Feature

It's no secret that students learn best when they self-regulate--set their own academic goals, develop strategies to meet them and reflect on their academic performance.

High-achieving students know what needs to be learned and how to learn it, educational psychology studies increasingly show. But while making those kinds of self-assessments may sound simple--and something most college students could do--many psychology professors find their students aren't self-aware enough to conduct them.

Some faculty believe they can help students develop these strategies through their teaching. Others, however, don't think it's their place to do so, pointing to the load of content they already must teach in one semester. Besides, some ask, isn't college too late to teach students how to learn?

Not according to self-regulation researchers Paul Pintrich, PhD, co-founder of a "learning how to learn" course at the University of Michigan, and Barry Zimmerman, PhD, an educational psychology professor at the Graduate School and University Center at the City University of New York (CUNY).

They, along with University of Texas strategic-learning advocate Claire Ellen Weinstein, PhD, and others, say it's never too late to teach students how to learn. Though well aware of the time constraints on professors, they believe that if faculty weave self-regulation strategies into their teaching, students more quickly absorb course material, ultimately saving faculty time. In fact, Weinstein, founder of a learning-to-learn course at Texas, finds that the more students use learning strategies, the higher their grade-point averages (GPAs) and graduation rates. And Pintrich believes college students need instruction in using these strategies because university life lacks the structure high school offers.

"In college, you see problems arise where students don't have as much day-to-day interaction with instructors as in high school," says Pintrich. "Schedules are more open and classes much larger."

Among the ways professors can help students structure their time and learning better is setting clear learning objectives for courses, making regular assignments and emphasizing outlines, mnemonic aids and other such learning devices.

Taking charge

At the core of self-regulation are strategies to manage cognition, but motivation to use those strategies is also key, says Pintrich.

"You need the 'will' as well as the 'skill,'" he says.

Researchers propose a variety of models for activating skill and will. Zimmerman has developed one of the best-known models and uses it to coach remedial students at CUNY. He says it's helpful to think of self-regulation in three phases:

  • Forethought. Students set short-term, challenging but attainable academic goals. They also estimate their ability--also called self-efficacy--to reach those goals.

  • Performance. Students adopt "powerful" learning strategies, such as scheduling study time, using mnemonics and outlining course content.

  • Self-reflection. Students evaluate how effectively their strategies help them meet their academic goals and adjust strategies accordingly.

Studies show that such monitoring yields considerable payoffs. Zimmer-man finds, for example, that when students set goals and monitor their self-efficacy they can boost their achievement potential by 30 percent, based on predictions from previous grades and scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Other research findings suggest that high-achieving students tend to self-regulate more automatically than low-achieving students. For example, in a study of 320 college students, psychologist Carol VanZile-Tamsen, PhD, of the State University of West Georgia, found that those with the lowest GPAs reported using less self-regulation than their peers.

But she also found that lower achievers tended to self-regulate more if they were motivated to learn course material, either out of interest or for their major. In other research, educational psychologist Eunsook Hong, PhD, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found that while some students always use self-monitoring strategies, others use them inconsistently across different subjects and situations.

"Because students exert more self-regulation in certain situations, you can train for it," she says.

Spurring students along

Faculty can incite students' motivation to self-regulate by organizing their courses to emphasize reflective learning and goal-setting, say VanZile-Tamsen and Zimmerman.

They suggest that faculty:

  • Identify course objectives up front. Spell out what students should learn across the course and for each test, suggests Zimmerman. Ask students to monitor their efficacy in meeting test objectives. This helps them determine what to study.

  • Emphasize concept relevance. Build in plenty of examples to explain each concept and relate new ideas to previously covered ones. "Students will be more motivated to self-regulate if they see the relevance," says VanZile-Tamsen.

  • Quiz students frequently. Give them regular assignments and tests so they can tell how well they're learning material. If they realize what they're missing today, they might not score poorly on the final later.

  • Tie feedback to key concepts. Frame comments on tests and homework assignments in terms of how well students' answers match course objectives and their self-efficacy judgments. This "postmortem" analysis helps students see what they should restudy, says Zimmerman.

Faculty can also encourage students to use specific learning strategies, research-ers say. Some ways of doing this are to:

  • Help students define tasks before them. Delineate what's called for in homework assignments and the resources, such as time, study materials and research databases, needed to complete them.

  • Teach note organization. Suggest ways to summarize lecture content and fill in gaps in notes, says Zimmerman. Collect notes occasionally to check this.

  • Impart learning devices. Tell students about mnemonic aids, such as knowledge trees that categorize information in branches. Also, encourage students to use outlines and other graphic organizers for writing, and study logs or diaries to manage their time, says Zimmerman.

  • Model and encourage self-reflection. "Think out loud" when analyzing a theory or problem, so students will follow suit, says Pintrich. "When looking at a study, you might point out that you don't know much about the statistical technique used, that you need to ask a colleague," he says.

Pintrich says this helps students see that it's best to identify one's weaknesses to compensate for them.

"After all," says Pintrich. "one of the hallmarks of an expert is knowing what you don't know. Students come a long way when they realize that."

Further Reading

  • Hong, E. (1998). Differential stability of state and trait self-regulation in academic performance. Journal of Educational Research, 91(3), 148-­158.

  • VanZile-Tamsen, C. & Livingston, J.A. (1999). The differential impact of motivation on the self-regulated strategy use of high- and low-achieving college students. Journal of College Student Development, 40(1), 54-­60.

  • Zimmerman, B. (1998). Academic studying and the development of personal skill: a self-regulatory perspective. Educational Psychologist, 33(2/3), 73-­86.