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Self-regulated learning

Author: Janet Fletcher, Senior SACE Officer Curriculum and Assessment, SACE Board of SA
Published: June 2018
This is a ‘Terminology in brief’ article, delving into a term's background, meaning, and use in the educational space. Shorter definitions can be found in our wordlist.


Who of us has written a report like this? 'Jo has the ability to do well. If Jo would just apply himself/herself, results would improve dramatically.'

What is it that Jo isn't doing? It's usually a range of things:

  • Doesn't seem motivated
  • Doesn't see the relevance of the task
  • Disorganised
  • Doesn't stick at the task long enough
  • Could have done the task, chose not to
  • Didn't use teacher help even though it was offered
  • Didn't submit the draft
  • Didn't apply the feedback from last time
  • Didn't recover from a poor grade on the last task.

In the same class as Jo is Chris:

  • Working towards a goal
  • Completely focused in class
  • Folder for everything, task sheets filed, due dates recorded
  • Sees tasks through to completion
  • Spends the needed time on homework
  • Asks for clarification on the task and assessment criteria
  • Drafts
  • Incorporates feedback
  • Works towards improvement on each task.

In this example the difference between the two is that Chris brings a strong grasp of self-regulated learning skills to the classroom and Jo does not. And the good news is that research shows that as teachers we can do a great deal to teach those skills both through deliberate practice and through the modelling of our own self-regulated learning skills.

Self-regulated learning (SLR) is an area of educational psychology developed by psychologist Barry Zimmerman. Zimmerman defines SRL as 'the control that students have over their cognition, behaviour, emotions and motivations through the use of personal strategies to achieve the goals they have established' (Panadero 2014, pp 450).

Multiple studies have shown that when students learn and implement these skills, their work measurably improves. For all learners SRL skills are fundamental to life-long learning. It is also one of the most 'high impact, low cost approaches to improving the attainment of disadvantaged learners' (Quigley 2018, pp 8).

Zimmerman developed a threefold cycle for self-regulated learning:

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Phase 1: Forethought

In this phase student will:

  • analyse the task, set goals and plan to utilise the most appropriate strategies they have learnt
  • be motivated by their existing sense of self efficacy – their belief that they can effect control over the task, and that they can influence the outcome.

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Phase 2: Performance

In this stage students will exercise:

  • self-control through maintaining concentration, time-management, organising their environment, seeking help, giving themselves incentives and consequences
  • self-observation where students monitor their work against the criteria that will assess their work (if they know it) and monitor their processes such as noting how long it took to do the task against how long they had allowed to do the task.

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Phase 3: Self reflection

In this phase students will exercise:

  • Self-judgement: assessing their work against the assessment criteria and the personal goals they set for themselves in the forethought phase. They will formulate explanations as to the reasons for their success or failure. Students with high SRL skills will be able to reflect on how their work fell short of an objective standard while students with low SRL skills will likely blame the task, the teacher or their own ability rather than skill; i.e. 'I'm stupid'.
  • Self-reaction: the student makes a judgement on how satisfied they are with their performance and from that either react adaptively or defensively. Adaptive students look to adapt strategies for the next time that will improve performance. Defensive students will adapt strategies to protect themselves from disappointment such as apathy, procrastination and avoidance.

So how does a learner acquire self-regulated learning skills?

Zimmerman's research looked at how students learn. Firstly they have to observe SRL at work in a 'more knowledgeable other' (MKO) (Vygotsky 1978). They then have to start using that skill, in very general terms, with a great deal of assistance from the MKO. Thirdly, the learner then begins to use the skills independently under structured conditions created by the MKO and finally the student reaches the stage of self-regulation, able to use the skill in changing conditions.

As teachers, you know a great deal about learning techniques but you may not think of them consciously. Students may come to you with varying degrees of learning habits and strategies. Research shows that the most effective learning of SRL skills occurs when it is embedded in a subject. Transfer between subjects does not occur as easily as we might hope it would. So you need to teach not only the content knowledge of your subject but how to go about learning it – some of the mechanics you have grasped that some of your students haven't had a chance to – and in the process they will learn far more of the content.

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Panadero, E & Alonso-Tapia, J 2014, 'How do students self-regulate? Review of Zimmerman's cyclical model of self-reulated learning', in Anales de Psicologia, May 2014

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ernestopanadero?lang=en

Quigley, A, Mujis, D & Stringer, E 2018, 'Metacognition and self-regulated learning: Guidance report', Education Endowment Foundation, London

Twitter: https://twitter.com/educendowfoundn?lang=en

Vygotsky, L 1978, 'Interaction between learning and development' in Mind and Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 79-91. Reprinted in Readings on the Development of Children, second edition, 1997 WH Freeman and Company. Accessed through http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~siegler/vygotsky78.pdf

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