Self-regulated learning (SRL) is a respected educational approach which encourages students to take control of their own unique learning journey. In this approach, students are guided through the process of effectively planning, monitoring, and reflecting on their work. There are a number of key advantages of this approach, including improved academic performance, better time management, and higher levels of motivation. The concept of SRL gained prominence in the 1980s and draws on various theoretical perspectives, such as constructivism, cognitive theory, and Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. This article aims to introduce teachers to the approach and offers practical advice on facilitating self-regulated learning in the classroom (2).
What is Self-Regulated Learning?
Self-regulated learning is partly about self-control but, more significantly, it is also about having an active and personal involvement in your own education. Instead of passively following instructions, students are encouraged to use special thinking and motivational strategies to improve their ability to learn. Furthermore, they can also have agency to improve their own learning environments to match their unique needs (1).
The fact that SRL can be personalised is one of its key benefits, allowing students to decide on the type of instruction that suits them best. By being proactive in this way, students take responsibility for their own learning. This approach, therefore, is useful not just in academic settings but also in daily skills like time management and goal setting. Overall, self-regulated learning empowers students to be more effective learners and active participants in their own educational journey (3).
Strategies to teach self-regulation
Teaching self-regulation to students is not just about telling them what to do. Instead, teachers can incorporate teaching of specific practical methods into their lessons. This section offers strategies for teachers to help students become more proactive and successful in their learning.
Active Thinking about Learning Strategies
Teachers can help students think more actively about effective learning strategies. When planning a syllabus, allocate time before an assessment to guide students to consider the type of questions they will face, the resources they will need, and how to use those resources. This helps students plan effectively and make good use of study materials. For example, before a science exam, the teacher could guide students on which topics to focus on and how to use resources effectively for revision. This helps students plan their study time better.
Model Goal-Oriented Behaviour
Show students how to set goals and break them down into smaller tasks with deadlines. For instance, if students are required to watch a video asynchronously, set a viewing deadline followed by a small quiz. This helps students better plan and monitor their own learning habits. Ideally, this should be done earlier in the course in order to encourage good habits later.
Incorporate Frequent Discourse on Self-Regulation
Talk to your students about the SRL approach. Make self-regulation a regular topic in the classroom. This can start from conducting a survey before the first class in order to find out about students’ previous learning approaches. Subsequently, early in the course, teachers can describe self-regulated learning skills and their benefits, before referring back to this in later lessons.
Encourage students to spread their work over time instead of cramming it all in at once. Use tools like digital timesheets to help students monitor their study habits. This kind of reflection can help them become more aware of how much and how well they are learning.
Explicit Strategy Discussion
Label and discuss strategies openly during classroom activities. For instance, during a class discussion, encourage students to share the strategies they used to understand the material. As an example, after students have read a difficult scientific article for homework, you could ask them how they managed to understand the key points. Some might say they drew diagrams to visualise the concept, while others might have made flashcards for memorisation. Highlighting these different approaches not only validates each student’s method but also exposes the class to a variety of strategies they may not have used before. This becomes a learning opportunity for everyone, improving their toolkit for understanding difficult texts in the future (4).
Feedback and Reflection
Provide constructive feedback on how students are doing in relation to course goals. Encourage them to think about which learning strategies worked or did not work for them. If a dedicated digital space can be created for reflection, this might help students structure how they engage with self-evaluation. Also, while it takes a bit of extra work, providing a rubric for assignments to help students understand what is expected can help them plan and evaluate their own work accordingly.
Using caution and best judgement
By bringing in these techniques, teachers can help students become more aware of their learning processes and adapt their strategies for more effective learning. The idea is that these methods equip students with the self-regulatory skills useful not just in academic tasks but also in daily life. However, when promoting self-regulated learning strategies, teachers must be careful not to overwhelm students with too many methods all at once. Instead, introduce strategies gradually to allow time for understanding. Also, avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, as each student’s learning style is unique. When possible, teachers should think critically about whether the strategies are actually helping students or instead causing additional stress (5). Lastly, it is vital to give students room to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than strictly dictating how they should manage their learning. Ideally, students need to feel a strong sense of agency in their learning progress.
The Cycle of Self-Regulated Learning
The self-regulated learning cycle (illustrated in the diagram below) is a framework that emphasises the role of the student in their own learning process. While students are the main actors, teachers, as previously mentioned, also play a very important role as guides and coaches. This approach aligns well with established educational theories like constructivism, which emphasises the learner’s role in building their own knowledge.
1. Plan, Set Goals, and Lay Out Strategies
Before getting started with a task, students should be encouraged to spend time planning. Not all students will be enthusiastic and for some it might feel like a step backward. However, in reality this can help students make more efficient use of their time and effort. As a simple example, if students are assigned a research paper, the planning phase could include a decision to spend the first week on researching and the second week on writing, or students could be asked to create a mind-map based on the essay question.
