Teaching Students to Learn

Nicole A. Bertke, MS, Purdue University Global CTL Faculty Developer

The intent of higher education is no doubt for students to learn. Yet in an informal poll during a recent faculty presentation, two-thirds of faculty respondents acknowledged that most students come into college without the skills in place to learn successfully. And, most of these same faculty indicated that they spend less than one hour per term teaching their students how to learn (Personal communication, April 28, 2016). If student learning is the goal, how do faculty teach students how to learn rather than just what to learn? Teaching self-regulation is the key.

Inherent to students’ success is self-awareness of their learning differences, including their strengths and limitations, such that they observe when corrective action is needed. Self-regulation is the process by which learners acquire academic knowledge and skills while proactively monitoring  and reflecting on their progress, and changing behavior as needed.  This process enhances self-satisfaction and motivation.  As such, students who employ self-regulation are more likely to succeed academically and to view their futures optimistically (Zimmerman, 2002).

“At the core of self-regulation are strategies to manage cognition, but motivation to use those strategies is also key, says Pintrich. ‘You need the “will” as well as the “skill,”” he says” (as cited in Murray, 2002).  Consider two students; the first student, Tommy, has dyslexia. He recognizes the difficulties this can pose for his learning and accommodates by using a particular reading strategy to comprehend text.  He also works ahead to give himself plenty of time to get through course readings.  The second student, Jeff, is not aware of any difficulties with reading and often waits until the last minute to skim through his course readings.  Based on this information alone, which student would be most likely to perform well on a pop quiz of course material?  Tommy.  Understand, if Tommy was not aware of his limitations, and did not take corrective action, the outcome would likely be very different.

Cycle of Self-Regulation  https://purdueglobalwriting.center/There are three cyclical phases of self-regulation – forethought, performance, and self-reflection.   “The forethought phase refers to processes and beliefs that occur before efforts to learn; the performance phase refers to processes that occur during behavioral implementation, and self-reflection refers to processes that occur after each learning effort” (Zimmerman, 2002, p.67).  As each of the phases is covered in more detail, consider how you can facilitate your students’ development.

The forethought phase is comprised of task analysis and self-motivation.  Learners who thrive at task analysis will plan strategically and set goals. These same learners have increased academic success.  They are also self-motivated and believe in their ability to learn, recognize the personal consequences of learning, and/or value the process of learning for its own merits (Zimmerman, 2002).

Self-control and self-observation support the performance phase of self-regulation. During this phase, strategic plans, including selection of specific methods or strategies, are made.  In the performance phase, learners who exert self-control will maintain the strategies they committed to during the forethought phase (Zimmerman, 2002).  Also in the performance phase, learners will self-monitor and observe their performance with attempts to identify their deficits (Zimmerman, 2002).

In the self-reflection phase, learners employ self-judgment and self-reaction to determine the effectiveness of their learning strategies and make adjustments as needed.  They may compare their performance against their own prior performances, the performances of others, or some other standard of performance.  They will also make assumptions about the causes of their errors or successes.  If learners react with satisfaction and positive affect regarding their performances, their motivation is further enhanced.  If not, they can lose motivation and/or take a defensive position to protect their image such as withdrawing from similar future performance opportunities.  Learners may also adapt by making adjustments to increase the effectiveness of learning (Zimmerman, 2002).

It should be clear that faculty can have a significant impact on student learning and success by teaching self-regulation.  Research supports that self-regulatory processes are teachable (Zimmerman, 2002), and this should hold true teaching face-to-face or virtually. As you read about the phases of self-regulation, hopefully you generated ideas for helping students progress in each area.  Zimmerman (as cited in Murray, 2000) suggested the following strategies for fostering the development of self-regulation:

  • Offer choices in academic tasks and methods for complex assignments
  • Encourage study partners
  • Have students set goals for their work (timelines, performance outcomes) and help them define the tasks before them
  • Explicitly teach study strategies and learning devices such as mnemonic aides, knowledge trees, outlines, graphic organizers, note taking and organization, etc.
  • Have students assess their own work and/or assess their competencies
  • Assess and intervene in regards to students’ beliefs about themselves as learners (example, when students perform poorly, what do they attribute this to?)
  • Model self-regulatory learning. For example, to model self-reflection, think out loud when analyzing a theory or a problem so students follow along
  • Quiz frequently
  • Identify and review course objectives up front and ask students to monitor their progress
  • Emphasize concept relevance (scaffold this with other concepts) to improve motivation
  • Tie feedback to key concepts and course outcomes

Again, the process of self-regulation is cyclical.  For example, self-reflections from prior learning experiences will impact subsequent forethought phases.  Reflect on your own learning; can you think of evidence to this point?  And, the phases are strongly correlated. Meaning, students who use strategic planning in the forethought phase are also more likely to employ specific strategies during the performance phase to maintain attention.  Studies have also found that experts display higher levels of self-regulatory processes through all phases than novices.  Experts also spend more time in self-directed studying/practice and find it highly motivating (Zimmerman, 2002).  Because beginners will rarely experience self-motivational benefits (think of a student new to playing the piano), they can lose interest easily, especially in the absence of self-regulation strategies.  With self-regulation strategies, self-monitoring for example, they can observe even incremental improvements (again, think of the piano student).  Research has shown a connection between the quantity and quality of self-regulation skills and academic achievement and standardized test scores (Zimmerman, 2002).

The aim of higher education is to educate its students and support their success.  While faculty are hired to teach within their disciplines based on their experience and degrees, it is important to student success that they focus not only on teaching students what to learn but also how to learn by fostering the development of self-regulation.


Murray, B. (2000). Teaching students how to learn. Monitor on Psychology, 31(6). Retrieved from  http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun00/howtolearn.aspx.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, (2). 64.

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