Self-regulating Learning: Impact of Attention, Memory, Language, Spatial and Sequential Ordering, Higher Order Cognition, and Social Cognition

Students are more likely to feel confident about themselves as learners if they can rely on their own resources for completing assignments, studying for tests, and achieving success in school. At the core of successful and lifelong learning, is self-regulation. Self-regulation requires a student to be meta-cognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active in regulating his own thinking and learning. It involves an awareness of personal goals, and of strengths, weaknesses, and interests given instructional goals, environmental expectations, and conditions of learning and performance.

In a sense, a student’s ability to regulate his own learning demands the ultimate integration of neurodevelopmental abilities. Self-regulated learners are attentive, focused, and productive. They set goals for themselves, and use a planned approach to learning. Self-regulated learners keep track of their understanding and their progress, and reward themselves for their successes. They use problem-solving strategies and memory techniques when appropriate. They learn to think critically about the demands of the task at hand and the availability of time, resources, etc. In short, self-regulated learners are intentional, active, and reflective.

Here are some strategies to help students become self-regulating in their studying.

Setting Goals

  • Encourage students to write down long term goals (related to class requirements) on a calendar, short term goals (related to weekly assignments, immediate tests and projects) on a schedule or "goals" sheet, and daily goals (related to homework, study related tasks) on a "to do" list.  
  • Have students practice using goals by setting them, clarifying them (getting them down on paper), assessing them, developing methods for meeting them, and rewarding themselves for reaching them.  
  • Help students be more productive by giving them tips for successful goal setting, such as: set a goal to work towards each time you study, be sure your goals are realistic, be flexible as you learn how to set more effective goals.  
  • Have students set long-term goals, and then break these distant goals into short-term goals. Literature suggests that students are more likely to be motivated to reach short-term goals that lead to the attainment of a long-term goal, than to simply strive to meet long-term goals.  
  • Setting appropriate goals requires accurate self-judgment. Help students learn to adjust their goals based on their personal strengths and capabilities, the content area, the specific task, the time constraints, etc. In addition, help them learn how to pace their goals so that they are likely to attain them.  
  • Help students learn to individualize their goals, e.g., completing 20 math problems may be an appropriate goal for one student, while reading 4 books may be an appropriate goal for another.

Improving Metacognition (Thinking About Thinking)

  • Metacognition involves being aware of (a) one’s own mental processes, (b) one’s knowledge about tasks, and (c) the interaction between one’s own set of cognitive processes in relation to a task.  
  • Promote metacognition by asking questions to guide student thinking in different content areas. For example: In mathematics, ask, “How long should it take you to do your math homework? How can you tell if your strategy to solve a word problem has led you to the correct solution?”. In English, ask, “What role does proofreading take in the writing of an essay? What is the best way to fit this project into your schedule?”, etc. (Sternberg & Spear-Swerling, 1996).
    • A general set of metacognitive questions can be applied to any task, for example, “What’s the purpose of learning this material? Do I know anything about the topic? What strategies will help me? Do I understand as I work? How should I correct answers? Have I accomplished my goal?” (Bruning, Schraw & Ronning, 1995).  
  • Suggest that students create personal diaries on paper or a computer as ways to enhance meta-cognitive awareness. Let this writing or recording be non-graded to encourage risk-free self-expression and self-evaluation.  
  • Provide sample questions for self-reflection, i.e. “What went well today?, Where or when did I get distracted or take the wrong path?, What happened when I did that?, What I will do the next time I get distracted or start to go in the wrong direction?”  
  • Have students explore how actions lead to outcomes, by doing content area activities that explore different cause and effect situations, e.g., evaluating the actions of historical figures, characters in a story, etc.  
  • Reflection and self-assessment can be integrated into on-going learning. For example, students can create a portfolio of their work, organizing papers and other materials from the most to least effective. Have students reflect upon their most effective work, by asking them: “What makes this your best work? What goals did you set for yourself? What problems did you come across? How did you solve them? What makes your most effective work different from your least effective work?” (Jones, Rasmussen & Moffitt, 1997).


  • Provide checklists that break down a task to guide students in self-monitoring. A checklist can be created for any task or activity to rate how well a student is doing, and to identify what elements of a task need more work or to be redone.  
  • Self-monitoring may be enhanced by having students fill in a chart to monitor the specific quality of their work (see the example below).    
  • Monitoring Dimensions of the Writing Process      
  • Planning      
  • Number of Ideas Generated Need More Just Enough Too Many
  • Quality of Ideas Generated Poor Okay Great
  • Sources or Resources Used Need More Just Enough Too Many
    • Teachers may need to offer structure or guidance to help students learn to successfully monitor their work. With experience, students can move from full teacher guidance toward full independence.  
    • Some students may require a list of questions to start the self-monitoring process, such as “Am I clear on the point of the question? Do I understand how that connects to what I’ve already written?”, etc.  
    • Point out specific situations when students successfully use self-monitoring techniques.


    • Help students develop the following self-regulatory skills:
      • Self-evaluation and self-monitoring (judging oneself from observations or recordings of performances and outcomes)
      • Goal setting and strategic planning (analyzing the learning task, setting specific learning goals, and planning the strategy to use to attain the goals)
      • Strategy implementation and monitoring (using a strategy in a specific context and monitoring the accuracy with which the strategy is implemented)
      • Strategy outcome monitoring (focusing attention on the link between strategy use and outcomes, determining the effectiveness of a strategy in a particular situation) (Adapted from Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996)  
    • Encourage students to use planning and to monitor their plans as they study. Provide specific guidelines if needed, e.g., “Planning for 20 minutes will help you to…, Every 5-10 minutes, stop and check to see if your plan is still working”, etc.  
    • Engage students in “What if . . .” exercises to preview and plan for various academic situations, e.g., “What if I have a test on Tuesday and a book report due on Wednesday?”, “What if the math test is all word problems?”, etc.  
    • Make samples of work from last year available in the classroom. To help students connect a plan to its actual use, show students plans that were used for tests or projects in the past. Draw students’ attention to the relationship between specific qualities of the work and the grades received (e.g., “Please notice that the students who received an ‘A’ did... students who received a ‘B’ did...”, etc.)  
    • Have students share strategies and study plans they have used successfully. Allow students who are not able to articulate a plan, to draw a diagram or graphic representation, such as flow chart of steps, or a forking road map showing the path to success and the path to failure.
      • Encourage students to reflect on plans that they have put into action, asking questions such as: “Would I choose the same plan again?, What might be changed?, What was successful?”  
    • Encourage students to use mid-task self-questioning as they study and do homework. For example, have them stop to summarize after reading each page, stop to check calculations after each step in math, etc.  
    • Provide ways for students to check quality control, such as monitoring guides that help evaluate progress through a task. A sample guide might include a checklist of questions such as: (1) Do I understand the main idea(s) of this lesson? If yes, go on. If no, reread and/or ask for clarification. (2) Do I understand how this lesson fits into what we have learned? If yes, go on. If no, re-examine notes and/or ask for clarification., etc.  
    • Have students take practice quizzes and tests and review the outcomes, reflecting upon the areas in which they did well, areas that need more practice, strategies used for studying and during the test, etc.  
    • Require students to delay self-checking after completing certain tasks, for example to wait two days before proofreading/editing a written report.  
    • Help students develop into self-regulated learners by:
      • Helping students know how to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in each learning situation.
      • Teaching students how to look for help, and how to use help effectively.
      • Helping students recognize the importance of shifting strategies and approaches based on the demands of the specific task.
      • Helping students believe in themselves and think of themselves as active and strategic learners.