., & Zepeda, C. D. (2021). Skill, thrill, and will: The role of metacognition, interest, and self-control in predicting student engagement in mathematics learning over time. Child Development, 92(4), 1369-1387.

  • Wenden, A. L. (1998). Metacognitive knowledge and language learning1. Applied Linguistics, 19(4), 515-537.

John Eidswick (EdD.) is an associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University. His research interests include interest and self-efficacy in L2 learning.

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