Self-Regulated Learning and the Meta-Learner

By Lorna Gardiner



With Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning topping the ranking of the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit (indicating that it can lead to high levels of impact for learners for low cost, based on extensive evidence) metacognition has increasingly become quite a buzzword in educational circles. It is interesting to note that, somehow with this focus on metacognition, the associated concept of ‘self-regulated learning’ in the Toolkit’s findings appears to have drawn less attention.

Perhaps referring to the full title of ‘metacognition and self-regulated learning’ seems rather too much of a mouthful in discussions, as indeed it is! Alternatively, there may be a popularised notion that referring to ‘metacognition’ implies inclusion of self-regulation. Whatever the reason for the omission or oversight, for a Thinking School community which aims to future-proof their learners and to equip them with the skills, attitudes and dispositions needed for life in the 21st century and beyond, there is a recognised importance of building their learners’ capacities for both metacognition and self-regulation.

What is Self-Regulated Learning?

Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) is not a recent concept and has been an important focus of research in the field of psychology for decades. The initial understanding of self-regulation dates back to the 1970s/80s and the work of the psychologist Albert Bandura, who viewed self-regulation as “the process of influencing the external environment through our emotions and behaviour”. 

Since the 1980s, Professor Barry Zimmerman also contributed significantly to an appreciation of the cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects of the concept, largely from the perspective of social cognitive theory. His work has also explored how the concept of SRL may be distinguished from that of metacognition. As further models of SRL were developed in subsequent years, a helpful comparison of Zimmerman’s model with those of some of his contemporaries was published by Puustinen and Pullkinen (2001).

In the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning: Evidence Review (2020), authors Daniel Muijs and Christian Bokhov, whilst acknowledging the confusion evident in efforts to both define SRL and to differentiate it from metacognition, concluded with some clarity that:

… metacognition is fundamentally associated with concepts such as monitoring, control, and knowledge. All of these (except for knowledge) reoccur in definitions of self-regulated learning, but in addition cognition and motivation appear strongly, suggesting that a key distinction between the two is the extent to which they include these components.

Dr James Mannion also helpfully contributed to this debate in an article published by the Chartered College, in which he defines metacognition as “monitoring and controlling your thought processes”, self-regulation as “monitoring and controlling your emotions and behaviours” and SRL as “the application of metacognition and self-regulation to learning”. 

In an essay included in the recently published collection of essays and case studies by Sixth Form Matters, Muijs succinctly defines SRL as being:

… essentially about the extent to which learners know themselves, know and can use strategies for learning effectively, can plan and adjust their learning, and can motivate themselves to do so.

The EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated learning Guidance Report cite Dinsmore et al’s (2008) conceptualisation of SRL as comprising three areas of psychological functioning: cognition, metacognition, and motivation. This interestingly reflects the key tenets of the Thinking Matters approach which recognises the integral interplay of all three of these elements in students effectively becoming ‘meta-learners’.

Why is Self-Regulation important for the Meta-Learner?

“Self-regulated Learning is pivotal in preparing students to be agentic life-long learners in an unpredictable, dynamic, and ever-changing society”

As a consequence of this recognition clearly articulated by the OECD, for a Thinking School, the importance of developing student capacities for self-regulation is fundamental in future-proofing their students. The impact of the Covid pandemic on levels of student independence and wellbeing as reported by many schools has no doubt heightened interest and increased a sense of urgency in this regard.

In the Thinking Matters ‘Big Picture’, the metaphor of an archer is used to represent the student. The archer is equipped with a bow, which represents their understanding of the Science of Learning and with a quiver of arrows – their ‘toolkit’ of metacognitive strategies. They use their bow and arrows to aim towards specific intelligent learning behaviours and cognitive capabilities identified on their target, ultimately with the goal of being an effective ‘meta-learner’; that is an independent, motivated, self-directing learner who has control and mastery of their own learning. This reflects Zimmerman’s (2001) concept of SRL as premised on the idea that students should have agency and take responsibility for their own learning and play an active role in the learning process.

The mature meta-learner will have high levels of self-awareness and self-knowledge, they will recognise their strengths and weaknesses and will not only have clarity regarding the purpose of learning and their learning goals, but they will also feel motivated to achieve them. They will have acquired flexible strategies and tools from which they can deliberately select the most effective one as they plan or approach a learning task. They will be ‘tuned in’ as they engage in learning tasks, monitoring and adapting use of strategies, based on feedback regarding the effectiveness of the learning they are engaged with. At the conclusion of learning tasks, they will self-reflect and note ideas for future actions as they continue to improve their performance. 

Moreover, in acknowledging that self-regulation abilities impact on all areas of a child or young person’s development, including their emotional, social, cognitive and motivational development, it is also noteworthy that SRL is not only important for becoming an expert meta-learner, but fundamental for learners at all stages of progression. 

