Self-regulated learning (SRL) is a valuable tool that could help all students succeed in school, university and the workforce according to Flinders University Professor Stella Vosniadou, writes journalist Jessica Willis.
What is self-regulated learning and why is it important?
SRL is a conceptual framework for understanding the cognitive, motivational and emotional aspects of learning.
It is based around the premise that the ability to learn can be improved and is, “more effective when students can control their motivational states, employ appropriate cognitive and metacognitive strategies and reflect upon their learning processes and outcomes” (Vosniadou 2020, pp s95).
Vosniadou said SRL is essential for students as it provides them with the knowledge and the ability to control their learning and, more importantly, allows them to reflect critically on their learning, particularly on the areas they need to improve.
“It’s about developing independent learners; giving them the skills they need to be effective and efficient learners,” she said.
Lack of self-belief can be debilitating
Vosniadou said it is imperative students believe they can improve their ability to learn and that teachers can help them do this.
“We’ve done questionnaires investigating people’s beliefs about education and learning,” Vosniadou said.
“We were really surprised to see how many students believe learning is something that is almost innate – that some students are born better learners than others and that there is not really much you can do to improve your learning.
“[This view] seems to be more predominant in students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
“This is a very debilitating belief because it means if you think of yourself as a ‘slow learner’ then there isn’t anything you can do, and you won’t succeed in school.
“This is a very negative belief to hold.
“However, teachers can be very effective in creating curricula and instruction that helps students realise there is a lot they can do to improve their learning.
“Of course, there are undeniably individual differences [between students] – but that does not mean each one of us, as a learner, cannot improve ourselves, our learning skills and performance,” she said.
SRL for all stages of life
Vosniadou said a lack of SRL is also being recognised as a barrier in the transition from secondary education to tertiary.
“One of the main reasons why students fail and drop out of university is because they are not independent learners,” she said.
“They cannot deal with all the tasks and learning because the university environment is a very different environment from high school: it requires a lot of independent learning.
“If you don’t have the skills, you get overwhelmed and cannot deal with it.
“Although students usually do difficult tests on their background knowledge in different subjects [for university entrance], they are very rarely assessed on whether they possess the skills necessary to manage their learning in an effective way,” said Vosniadou.
This is why her research focuses mainly on secondary schooling; however, Vosniadou said this does not mean this is the only time SRL should be explicitly taught – it is a process that starts in early childhood education and primary school settings.
SRL skills are also highly important for life and fit into the 21st century skill set needed to survive in the workforce. These include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving.
Change needs support from top and bottom
Vosniadou argues student learning and academic achievement could be improved if there was a broad effort to ensure SRL was a priority.
However, it would need to be supported at all levels – from classroom teachers, to school and sector leadership, employing authorities as well as policy makers.
One problem is schools do not have sufficient time or resources to devote to teaching learning skills – rather they are pressured to cover course content.
In a recent survey of teacher practices in Australia, Harding et al (2017) found almost all (98.8%) of Australian teachers said SRL skills are important, but only 32% included them in lesson planning.
Of the remaining participants 45.8% said that there was not enough time to teach the content of the curriculum as well as SRL skills and 24.1% acknowledged they did not know how to teach SRL (Vosniadou 2020, pps96).
Vosniadou said a major problem was too much focus on results – for example, the results of standardised tests like PISA and NAPLAN.
She said change would require a significant overhaul of how we train teachers and how teachers teach.
“In order for students to develop SRL skills, we need to change the way we teach which can be a very difficult thing to do.
“Rather than focusing on just learning content for each subject, promoting SRL requires teachers to design constructive and interactive tasks that students can use to process content information critically,” she said.
“It also requires teaching students the strategies needed for the successful completion of such tasks.
“This means the students are actively and constructively engaged with learning instead of passively listening to what the teacher says.
“Research shows this is important and that these types of tasks have a very positive result in student learning.
“It requires support from the school as a whole, from the principal, from the district and from [the employer].
“Of course, individual teachers are the ones [implementing the change] but if they aren’t supported, they won’t be able to introduce effective change – even if they really want to do so,” she said.
Professional resources on the way
Vosniadou said her team has just finished an experimental learning program developed for teachers.
“We tested it with around five to six schools, with a few teachers from each school.
“We are now analysing the results and developing professional development materials so that the strategies we developed can be disseminated throughout more schools.
She said the best way teachers can become more aware of what and how they are teaching is through critical self-reflection.
“Teachers could start increasing the amount of classroom time on independent, supervised activities.
“Asking questions such as ‘what can I do to ensure my students are capable of understanding this concept?’ and ‘what skills do they need in order to be good learners?’ can also help,” she said.
Members can find more information about Stella Vosniadou’s research, which is funded by the Australian Research Council, at www.teachinghowtolearn.edu.au