Educators increasingly are emphasizing self-regulated learning as a means of raising students' achievement outcomes. Self-regulated learning (or self-regulation) refers to learning that results from students' self-generated thoughts and behaviors that are oriented systematically toward the attainment of their goals (Zimmerman, 2001). Researchers have identified several self-regulatory processes that students instigate, modify, and sustain, such as attending to instruction, cognitively processing information, rehearsing and relating new learning to prior learning, believing that one is capable of learning, and establishing productive work and social environments. Research shows that increases in self-regulation result in higher student learning and achievement.
The emphasis on self-regulated learning in education began as an outgrowth of behaviorally oriented research on self-control in which individuals learned ways to reduce dysfunctional behaviors such as impulsive or disruptive actions. Behavioral researchers (e.g., Mace, Belfiore, & Hutchinson) stress self-regulating processes such as self-monitoring (self-observation and self-recording of one's own behaviors), self-instruction (rules or strategic steps that one applies and often verbalizes during a task), self-evaluation (comparing some aspects of one's behaviors with standards), self-correction (correcting one's behaviors to better match standards), and self-reinforcement (rewarding oneself with reinforcers such as points or free time when behaviors meet or exceed standards).
An issue with behavioral theories is that because they do not consider learners' internal states such as thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, they offer incomplete explanations of learning. Against this backdrop cognitive theories of learning began their ascendance in the 1960s and soon became the dominant focus of human learning. But researchers often found that cognitive skills and abilities did not fully account for students' learning, which suggested that other factors such as motivation and self-regulation were important (Zimmerman, 2001). These findings led to the emergence of cognitive theories of self-regulated learning.
Cognitive theories of self-regulated learning differ in many ways but share some common features (Zimmerman, 2001). One common feature is an emphasis on learners being proactive and exerting control on their learning processes and environments. Self-regulated learners do not passively take in information but rather proactively develop their skills and strategies. Cognitive theories also assume that self-regulated learning is a cyclical process in which learners set goals, implement strategies, monitor their learning progress, and modify their strategies when they believe they are not effective. A third common feature is an emphasis on motivation. Self-regulated learning does not occur automatically; rather, students approach learning with goals and the extent to which they self-regulate depends on motivational factors such as their commitment to their goals, their beliefs about the likely outcomes of their actions, and their self-efficacy, or personal beliefs about their capabilities to learn or perform actions at designated levels.
Although there are various cognitive self-regulated learning theories, three that have been applied extensively to school learning are information processing, social con-structivist, and social cognitive theories. Information processing theory stresses cognitive functions such as attending to, perceiving, storing, and transforming information. For example, Winne and Hadwin postulated that self-regulated learning comprises four phases: defining the task, setting goals and planning how to reach them, enacting tactics, and adapting metacognition. Initially learners process information about the conditions that characterize the task to clearly define it. Sources of information include task conditions (task information that learners interpret based on the environment such as a teacher's directions) and cognitive conditions that learners retrieve from long-term memory such as how they did on prior tasks and motivational information (e.g., perceived competence). In the second phase learners set a goal and a plan for attaining it to include the learning strategies they will use. During the third phase learners apply their strategies, and in the fourth phase they adapt their plans and strategies based on self-evaluations of their success (this phase is optional if no adaptation is needed).
Within each phase, cognitive information processing constructs new information or information products. Information processing works on existing information and includes processes characterized by the acronym SMART: searching, monitoring, assembling, rehearsing, and translating. While working on a task, students fill in slots in a script that includes conditions, operations, products, evaluations, and standards. Information processing outcomes are judged against standards and these evaluations (e.g., progress is on target or too low) are used to bring new conditions to bear on students' learning activities.
Vygotsky's theory of development provides a social constructivist account of self-regulation. Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) believed that people and their cultural environments constitute an interacting social system. Through their communications and actions people in children's environments teach children tools (e.g., language, symbols) needed for developing competence. By using these tools within the social system, learners develop higher-level cognitive functions such as problem solving and self-regulation. Self-regulated learning includes the coordination of such mental processes as memory, planning, synthesis, and evaluation. These coordinated processes do not operate independently of the context in which they are formed. A student's self-regulated learning processes reflect those that are valued and taught in the culture of the student's home and school.
