The Science of Learning: A Self-Regulatory Perspective

How do you learn? Think about it honestly for a second.  Do you create notecards? Do you watch instructional videos? Do you even know? Have you ever asked your students how they learn best?

Discussing the science of learning with students tends to be a messy business. It takes time and is usually outside our areas of expertise. Understanding how students prepare for an assessment is arguably more important than how they perform. At least then we, as teachers, have something to work with as we reconstruct our students' misconceptions.

Student working on an assignment from a unit in STC™. Photo by Smithsonian Science Education Center.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. 

What usually happens? We evaluate performance. We provide feedback. Some students work through their errors and make progress. Other students don't. They repeatedly try the same thing that led to their poor performance. They do it across content areas, year after year.  Many of these students think they are failures. They honestly believe they are incapable of learning anything new.  

But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if you could understand how students prepare and help them learn how to prepare better?

One way of addressing this complex problem is by learning about the theory of academic self-regulation.

Academic self-regulated learning refers to the degree to which students are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning processes (Zimmerman, 1989). More simply put, students have the skills and confidence to take control of their own learning.  These students have tinkered around with their learning environments. They have manipulated study materials.

They have reflected on their thoughts and behaviors before, during, and after learning. They have come to know what works for them by experimenting.  They are scientists who use their minds and surroundings as the laboratory.

Sometimes they make the wrong choice, i.e., "I studied for last week's biology test by reviewing the vocabulary notecards by myself, in my room, listening to music, and text-messaging my friends." Then once they receive feedback, i.e., "I completely bombed the biology test."

They analyze the reasons for their failure in terms of strategies and think about what they need to improve for future learning opportunities. So what might this look like for you as a classroom teacher?

Here are a few suggestions.

Ask your students to write down how they prepared for the assessment on the assessment. You might be surprised by their answers. They might be surprised you care. Provide time in class to model how your students should think strategically about where they study, who they study with, and how they use your feedback.

Ask your students to share study strategies and learning environments that work for them. Write these suggestions down on the board. Other students can use them as a learning library. Help them create a learning journal. Show them how to use it to monitor their performance. If they are not performing, help them make changes to the way they prepare.

Academic self-regulation is about linking performances to strategies, not to some fixed measure of intelligence.  We don't teach students to be smart. We teach them to be inspired, to help them grasp the complex, and understand the world around them. Now imagine how it would make you feel knowing you helped a student realize they were capable of learning...anything? It is time for our students to realize success is something they do, not something they are.  

Do you have a unique way of setting goals, keeping yourself organized, motivating yourself, studying, or reflecting on your performances?  If so, the SSEC would love to hear about how you have taken control of your learning. Please post your comments/tips below!

Zimmerman, B. J. (1989a). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 329-339.

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About the Author

Brian Mandell, PhD

Brian Mandell, PhD, is the Division Director of Curriculum and Communications for the SSEC. In this role, he provides support and direction for the talented Curriculum and Communication staff in the development of world-class print and digital curricular resources. This work includes our new curriculum, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom, which embeds objects and research from the Smithsonian Institution, is built to current science standards, asks students to design solutions to real-world problems, provides research-based support for common student misconceptions, and seamlessly integrates print and digital resources.