Vanderbilt University professor awarded grant to boost student motivation with innovative metacognitive approach

middle school students raising hand in class

Could unlocking metacognitive skills be the key to math motivation in middle school?

Teachers across the globe face the same challenge – how to make math not just bearable, but exciting. Research shows that in middle school, motivation for math in students starts to decline. But at the same time, metacognition, the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, starts to increase.

The ability to create a solid plan to solve a problem, navigate the levels of conceptual understanding, and critically assess the learning process is the cornerstone of success in mathematics. Yet metacognitive skills are often not a focus of traditional math instruction, leaving students sometimes grappling with their application.

Could building metacognitive skills be the key to motivating students to learn (and love) math?

Cristina Zepeda

To find out, researchers at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development   and Carnegie Learning, a pioneer in AI-driven K-12 education technology, curriculum, and professional learning solutions, are investigating evidence-based enhancements during problem-solving in over 2,000 middle school students using Carnegie Learning’s MATHia® software with the UpGrade A/B testing platform, an online math learning software that personalizes instruction for students based on how they learn over time.

Cristina Zepeda, assistant professor of psychology and human development and director of the Advancing Learning Lab, is the study’s principal investigator, supported by a two-year, nearly $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education as part of the Digital Learning Platforms to Enable Efficient Education Research Network.

The study aims to enhance the metacognitive skills, mathematics knowledge, and motivation of middle school students – all critical aspects of the learning journey. By combining Zepeda’s research-backed intervention techniques with MATHia’s engaging lessons and personalized feedback and hints, the team aims to create a rich and interesting learning environment that promotes and gives students agency over their learning.

Kelley Durkin

“When we think about access to STEM careers, it starts with algebra and math,” says Zepeda.  “If we can make more touchpoints for students to connect with math, give them opportunities to master it, and build metacognition, that will pay dividends in learning.”

Kelley Durkin, research assistant professor of teaching and learning at Peabody College, is the mathematics education research expert on the team who will lead the study’s measures of mathematics knowledge and help determine practical implications for mathematics teaching and learning based on the study’s findings.

At the end of the study, the findings may be considered for integration into a broader set of lessons in the MATHia software, used in over 2,000 schools across the country.

“Carnegie Learning’s tools have always used AI to help students on the cognitive and conceptual skills that they need to master mathematics,” says Steve Ritter, founder and chief scientist at Carnegie Learning. “We’re proud to have the opportunity to collaborate with top researchers to better understand how motivation, metacognition, and academic achievement work together to help students succeed.” A cognitive data scientist, Ritter created MATHia over 26 years ago.

Zepeda’s goal is to equip students with the metacognition they need to not just solve problems, but to understand the very essence of mathematical thinking and learning, thus equipping the next generation with the essential skills needed for the challenges of tomorrow.


About Vanderbilt University Peabody College

Peabody College is widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading research colleges of education and human development. Peabody strives to enhance the human condition by creating knowledge about learning and development in their social contexts, by translating discoveries into more effective practice and policy, and by preparing leaders who will generate positive change throughout the nation and the world. Peabody offers a full suite of undergraduate as well as graduate and professional degrees. For more information, visit and follow Peabody on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and TikTok.

About Carnegie Learning, Inc.

Carnegie Learning is celebrating 25 years as a leader in AI-driven technology, curriculum, and professional learning solutions for K-12 education. Its award-winning math, literacy, world languages, professional learning, and high-dosage tutoring products deliver real and lasting results. Born from cognitive science research at Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Learning is known for harnessing the power of data to improve student performance. Its range of products has allowed it to support more than 5.5 million students and educators in all 50 states and Canada. Named a Top Place to Work for six years in a row, its employees are passionate about partnering with educators in the classroom. For more information, visit and follow Carnegie Learning on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.