How to foster self-regulated learning skills

7th December 2018 at 00:00
Pupils who fail to revise effectively will be left to sink or swim when it comes to exams – and even those who dive in often struggle to translate hard work into results. So Mark Miller set out to change his school’s approach to nurturing independent study

Adil is, in most respects, a model student. He completes his homework on time, is attentive and well-behaved in class, and knows that he wants to go to university and qualify as a dentist.

In the lesson before his Romeo and Juliet assessment, he assures me that he has been revising – and he even shows me his notes to prove it. I’m looking forward to reading his essay. But when it arrives, I’m disappointed. Despite his apparent effort, he has not improved.

The problem facing Adil and students like him is not that he doesn’t revise but that he doesn’t know how to. And, crucially, he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to. If we compare Adil’s approach to that of his more successful classmates, then they are worlds apart.

It is easy to assume that students know how to revise, and to believe that a lack of effective revision results from a lack of effort. Yet it’s incredibly difficult to suddenly become the kind of student who can manage their study, particularly in an age of numerous challenging exams. At Dixons Kings Academy, we are looking at how we can support students like Adil to use their study time efficiently, purposefully and successfully.

An excellent guide to where we might start is Barry J Zimmerman’s 2002 article, “Becoming a self-regulated learner: an overview” (published in the journal Theory Into Practice). Zimmerman defines self-regulation as “the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills … [the] self-generated thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are oriented to achieving goals”. This is exactly what we are looking to foster.

Plan, act, reflect, adapt

The paper defines some approaches to developing the kind of learner who can manage their study effectively. While the distractions of MTV and CD players it cites might be obsolete in 2018, the solutions stand the test of time. According to Zimmerman, self-regulated learners do the following:

* Set goals.

* Use appropriate strategies to attain these goals.

* Monitor their performance.

* Restructure their physical and social context.

* Manage time efficiently.

* Self-evaluate.

* Attribute causation to results.

* Adapt future methods.


Zimmerman splits the process into three “cyclical phases”: forethought, performance and self-reflection. Self-regulated learners plan, they act, they reflect and adapt.

The approach we have taken in our school is to turn these slightly abstract steps into concrete approaches, modelling effective practice at every stage. We began by making sure that students had the “appropriate strategies” necessary for the performance phase.

We want students like Adil to know the most powerful strategies and to be able to use them wherever relevant. If he doesn’t know them, he can’t plan, he can’t act and he can’t reflect on what has worked. Fortunately, thanks to an increasing body of evidence, we understand a great deal about what these effective study strategies are. We just need to help students understand this, too.

Our three key strategies are retrieval practice, elaboration and organisation. The first step of the process was to share some of the evidence behind these with teachers. When staff understand strategies themselves, then they can articulate them clearly to students. I took staff through the material using knowledge organisers as a “way in” to exemplify some of the ideas, and flashcards to model the three key strategies. This meant the crucial points were explored in a way that was tangible and easily communicable to students.

Now that staff were clear about some of the “appropriate strategies”, the next important stage was to share these with the students. To that end, we held assemblies for each year group about these practices. As Zimmerman writes, learning should be “an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching”.

The assemblies, which mixed theory with lots of practice, made the strategies explicit, but they were also an opportunity to begin to address the other aspects of self-regulation, such as goal-setting, attribution of results and motivation.

Motivation is an important factor. Some study strategies favoured by students feel successful but are actually ineffective – such as copying out notes, watching videos or writing out revision cards. Then there are students who don’t do revision at all. Some of the most effective strategies don’t always feel like they are working, so they can be demotivating for someone trying to build a study habit from scratch. In the assemblies and follow-up sessions, we emphasised the idea that revision wasn’t always easy.

From principles to practice

While broad principles of study and revision are worth knowing, these must be applied in a subject-specific context. A student might be able to show signs of self-regulation in PE but struggle in RE, so we have asked all subject teachers to develop their own approaches using the broad principles, and to explicitly teach these.

In English, for example, we are teaching strategies for memorising quotations using elaborative interrogation. The more techniques students are exposed to, the more opportunity they have to select the best ones for them.

With the foundation of effective principles in place, we can start looking more closely at some of Zimmerman’s other attributes of self-regulation. For example, before and after assessments, students can reflect on the potential and actual success of their strategies.

So how is Adil getting on now? He no longer sits down to simply “revise”. For example, he decided that he needed to work on memorising quotations from Romeo and Juliet because he had struggled to recall them when writing his last essay.

He knew that flashcards worked for him because he scored highly in a science quiz after his biology teacher showed him the Leitner system. He knew that his shared bedroom was not the best environment to study in, so he moved to the kitchen table after dinner. He left his phone with his father because he knew he was easily distracted.

At the end of the study session, he realised that he now recalled more quotations but was struggling with longer ones. So, next time, he decided to adapt his study processes by using elaborative interrogation to memorise quotations instead of flashcards.

And his latest essay is his best one yet.

Mark Miller is head of Bradford Research School at Dixons Academies

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