What can teachers do to help students through this phase?
In the planning phase, teachers should encourage students to evaluate the characteristics of the task, asking them to consider if it is similar to tasks they have previously completed and how much time it might require. Next, teachers can prompt students to set clear goals, and to consider if they think the research can be completed by the end of the week. To achieve these goals, students should be encouraged to outline specific strategies, asking them if they will need to visit the library or consult online resources. Finally, students can be taught to set realistic expectations by questioning what outcomes they are aiming for, taking into account past performance and the effort they are willing to put in (6).
Here, the teacher’s role is akin to that of a ‘scaffolder‘ in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Teachers should aim to provide the right amount of support to help students reach their potential.
See also: Situated Learning Theory
2. Monitor Performance through the use of targeted strategies
Once the planning is complete, students move into the execution phase. This is where they put their plan into action, and it is important for students to monitor their performance to see if their plan is working. For example, if a student finds that reading a textbook in a noisy dorm room is not working for them, a change of location to a quieter library might be needed.
What can teachers do to help students through this phase?
In the phase where students are putting their plan into action, teachers can still play a significant role. They can encourage students to engage in self-observation by asking them to identify strategies that are effective and those that are not. Teachers can also guide students to prepare for potential obstacles, encouraging them to think in advance about possible challenges and ways to overcome them. Lastly, students can be motivated to remain committed to new strategies, even when they feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar at the outset. This monitoring phase is similar to the strategies of metacognitive theory, encouraging awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes (7).
3. Reflect on Performance
As all teachers will be aware, reflection is crucial. Rather than just focusing on grades, students should assess how well they did in relation to their initial goals. If, in the past, a student aimed for a ‘B’ but ended up with a ‘C’, they should consider what went wrong and how to improve.
What can teachers do to help students through this phase?
In the reflection phase, teachers should help students gain insights into their performance. For example, teachers can guide students to evaluate their own efforts and the effectiveness of their chosen strategies. A good idea here is to set up some kind of learning journal with space for students to reflect on specific tasks at specific times. In these journals, students can be encouraged to consider whether the strategies they used brought about the hoped-for results. Moreover, teachers can instruct students to connect any poor outcomes to unsuccessful strategies or insufficient effort, rather than allow students to blame it on an inherent lack of ability. Reflection is a vital component of experiential learning theories, such as Kolb’s Learning Cycle, where experiences lead to observations and reflections, which can then progress into future planning and actions (8).
By integrating the above steps into your teaching practice, you can help students to take control of their learning, which can then set them up for success both academically and in other aspects of life.
See also: Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
Why is self-regulation important?
As has been described in this article, self-regulated learning can facilitate both effective learning and personal growth. It can empower students to improve their academic performance by promoting self-reflection. Through this self-assessment and resource management, it is hoped that students can develop a more refined understanding of how to tackle learning tasks and improve their study techniques. To be clear, we are not simply talking about better grades. This approach can also positively influence a student’s mental well-being, allowing them to feel more in control of their performance and experience less stress, especially during exams.
The significance of SRL can become even more pronounced at the college level. University courses often present greater challenges and have less educator oversight compared to high school. Unfortunately, many students start higher education without the necessary learning skills, which can result in some of them feeling outclassed by their peers. Implementing SRL earlier in their academic journeys can level the playing field for these students, helping them become more confident and self-reliant.
Moreover, the current trend of remote learning also shows the importance of SRL. The virtual classroom setting requires even more planning and self-direction due to the fact that online courses are often less structured. In these challenging times, when students are often dealing with stress, having strong self-regulation skills can give them a sense of self-efficacy, and, as mentioned earlier, this positive mindset is not just helpful for the current academic setting but continues to be beneficial long after graduation.
In summary, self-regulated learning is more than just a modern education concept. On some levels, it can be described as a set of life skills that has been valued, perhaps informally, throughout history for its positive impact on behaviour and skill acquisition. Furthermore, this approach is deeply embedded in cognitive learning theory, emphasising the active role of students in shaping their own educational outcomes. By employing a set of coherent learning strategies, students can positively affect their own cognition, motivation, and behaviour.
Importantly, teachers serve as the all-important facilitators in this process, not only passing on academic strategies but also empowering students with self-regulation techniques that improve their overall learning. Whether this is in a traditional classroom or a remote setting, these skills can help students become more responsible and effective learners. In an ever-changing educational landscape, the role of self-regulated learning is increasingly central, helping students become well-rounded, resilient individuals, better prepared to navigate the challenges of academic life and beyond.
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