Vygotsky believed that people learn to self-regulate through control of their own actions. The primary mechanisms affecting self-regulation are language and the zone of proximal development (ZPD), or the amount of learning possible by a student given the proper instructional conditions. Initially children's actions are directed by the language (speech) of others but children gradually internalize this self-directing language and use it to self-regulate. Through interactions with adults in the ZPD children make the transition from behaviors regulated by others to behaviors regulated by themselves, or self-regulated learning.
Bandura's social cognitive theory posits that human functioning results from reciprocal interactions among personal factors (e.g., cognitions, emotions), behaviors, and environmental conditions. Self-regulated learning fits well with this idea of reciprocal interactions because personal factors, behaviors, and environmental conditions change during learning and must be monitored. Such self-monitoring can lead to additional changes in students' strategies, cognitions, affects, and behaviors.
This process is reflected in Zimmerman's 2000 three-phase self-regulated learning model comprising forethought, performance/volitional control, and self-reflection. The forethought phase precedes performance and refers to processes that set the stage for action. The performance/volitional control phase includes processes that occur during learning and that affect motivation and action. During the self-reflection phase, learners mentally review their performances and determine whether changes in behaviors or strategies are needed.
Various self-regulatory components come into play during the different phases. Two processes active throughout the model are goals and self-efficacy, In the forethought phase, learners set goals and hold a sense of self-efficacy for attaining them. During the performance phase they implement learning strategies and cognitively compare their performances with their goals to determine progress. Their self-efficacy is sustained when they believe that they are making goal progress. During self-reflection learners determine whether their present strategy is effective. If they feel self-efficacious for succeeding but believe that their present strategy is not working well enough, they may alter their strategy such as by working harder, persisting longer, deciding to use a different method, or seeking help from others. These self-regulatory processes promote learning, motivation, and self-efficacy.
The self-regulated learning processes discussed in the preceding section do not appear automatically in learners. Rather, students become more proficient self-regulators as a function of cognitive development and learning.
The development of self-regulation depends heavily on the use of self-regulatory or private speech (speech that is non-socially communicative). According to Kopp, increasing self-regulation involves a transition from responding to the commands of others to the use of speech and other cognitive tools to plan, monitor, and direct one's activities. Young children's actions are directed by adults. The meaning of actions depends on both the context and the tools (e.g., language, symbols) used to describe the actions. Through interactions with adults in the ZPD, children make the transition from behaviors regulated by others to behaviors regulated by themselves. This transition occurs as children develop the capability for using private speech to direct their actions. Such speech—which often may be talking aloud— eventually becomes internalized. The internalization of self-regulatory speech does not imply the absence of adult influence. Children's private speech may heavily reflect the directive speech of key adults (e.g., parents, teachers).
Research has identified other developmental changes. Zimmerman and Martinez-Pons found that between grades five and eight children increase their use of planning, sequencing, and goal-setting. Academic studying also undergoes changes. Meece noted that younger children equate studying with rereading material, whereas older students make greater use of note taking and underlining. Younger children also are less capable of monitoring their comprehension. Older children are better able to determine inconsistencies in text and when they find them they act to resolve them such as by rereading the passage to ensure that they read it accurately or by reading the broader passage to better determine the context.
Thus, improvements in self-regulated learning involve cognitive development and learning. As children become older they are better able to cognitively engage in such self-regulatory activities as planning, goal setting, monitoring comprehension, evaluating progress, and adjusting strategies as needed. But teaching also is important because students can learn to be better self-regulators, as discussed below.
As discussed by Schunk and Ertmer, much educational research shows that children, adolescents, and adults can be taught self-regulated learning skills, that their use of these skills improves learning, and that skills can maintain themselves over time and generalize to new learning settings. For example, teaching students to use goal setting can improve their self-regulated learning. There are different distinctions among goals, but one is between a process goal (what skill or strategy students are attempting to learn) and an outcome goal (the intended performance). In algebra a student may be trying to learn how to use the binomial theorem (process goal) or trying to finish a problem set (outcome goal). Researchers have found that focusing students' attention on process goals—especially in the early stages of learning— improves self-regulated learning better than focusing on outcome goals. However, Zimmerman and Kitsantas found benefits from shifting from process to outcome goals. High school students were taught a writing revision strategy. Students received a process goal (following steps in the strategy), an outcome goal (number of words in sentences), or initially a process goal but then were advised to shift to an outcome goal. Learners who changed goals as their revision skills developed demonstrated higher self-efficacy and skill than students who pursued either the process or the outcome goal.
