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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 5, March 2013  

Keys to promoting self-regulated learning 

By Nancy Perry and Philip Winne  

Ideas associated with self-regulation and self-regulated learning (SRL) are catching hold in BC’s schools. Important markers of this trend are the Ministry of Education’s commitment to supporting students’ development of self-regulation and SRL in the 2011 BC Education Plan, and initiatives such as Changing Results for Young Readers. We are excited but not surprised by these developments. More than 30 years of research about SRL demonstrates how self-regulating learners are successful in and beyond school. They tend to have high motivation and confidence for learning and use productive-thinking and problem-solving skills. These characteristics lead to task-relevant behaviour and high levels of achievement.

What is self-regulation? Broadly speaking, it is individuals’ ability to control thoughts and action to achieve personal goals and respond to environmental factors (Zimmerman, 2008). Effective self-regulating learners attend to key features of tasks (e.g., What am I being asked to do?), resist distractions (e.g., What might I rather be doing?), persist when tasks are difficult and respond to challenges appropriately, adaptively, and flexibly.

SRL is a particular focus for general self-regulation. It involves metacognition, motivation, and strategic action (Winne & Perry, 2000) dedicated to learning. Effectively self-regulating learners are aware of strengths and weaknesses they bring to tasks. They draw from a repertoire of effective-thinking and problem-solving strategies when they encounter challenges. They are motivated to learn with a genuine interest in learning processes and beliefs that effort and strategy use leads to success. This makes them willing to try challenging tasks and inclines them to view errors, when they occur, as opportunities for learning. Importantly, the “self” in SRL identifies who regulates learning—the student, of course!

Learners are not equally effective at self-regulating. Some differences lead to difficulties in school. For example, some learners are impulsive. They don’t take time to analyze environmental demands or consider how best to meet them. Other learners have difficulty with attention or emotion control. And others lack self and other awareness, motivation for learning, or knowledge of strategies that lead to success. Also, self-regulation develops across the lifespan. What it means to effectively self-regulate learning varies as students move through the grades. What’s common, however, is that learners of all ages need to continuously and flexibly adapt to diverse and changing demands in the multiple contexts where learning happens.

We view SRL as a skill. Developing and improving skills calls for extensive, deliberate practice where students have two key jobs. One is identifying, then trying out tactics and strategies for learning. The second is examining how well a tactic or strategy worked and, if it wasn’t up to par, hypothesizing what to do about it. This two-part frame implies what teachers can do to enhance SRL. To organize these ideas, we outline a model of SRL proposed by Winne and our colleague, Allyson Hadwin at the University of Victoria.

According to Winne and Hadwin’s four-phase model, ideally, students first survey features in their learning environment that probably affect learning (e.g., What am I being asked to do? Can I do it? Why or why not?). Their scan identifies resources (e.g., I can use the computer, or get help from my peers), constraints (e.g., I’m feeling distracted today) and opportunities (e.g., the teacher said I can choose a topic that interests me). Second, students set their goals for learning and plan how to approach them. This step is critical. It creates benchmarks for keeping track of how well learning unfolds as it unfolds. Third, students start work and regularly probe it: “Am I on track?” Minor adjustments may be needed to improve how learning unfolds. Their plan may be taking too much time; or perhaps a strategy they chose isn’t working, so a different tactic needs to come into play. Fourth, at major breaks or when the task is completed, the student reviews everything and asks: “How well did that go? What can I do to improve my learning in the future?”

We emphasize the “self” in self-regulation doesn’t mean solo. Self-regulation supports both independent and social forms of learning. And more often than not, students’ development of SRL depends on supportive interactions with teachers and peers. The term “co-regulation” describes the giving and receiving of instrumental support for SRL. It presumes at least one participant in an interaction has knowledge or skills that others need to achieve their goals. It reflects a transitional phase whereby learners gradually make SRL their own through, for example, feedback or metacognitive prompts (e.g., How well is that strategy working? What else could you do?”). In classrooms, co-regulators can be adults or peers, but students can also co-regulate adults. They provide information that helps teachers tailor or adjust instruction to better meet their students’ needs. In this way, students support teachers to be self-regulating, too.

How can teachers support their students’ SRL? First, design learning experiences to provide opportunities for practising each phase of SRL. Create tasks complex enough to invite SRL but not so beyond students’ skills and abilities that it overwhelms them. Their work should be in what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development where, with a bit of help, they can succeed. Second, don’t program every last step to the nth degree. Students need opportunities to make meaningful decisions about their learning. Offer choices about what, who, where, when, and how to work on task. Let students control challenges (e.g., often through choices about what, who, where …) and take responsibility for developing skills for checking their work (i.e., involve them in generating evaluation criteria and self-evaluating). Support SRL, for example, by asking metacognitive questions that prompt students to consider their characteristics (e.g., interests and abilities), a task’s conditions (e.g., due date, who is a good collaborator for them) and strategies they can use. Finally, model thinking and problem-solving strategies for them and arrange varied and frequent opportunities for feedback, especially feedback about standards for examining learning strategies and options for strategies.

Our colleagues in BC and across Canada are working to promote more research and teaching that focuses on SRL. Visit our website at SRLCanada.ca for more information.

Nancy Perry, professor, Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education, UBC; Philip Winne, professor, Educational Psychology, SFU  

References 

Winne, P. H., & Perry, N. E. (2000). Measuring self-regulated learning. In M. Boekarts, P. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 532-566). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2008). Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background, methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Research Journal, 45, 166-183.