Improving Self-Regulated Learning

Improving Self-Regulated Learning

By Althea Need Kaminske

cover image by StockSnap by Pixabay

Self-regulated learning describes a cyclical process of forethought, performance, and self-reflection that enables a learner to regulate, and thereby improve, their learning (1). Previously, I’ve reviewed research on the relationship between self-regulated learning and personality, Carolina provided a digest on fostering self-regulated learning in students, and she covered research on students’ self-regulated use of retrieval practice.

Self-regulated learning is particularly important in contexts like medical school where learners have to efficiently and independently learn large amounts of information. A recent study with medical students examined the effects of teaching about self-regulated learning and maintaining a learning diary on students’ self-regulated learning and course performance (2).


Researchers invited academically-struggling students to participate in a supplemental self-regulated learning course that took place over 5 weeks. The course was timed to align with a block of coursework on the nervous system that was challenging for students. Students completed online modules each week related to self-regulated learning, with short quizzes at the end of each session to assure that students engaged with the material. Students also completed a structure learning diary each week which came in two parts. The first part of the learning diary asked students about their study goals, estimation of study time, goal orientation, and self-efficacy for the nervous system content they would be studying that week. The second part of the learning diary asked them about their time spent studying, cognitive strategies, concentration, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and reflection after studying for the past week.

Participants responded to the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) to measure their self-regulated learning before the course in a pre-test, after the course in a post-test, and in a follow up test the next semester. The MSLQ examines self-regulated learning through 15 subscales. These scales include: internal goal orientation, external goal orientation, task value, learning belief control, self-efficacy, exam stress, rehearsal, elaboration, organization, critical thinking, metacognitive regulation, time and environment management, effort regulation, peer learning, and help seeking. (Self-regulated learning has a lot of components!) Test scores in their nervous system block and GPA in the following semester were used as measures of academic performance.

Results – Did self-regulated learning improve?

Yes, students who took self-regulated learning course significantly improved their overall self-regulated learning from pre- to post-test, indicating that that the supplemental course did improve their overall self-regulated learning. Specifically, rehearsal, organization, critical thinking, metacognitive regulation, and time and environment management significantly improved. Students’ self-regulated learning also improved from post-test to the follow up test, but the overall improvement was not significant. The only significant change from post-test to follow up was a decrease in self-efficacy.

Results – Did self-regulated learning training improve academic performance?

To answer this question, researchers compared the performance of students who were taking part in the self-regulated learning course to students from the previous year’s cohort who had similar GPAs. Students who received the self-regulated learning training scored significantly higher in the nervous system block than the comparison group of students from the prior year who did not. However, there was no significant difference in GPAs between the two groups in the following semester.

Takeaway – Can we improve self-regulated learning?

Likely! One of the challenges to studying and improving self-regulated learning is that it is not just one skill – it’s a whole suite of skills. Additionally, these skills take time to develop so improvement takes time and repeated practice. The learning diary intervention seems particularly useful here because it provides a way to repeatedly practice these skills. However, the researchers note that since there was no difference in GPAs in the following semester, the learning diary intervention may need to be longer or more frequent to improve self-regulation.

Something that was not analyzed in the study was the results of those quizzes from the self-regulated learning modules. As a learning scientist I wonder how much – or little! – students’ understanding of self-regulated learning as a theory affected their actual self-regulation. The researcher did include students’ evaluation of the self-regulated learning modules and students indicated that they found the instruction helpful.

My takeaway from this study is that is possible to make meaningful changes in student study habits, but that quite a bit of structured support is necessary to do so.