Self-monitoring and perceptions of progress are key self-regulated learning processes. Researchers have found that students can be taught self-monitoring skills and that giving them feedback on their learning progress improves their use of self-regulatory skills. Schunk and Swartz found that providing students with a process goal of learning to use a writing strategy and feedback that linked strategy use with improved writing performance led to the highest use of a writing strategy and that this strategy usage maintained itself over time and generalized to writing tasks on which students had received no instruction.
Self-evaluations of progress help students focus on self-regulation processes and can raise their motivation and self-efficacy for continuing to improve. Research shows that allowing students to periodically evaluate their learning capabilities raises their self-efficacy, motivation to self-regulate, and use of self-regulated learning strategies. A particularly effective approach is to give students a learning process goal (e.g., learn to use a strategy to solve problems) and allow them to self-evaluate their capabilities for using the strategy successfully.
There are formal programs designed to improve students' self-regulation skills. Weinstein, Husman, and Dierking described a university course in strategic learning that teaches students to use several steps in working on academic material: set a goal, reflect on the task and one's personal resources, develop a plan, select potential strategies, implement strategies, monitor and evaluate the strategies and one's progress, modify strategies as needed, and evaluate the outcomes to determine if this approach should continue to be used. Prior to the course students complete the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory, and instructors use this information to help students improve their skills, motivation, self-regulation, and academic environment.
The preceding research makes clear the connection between effective self-regulation and gains in students' learning and achievement. Research findings also suggest ways to help students improve their self-regulated learning skills.
One suggestion is that, although students may discover effective self-regulated learning strategies on their own, they benefit from sound instruction and models that explain and demonstrate strategies. This does not imply that strategy instruction programs must be formally structured, but some guidance to students is important especially in the early stages of learning. As students become more proficient they are better able to construct effective strategies on their own and, as Zimmerman and Kitsantas found, pursue outcome rather than learning process goals.
A second point is that self-regulation should be taught in conjunction with an academic subject and not separately. Students benefit from seeing how they can use what they learn. Many self-regulation strategies are generic and can be applied to different content, but their implementation typically will vary depending on the content area. Thus, self-monitoring is a general strategy but what students self-monitor will vary depending whether they are reading passages in text, writing essays, or solving problems in geometry. When general strategies are taught it is important also to show students how the strategy can be adapted for use with other content.
Students should be taught how to evaluate their learning progress and given opportunities to do so. Typically in school students have their learning evaluated for them by teachers. But self-regulation is a cyclical process in which students self-regulate, check their progress, and adjust their approach as needed. Students need opportunities for self-evaluation because they may not do it automatically and it affects their motivation and self-regulated learning.
Developmental factors must be taken into account in teaching students to be better self-regulated learners. Self-monitoring is best kept simple for young children, such as by having them use a check list or count how many problems they have completed. With development, students can implement more elaborate self-regulation strategies; however, they are apt to benefit from instruction showing how to evaluate progress in areas where progress may be difficult to assess, such as writing improvement or reading comprehension.
Motivational variables also should be included in self-regulation programs. Developing effective self-regulation strategies takes time and effort, and students may not be motivated to self-regulate unless they see benefits compared with their usual approaches. They also may not feel self-efficacious about improving their self-regulation. Providing students with progress feedback linking strategy use with improved performance can raise their self-efficacy and motivation and enhance their self-evaluations of progress.
School learning typically is focused on academic content. Self-regulated learning skills do not develop automatically, but these skills will benefit students for life-long learning. Therefore, it behooves teachers and parents to help students develop their self-regulatory competencies and encourage them to practice using them in all facets of their lives.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kopp, C. B. (1982). Antecedents of self-regulation: A developmental perspective. Developmental Psychology, 18, 199–214.
Mace, F. C., Belfiore, P. J., & Hutchinson, J. M. (2001). Operant theory and research on self-regulation. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 39–65). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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