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3.3: Self-regulation

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    Authors: UQx LEARNx team of contributors


    Professor Annemaree Carroll, from The University of Queensland, explores what self-regulation is and how this changes as a learner matures.

    Click here watch this video lecture. (10:07 minutes)



    Video summary:

    ANNEMAREE CARROLL: "How does a teacher know when a student is ready to move from a surface learning approach to enacting deep learning strategies? The ability to self-regulate is key."

    Self-regulated learning refers to an independent and self-motivated process of acquiring knowledge and skills.

    Research suggests that students learn best when they have the ability to self-regulate. In fact, the degree to which students become self-regulators of their own learning influences academic success at school. These maturational changes are most prominent in the brain’s frontal lobes which have long been associated with executive function. The executive functioning system is the control system of the brain that is responsible for regulating behavior and directing and controlling thinking activity to enable effective problem solving in both learning and social contexts.

    These skills enable us to stay focused, remember instructions, make plans, control impulses, and take on multiple tasks successfully. These skills depend on three types of brain function which are highly interrelated and which draws on elements of the other:

    1. Working memory
    2. Mental flexibility
    3. Self-control

    Working memory – we can think of this as the engine of the attention control system. It controls our ability to retain and work with pieces of information over a short amount of time. If a learner has poor working memory function the learner will have difficulty sustaining attention, will be susceptible to distraction; and will have difficulty performing other executive functions. These skills are crucial for learning and development and successfully negotiating social and educational contexts. They provide the link between early school achievement and social, emotional, and moral development. When remaining focused is not important to the task at hand, the executive functioning system goes into standby mode.

    Mental flexibility is another brain function which determines our ability to sustain or shift our attention to different demands, and Self-control is the ability to set priorities, resist impulsive responses and monitor and correct performance.

    We aren’t born with these skills, but we can develop them with the right amount of nurturing and exposure. For young children, being in environments that provide the “scaffolding” of these skills is essential to healthy development.

    Both parents and teachers can:

    • Establish routines
    • Model appropriate social behavior
    • Demonstrate supportive and reliable relationships

    It is also important for children to have opportunities to exercise these developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection. Young children who do not have opportunities to use and strengthen these skills naturally fail to become proficient. Those who have problems staying focused and resisting distractions, not only display difficulties in school, but also have trouble following directions generally, and this extends into their adolescent and adult years. Studying, maintaining friendships, sustaining employment, or managing difficult situations will provide challenges.

    Although we are not born with these skills, we can first see signs of them around age two. By age three, most children can complete tasks that involve following two rules or actions and make deliberate choices. Five-year old’s have the ability to shift their attention from one rule to another and the capacity to block inappropriate responses.

    It is especially interesting to note that by age seven some of the capabilities underlying executive functions show distinct similarities to those in adulthood. As learners’ progress through the teenage and adolescent periods, they further develop self-control by switching between a central focus and peripheral stimuli, and successfully adapt to changing rules in different contexts. But self-motivation tends to decrease with age.

    Since motivation is an important factor in self-regulation, this may be why early-to-mid adolescence is a period of vulnerability to problems with self-regulation.

    Gender differences in the skills for self-regulation are also apparent in school aged children. Girls have been found to be more conscientious, self-disciplined, have higher levels of academic self-efficacy and more able to self-regulate than boys. Typically, girls are typically less impulsive and more capable of regulating their emotional expression. This influences the classroom dynamic as girls are consistently perceived by teachers as being more self-controlled and self-disciplined than boys.

    We know that self-regulated learners display several features in their work.

    • They develop their own goals and choose learning strategies to meet these goals.
    • They employ techniques to monitor and evaluate their progress, and modify their learning when necessary.
    • They have the ability to self-regulate their behavior, thoughts and emotions, which leads to sustained focus and attention. This includes being able to slow or impede behavior, thoughts, and emotions which do not contribute to learning.

    We know that motivation is a key sustainer of self-regulated learning. And with maturity comes a greater ability to self-regulate.

    The learning may be occurring in relation to pre-determined goals set by the teacher, external examination of work and progress, and established learning strategies.

    Italy’s first female doctor Maria Montessori developed an educational approach based on a constructivist model in the late 1800s. She recognized that self-regulation is an important indicator of healthy child development and that it could be enhanced over time.

    Her philosophy and methodology has strong foundations in children’s self-regulation and independence. Students exercise a large degree of choice in Montessori classrooms balanced with a degree of task structure. Developmentally appropriate materials are placed around the classroom for a variety of hands-on tasks which encourage planning and organization skills, flow and concentration, and task persistence. In noting children’s capacity for being absorbed in a task, or in a flow state, large periods of time are provided for children to develop sustained concentration and attention which are important components of self-regulation.

    External rewards are not a feature of the Montessori approach. Instead, children in Montessori classrooms are intrinsically motivated to learn through the completion of the activities, feeling a sense of pride, ownership, and accomplishment.

    In working with older students and adults, Monique Boekaert’s three layered model of self-regulated learning examines three levels of self-regulation.

    The three-layered model of self-regulated learning (BOEKAERTS, 1999)

    Goetz, Nett and Hall describe the regulation of processing modes as the level that focuses on the learner’s ability to self-regulate according to desired learning outcomes and choosing the most appropriate learning strategies.

    The regulation of the learning process level relates to overall metacognitive processes and the coordination of cognitive strategies, including planning and monitoring. The outer level relates to regulation of the self, including the ability to choose current and future activities and to remain motivated when competing influences intervene. Boekaert suggests that successful self-regulation is dependent on competency in these three levels.

    The ability to be a self-regulated, independent, and flexible learner in today’s fast-paced, globalized, and knowledge-based world is essential.

    Teachers can assist students to set realistic yet challenging goals .

    • Encourage students to be cognizant of their own behavior by observing and recording themselves for reflection.
    • Provide a range of instructions that students can give to themselves during the learning process.
    • Model how to evaluate achievement and modify strategies and goals if necessary.
    • Teachers should also provide frequent opportunities for students to practice self-regulating strategies and solve interpersonal problems.
    • It’s also important for teachers to improve their students’ attentional readiness through techniques such as breathing and mindfulness.

    All of these strategies will lead to self-regulated deep learners in our classrooms.

    3.3: Self-regulation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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