A Sutton Trust report (2019) of the Self-Regulation in the Early Years project identified self-regulation as an ‘essential life skill’ which “underpins other aspects of learning and has a significant impact on a child’s long term life chances”. The report cited the Department for Education’s Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE) study, which identified an association between socio economic background and self-regulation in the early years. The study noted that some of the adverse impacts of poverty are moderated by self-regulatory skills. 

In a handbook published for early years practitioners, Whitebread reported that children who demonstrate well-developed SRL capacities at the pre-school stage:

  • are able to cope with school and make a good start on mathematical understanding and in learning to read;
  • are more able to make friends and maintain friendships;
  • become effective learners, and enjoy a good level of academic achievement in the short and long-term;
  • develop a belief in their own abilities and a high level of self-efficacy; and
  • develop a good level of emotional well-being.

Hence there is clear evidence that focusing on SRL has benefits for learners right from the earliest years and is also integral in supporting the particular skills and dispositions of the TM meta-learner.

What is the Self-Regulated Learning Cycle?

An understanding of the cyclical nature of SRL is central to Zimmerman’s model, and although he has refined the cyclical model in a number of iterations, the central cycle involves the learner engaging in three phases of:

  • forethought – processes that precede the learning task
  • performance – processes during the learning task, and 
  • self-reflection – processes after the learning task.

As learners move through these processes, they will make decisions and adapt approaches based on prior experiences and feedback which they have received. As they engage in these processes, they must control their behaviour, emotions, cognition, and motivation.

For those familiar with the three stages within the metacognitive cycle included in the EEF’s Guidance Report, Zimmerman’s three phases will seem quite familiar. The forethought phase involves the analysis of the learning task, setting goals and planning both practically and in relation to the learner’s mindset and levels of motivation to complete the task. The performance phase centrally concerns the learner monitoring their progress during the task and managing their learning behaviours to stay on track. The self-reflection phase involves evaluating the outcome and reflecting on feedback received. The diagrams of the SRL cycle and metacognitive cycle below provide opportunity for comparison to be made:

Zimmerman has refined his SRL cycle over many years and recent versions now specify multiple sub-processes within each phase which, whilst helpful in augmenting our understanding, can lead to some complexity when seeking to apply the model in practice. A simplified version has therefore been developed for use with younger students (Stoeger et al., 2014). In this model the forethought phase includes the sub-stages of self-assessment, goal-setting and strategic planning, the performance phase includes implementation and monitoring of the strategy with capacity to make adjustments mid-task, and the self-reflection phase focuses on evaluation of the outcomes.

For the Thinking School, it is important that both staff and students share an understanding of the phases within the cycle and have access to tools and strategies which will enable them to effectively operate at each phase.

How does Self-Regulation develop?

Much of the research in the field of SRL has been conducted with university level students and with children in the early years. There has been ongoing interest in deepening understanding of the process by which it develops and how it can best be supported. Until quite recently, the popular view has been that, due to the complex levels of self-awareness and cognitive processing involved, that metacognition and self-regulation capacities only develop relatively late in the primary school years (around 8-10 years old) and expand rapidly during the following few years up to around the age of 15 (Veenman et al. 2006, p. 8). 

Many early years researchers however have challenged this idea, with the work of  the University of Cambridge research team led by David Whitebread et al, 2009 contributing significantly to this debate. Their work highlighted that the interconnectedness of the cognitive and language capacities of young children was an inhibiting factor in assessing levels of metacognition and self-regulation. They argued that even very young children (below the age of 6 years) have capacity to engage in ‘strategic behaviours’, can ‘predict and evaluate their own performance’ with accuracy and ‘may reveal elementary executive functions that are closely related to metacognition’. 

Consider for example the young child in a nursery class presented with a new challenge and who quickly assesses the extent to which it is within their zone of proximal development and chooses to engage or to walk away. Or the child who is offered an activity such as matching pots with lids and the extent to which they have a go, use trial and error, review their approach and change tactics, etc. Early years teachers often report examples of young children demonstrating high level capacities to plan, monitor and evaluate, where they may not yet have the language to fully explain their thought processes.

In a handbook published for early years practitioners, Whitebread described the early development of self-regulation as arising through interactions between executive functions, metacognition and emotional and motivational dispositions. He outlined how these three sets of mental processes combine to enable the young child to move from being other-regulated to being self-regulated. This shift in the locus of control from the adult to the child is also represented in the EEF’s seven-step model which can be used by staff when introducing any metacognitive strategy. In this diagram from the report the orange bar represents the increasing ownership of the student in taking control of their own learning and the green bar indicates the consequent decreasing role of the teacher.

EEF seven-step model

How can Self-Regulation be supported?

