Self-regulated learning: The formula for academic success?

Imagine yourself doing your groceries while you are in a hurry. You can come up with a strategic plan: write a shopping list at home and then walk a specific route through the grocery store to grab everything you need. A different approach is going to the store, walking through every aisle and then grabbing what you need. Naturally there are more approaches possible. These examples relate to self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learning is like doing groceries. Self-regulated learners are “metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviourally active participants in their own learning” [1]. 


What does it mean in practice? Metacognitive strategies focus on planning, (self-)monitoring and (self-)evaluation. For example, students can make a plan before they start doing their homework or before they start studying for a test. They need to monitor their own understanding in case adjustment to their planning is necessary. If students encounter obstacles during learning (i.e. difficult content or additional homework), they have to cope by adjusting their approach. Similar to doing groceries, you write down what you need in advance and if you encounter a hurdle in the supermarket (e.g. your favourite product is sold out), then you need to come up with a next step. Are you going to wait until your favourite product is in stock or are you taking an alternative? Motivational strategies, as their name suggests, help to keep a student focused on a task by setting goals and by putting effort. Goals can be reasons why certain behaviours will be engaged. In other words: goals can keep students on a task or activity. Goals can be straightforward and focused on short-term goals: For example, “I want to pass the upcoming test”. You will study the materials and invest the necessary time and materials to gain knowledge. This also means than you may want to choose to complete a practice test instead of going to movie night with friends. Goals can also be focused on the long-term, such as aiming for high grades to get access to specific studies or to get the job you really want. Let’s get back to doing the groceries: goals can be doing the groceries as fast as possible or can be related to wanting the red curry tonight or tomorrow. 

Self-regulated learners often seek information or advice that allows them to enhance their learning and improve their skills [1]. In essence, self-regulated learning concerns learning how to learn, which is essential in our current society since our society focuses more and more on becoming independent and autonomous [2]. For example, with the increased use of digital learning systems, students can work at their own pace. They decide for themselves how they navigate through the exercises and requirements for the test. Additionally, most digital learning systems provide automated feedback [3]. In turn, students have to control and manage their learning actions as a response to the system. 

The necessity for academic achievement
Although self-regulated learning is not a prerequisite for academic performance per se, research shows that self-regulated learning is associated with better academic performance in both young students [4] as well as in adolescents [5]. Students, who can be labelled ‘self-regulated learners’, use the strategies more often and also more effectively [5]. When it concerns self-regulated learning there is no single set of strategies that fits all (i.e. it is situation dependent). The lack of one strategy can be compensated by another strategy. You can get a good grade when planning is not your strongest skill by compensating through efficient self-assessment when you are studying. Or by compensating by putting more effort in studying or practising or by setting goals.

Training, training, training
Does that mean students who lack self-regulated learning skills are doomed in our current society? Certainly not! Young learners in primary and secondary education can improve their self-regulated learning skills by participating in training programs focused on self-regulated learning strategies [6]. For example, by focusing on cognitive instruction rather than motivational or metacognitive instruction.

Cognitive instruction focuses on rehearsal strategies, such as underlining main ideas and on elaboration strategies, such as summarising after reading a chapter. Transferring this to doing groceries, you could mark which groceries you already did on your list or re-structuring your list if products are out of stock. Motivational instruction concerns beliefs about learning, task-value and goal setting. In short it comprises the skill and the will to self-regulate [6]. If you really want to eat red curry tonight and the curry paste is out of stock, you will do the extra trip to another store to get it. The curry has a high value to you because it taste very good and you want to have it (that is the goal), so you will put more effort in getting the ingredients for your dish. Metacognitive instruction relates to planning and monitoring. Planning your trip to the grocery store requires a consideration of time spent on getting there, grabbing the products you need and uncertain factors, like traffic, other visitors and the number of cash registers available to pay your groceries. If you do your groceries after work, then it is probably crowded. If you do your groceries during the day, more people are still at work and you may do your groceries faster. Planning involves the consideration of all these factors.

Training effectiveness and conditions
In elementary education, training programs focus more on cognitive instruction than on motivational instruction. In secondary education, students benefit more from motivational instruction (i.e. goal setting) and metacognitive instruction (focus on planning and monitoring). The difference in focus of training programs can be explained by the development of students. Young students do not have a broad set of strategies available yet, whereas older students already possess these and are ready to elaborate the application [6,8]. It is also true that the training programs seem more beneficial in mathematics than in writing or language related tasks [6]. But many adults do not have the opportunity to follow a training program. Would it also be effective at a later age? Adult students display different characteristics compared to younger students [7] and they frequently possess more knowledge of effective strategies [8]. Furthermore, their learning situation is different: they may already have had different jobs, have a dual-job (e.g. study and work) or have started a family. Adults may have already gained self-regulated learning skills along the way, which means that training would only add to that skill and knowledge base. Sometimes we are not aware that we are applying self-regulated learning strategies. Think about your own style of doing groceries. How do you do groceries? Can you do it slightly different next time and evaluate it afterwards? Becoming aware of how you handle tasks, such as doing groceries, can provide insights into how you approach learning as well and also how to improve your learning. 

[1] Zimmerman, B. J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.

[2] Wang, C. H., Shannon, D. M., & Ross, M. E. (2013). Students’ characteristics, self-regulated learning, technology self-efficacy, and course outcomes in online learning. Distance Education, 34(3), 302-323. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2013.835779

[3] Luschei, T. F. (2014). Assessing costs and benefits of educational technology. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merill, J. Elen, & M. J. Bishop (Eds), Handbook of Educational Communications and Technology. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media. 

[4] Kitsantas, A., Steen, S., & Huie, F. (2009). The role of self-regulated strategies and goal orientation in predicting achievement of elementary school children. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 2(1), 65-81. 

[5] Dent, A. L., & Koenka, A. C. (2016). The relation between self-regulated learning and academic achievement across childhood and adolescence: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 425-474. doi: 10.1007/s10648-015-9320-8

[6] Dignath, C., & Büttner, G. (2008). Components of fostering self-regulated learning among students. A meta-analysis on intervention studies at primary and secondary school level. Metacognition and Learning, 3, 231-264. doi: 10.1007/s11409-008-9029-x

[7] Diep, N. A., Cocquyt, C., Zhu, C., Vanwing, T., & de Greef, M. (2017). Effects of core self-evaluation and online interaction quality on adults' learning performance and bonding and bridging social capital. The Internet and Higher Education, 34, 41-55. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.05.002

[8] de Boer, H., Donker-Bergstra, A. S., Kostons, D. D. N. M., Korpershoek, H., & van der Werf, M. P. (2013). Effective strategies for self-regulated learning: A meta-analysis. Groningen, NL: GION/RUG.

Author's Note: The quote, “metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviourally active participants in their own learning”, is the academic definition  provided by Zimmerman (1986), as cited in: Zimmerman (1990) on page 4

Leonie Brummerbatch1