When we want to increase a student's mathematics ability, we teach them mathematics skills that they are 'ready to learn' based on their 'zone of proximal development' . This premise probably holds for other learning areas including the general capabilities that include the core skill of self-regulated learning.
Self-regulated learning (SRL) has been described as the process whereby students learn. Students who struggle to regulate their learning may require more direct instruction on how to do so, whereas students who are already regulating their own learning to a high degree are not likely to benefit from instruction or advice aimed below their capabilities. Comparing measures of teacher implementation of SRL classroom practices and students actual use of SRL behaviours in grade 5 to 8 students have indicated that teachers might be aiming their instruction on SRL too low for many students.
In a recent study (Harding, Nibali, English, Griffin, Graham, Alom & Zhang 2018), investigations into students' SRL practices and teachers' SRL classroom implementation revealed that more research is required to identify the practicality of how to teach SRL in the complicated classroom environment. In the study, researchers created two separate rubric based assessments that were calibrated using item-response modelling to determine levels of competence of a) students using SRL behaviour to complete class tasks and b) teachers' implementation of classroom practices fostering students' SRL skills.
The majority of students were found to be regulating their SRL behaviours to a high degree, with 35% of students at level F of a developmental progression aimed at describing SRL behaviour (31% of students were found at level E).
Level F: Students at this level evaluate internal and external feedback to reflect on their learning. When they are given tasks to complete, they analyse the task to plan the most effective approach. They set high goals for themselves and persist to achieve their goals. They know what success looks like and use this image to motivate themselves. If things get difficult they can use self-talk to persist. They can think beyond the requirements of the task that is set and use other strategies that have been successful in the past to maximise their learning. If they do not do well on a task they reflect on why and think of ways to do better next time. When they are not interested in a task they will find ways to make it interesting and do their best to learn. They like to be able to use what they have learnt from outside the class and think that learning is important.
Only 5% of students were found to be at the lowest two levels of the SRL progression, struggling to engage with tasks in class unless they are completely directed by the teacher or particularly interested in the task. These students do not reflect or check their work after they have finished, they simply aim to get the task done. If they perceive the task is too difficult, they give up or wait for the answer to be given. They blame others or the task if they do not finish. These students might benefit from an explanation on how to use SRL behaviours to improve their performance and understanding.
In the study, teachers were also found to be using guided instruction to support the use of students' SRL behaviours, with 44% of teachers located at level C on a 'teaching SRL – classroom practices' developmental progression.
Level C: At this level, students are taught to value the connection between setting goals and achievement, including setting goals that develop mastery of specific skills. Students are taught how to record strategies and use previous learning experiences to improve current learning. Students are guided to identify strategies and behaviours that improve learning. Motivation is increased by harnessing existing interest in a topic. Students are encouraged to value and draw satisfaction from the process and outcome of learning. Teachers and students engage in discussions about the consequences of adaptive and defensive behaviour and how to avoid dissatisfaction. Teachers assist students to draw on proven strategies to help them focus.
While these teaching strategies might be relevant for some students, it appears there are many students who already exhibit these types of learning skills. The results of this study force us to think carefully about the role of teachers in encouraging students to learn through a regulatory approach, when students display a variety of SRL behaviours in any one class. Will the student at level B on the student SRL progression benefit similarly as the student at level F, if the same teaching approach is used? Perhaps the teaching of SRL needs to be more nuanced based on the student's level of SRL behaviour? This is a complicated premise in a system which already requires the teacher to differentiate practices based on student ability levels in traditional content areas such as reading comprehension and mathematics.
Like all educational research, there are fads and movements that influence what should be taught and what shouldn't. But teaching in a classroom with students who range across 5 different curricula 'year' levels with a variety of SRL behavioural levels is not an easy task. How can teachers cater to each student's needs when they need to consider both their content understanding, and their ability to regulate their own learning (which is often context dependent)?
While teachers readily acknowledge the importance of student SRL behaviours (almost all teachers believed that students' SRL skills were important for their academic success and progress), fewer than a third formally planned for incorporating SRL into their lessons and almost half were not confident in implementing SRL as part of their practice. A quarter of teachers however, reported that their confidence in teaching SRL improved as their experience with teaching SRL increased, suggesting that teachers could benefit from more practical examples of how to incorporate SRL practices into their classroom teaching.
The research indicates that students develop agency in SRL during primary school but that this agency is in danger of being unrealised and underdeveloped in high school if teachers do not realise its significance or lack the skills to implement the learning. While the majority of high school teachers report a belief in the significance of self-regulation skills, they also report lacking the confidence that they know how to teach SRL skills.
Teachers face various challenges in supporting students' SRL in their classrooms: not enough time, not enough teaching resources or teacher expertise, student behaviour problems, student attitude and student readiness to learn. It is not enough for policy makers to ask teachers to start teaching soft skills like self-regulated learning. First we need to determine how, when, to what extent, and to which students. We then need support to implement the approach.