The uniqueness of each learner means that they will develop self-regulation at different speeds and to varying extents. The influence of the home environment and parenting styles, the quality of social interactions experienced and the extent to which self-regulatory skills are fostered are significant in this regard, particularly in the early years where wide variations of self-regulation capacities have been observed in children by the age of 3. Research findings have indicated that early development of self-regulation in children is highly dependent on the quality of their early social interactions, pace of oral language development, and play opportunities they have had with other children, their parents or other caregivers.

However, it widely accepted that SRL also needs to be fostered as a priority within the school environment and that teaching staff can have a very positive influence on children’s development of self-regulatory skills beyond the home environment.

It is noteworthy that SRL is identified in various ways within the statutory curriculum and guidance in many countries. For example, in England ‘Self-Regulation’, ‘Managing Self’ and ‘Building Relationships’ are now included in the Early Learning Goals which are measured as part of the Foundation stage profile. In Northern Ireland, ‘self-management’ is identified as an integral part of the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities Framework’ used by schools of all phases. In the recently introduced curriculum framework in Wales, ‘personal effectiveness’ and ‘planning and organising’ are identified as key skills in achieving the four purposes.

Whilst profiling SRL in the curriculum is important, supporting staff in developing their professional knowledge and practice in how to teach and nurture SRL may present more of a challenge. The EEF’s Evidence Review, however, cites helpful evidence which suggests that effective teaching of SRL (and metacognition) has two main components: 

  • The direct approach, through explicit instruction and implicit modelling by the teacher.
  • The indirect approach, through creating a conducive learning environment, with guided practice, including dialogue and (scaffolded) inquiry.

The Direct Approach

The EEF’s seven recommendations for schools who wish to embed metacognition and self-regulated learning recognise the central role of the teacher and the importance of schools providing effective professional development which enables staff to deepen their understanding of the topic. Recommendations 2 to 6 all focus on specific suggestions for teacher pedagogy, including explicit instruction, modelling and verbalising own thinking, scaffolding and guiding, setting appropriate levels of challenge, promoting metacognitive talk/dialogue, providing effective feedback and supporting student motivation. 

All of the EEF’s recommendations are represented in the TM’s concept of the teacher as Cognitive Coach. In the thinking classroom the teacher is the ‘expert thinker and learner’ and therefore modelling by adults is a key pedagogical strategy in supporting students in developing SRL. The EEF describes the purpose of modelling as being “to help novice pupils become more capable of learning independently and thinking metacognitively”. 

Teachers can explicitly demonstrate and model metacognitive and self-regulation strategies in a wide variety of contexts and act as ‘knowledgeable others’ in supporting self-regulation. A key aspect of the modelling process is verbalising the self-directing internal dialogue of an effective learner, or ‘thinking aloud’, which can enhance both the understanding of self-regulatory processes and the associated language for the novice learner. It is important to model not only how to approach a task or problem, but also how a learner might respond when difficulties are encountered and how performance can be reviewed and evaluated at the end of a task.

A learner cannot manage, monitor or direct their learning without a well-developed sense of ‘self’ – or self-awareness. Metacognitive knowledge includes an understanding of self as learner, as well as understanding strategies and task (EEF, 2018). The simple resource entitled ‘Supporting Knowledge of Self Through Modelling, available for download on the EEF’s website, provides helpful prompts which for teaching staff may use as they model knowledge of self in the stages of the metacognitive cycle.

In seeking to enhance student knowledge of SRL, it is valuable to teach students about relevant aspects of the Science of Learning, (i.e. neuroscientific research on the learning process) in age-appropriate ways. In addition to ensuring that their teaching staff have a thorough professional knowledge of the Science of Learning and its implications for their pedagogy, many Thinking Schools have integrated topics such as brain structure and function, memory, deliberate practice and the emotive brain into their curriculum and pastoral provision. 

It is especially important that students of all ages have an understanding of how emotions affect brain functioning as this can help them to manage and regulate their emotions when experiencing stress in learning. TM has produced resources to support schools in teaching students about the Science of Learning including the Adventures in Metacognition materials

Teaching students about the science and psychology of motivation has particular relevance to SRL, as the will or drive to learn or improve has to come from the learner’s intrinsic motivation. Tools such as Motivational Maps can be utilised to provide insight into the nature of motivation generally and into each student’s individual motivators and current level of motivation. Reports generated may be utilised to inform coaching conversations with students and to modify teaching approaches and differentiate to better meet individual motivational needs.

Besides modelling of self-regulation strategies and explicit introduction to knowledge of SRL in the context of the Science of Learning, students also need to be instructed in use of specific tools and strategies which can support the development of their capacities to manage and regulate the quality or effectiveness of their thinking and learning.

Metacognitive Tools and Strategies:

Detailed guidance on the metacognitive tools and strategies accompanying this article are available to members of the Thinking Schools Network

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