Self-regulated learning, or SRL, is not a new concept in pedagogy and has been considered a best practice for decades. Yet it’s often interpreted with the literal meaning of regulating one’s self through keeping emotions in check and is confused with a close cousin, social and emotional learning.
SRL is much more than just learning strategies to regulate emotions. It also taps into the often-missing component of teaching and learning, the metacognitive aspects of learning, or learning how to learn for different contexts. SRL is knowing how to learn and being aware of your progression of learning toward specific goals. Barry Zimmerman, one of the leading researchers for SRL, describes SRL as “not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather, it is the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills.”
A student with highly developed SRL skills is aware of different strategies for learning and can select the best strategies for their context, subject, or type of learning activity. Furthermore, they have a growth mindset. They have an accurate impression of their current skill level and capacities and take steps to bring about balance to their abilities focusing on growth and development. Through the iterative process of SRL, that includes three phases:
- Goal setting and strategic planning
- Monitoring performance and progress toward goals
- Reflecting and making decisions on how to change their behavior
They manage their time well and plan appropriately to complete their assignments and study. They are the students who have learned not to cram the night before an exam and choose environments for studying that are conducive to maximizing learning. These students do all of this while maintaining motivation and engagement.
How to Incorporate SRL
Research has shown three main ways in which SRL instruction is integrated into teaching practices, but only one leads to long-term success. I like to use the example of teaching a child how to swim.
1. Indirect SRL promotion: This is like throwing the child in the water so they can learn to swim without any lessons. The most common approach of SRL instruction occurs without teachers even realizing it. We give our students the space and opportunity to practice study strategies and SRL. However, we never directly discuss or provide instructions on the topic. Some students will learn SRL on their own; others will unfortunately sink.
2. Implicit direct instruction: This is very much like jumping in the pool with the child and swimming alongside them to model strokes and strategies without ever providing specific instruction or explanations. In the classroom, this happens when teachers make suggestions for students to use a particular strategy or approach. These suggestions can be directed toward individual students or the whole class.
Implicit instruction also occurs when teachers design their lessons with specific learning activities that engage students in SRL skills, such as a self-reflection in the middle of the unit in which students assess their progress toward mastery of learning objectives.
3. Explicit direct instruction: This includes more than models or creating space for the skills to be applied. There is specific and direct instruction. In the swimming example, the child not only is provided instructions for different types of swimming strokes but also learns the advantages and disadvantages of different strokes, and why some swimming strokes are better in different contexts. They learn which strokes are their preferred strokes for where they typically swim. This method also considers their body type and muscle composition.
In the classroom, explicit direct instruction of SRL means the students are aware that they are learning study strategies and how to learn. They learn which strategies are best for different contexts and the reasoning for those benefits.
Two quick tips for explicit direct teaching of SRL:
- Explain the usefulness and importance of self-regulated learning skills to students.
- Support students to identify when and where they can use self-regulated learning skills.
Students Need to Be Taught How to Study
Research shows that the majority of students do not learn SRL skills on their own. They also do not learn them in school, unless it is in the form of explicit direct instruction. This means that many students are not at their full learning potential, simply because they do not know how to study and learn. In fact, a study published in 2007 found that 65 to 80 percent of college students answered “no” to the question, “Do you study the way you do because somebody taught you to study that way?” They base their decisions on if a strategy worked well enough for the desired outcome.
I often ask students to describe their study strategies, and they say they’re rereading notes and their textbooks, which has been shown through many studies to be among the most ineffective approaches. But hey, it was good enough to get them the target grade, so they continue using this ineffective approach without ever realizing that there is a better way.
Even when given a list of strategies, research has found, students will select the more ineffective learning approaches because they are more recognizable. In many studies, students chose rereading, which is passive, over practicing recovery and self-assessment strategies that require higher-learner engagement. Research also shows that students fail to manage their time and the environment in which they learn as well. They prefer to cram even if it has been shown to lead to poor performance and lower long-term mastery of concepts. Fortunately, teachers can counter these tendencies with explicit direct instruction in SRL.