Self-Regulation in Online Courses

There is no question that self-regulation of learning is more essential in online than in face-to-face courses. In online courses, students cannot depend on having a teacher physically there to answer their questions and keep them on track. Online students are more responsible for planning and setting goals for their work in the course. They do more self-monitoring and controlling of learning processes. They need to be able to decide if they should put in more effort, how hard they should keep trying, and whether they should seek help. Students in face-to-face classes should be exploring these issues as well, but if they aren’t, teachers will likely find out and raise the issues.

Not all students taking online courses are good self-regulated learners. Authors Rowe and Rafferty believe there are interventions online teachers can use that develop these very necessary skills. Based on an extensive review of research on interventions in postsecondary courses, they suggest four interventions.

Online discussion boards, journals, and wikis—Teachers can use these technology tools to encourage students to plan, monitor, and reflect on their learning in the course. Wikis and discussion boards can be used to encourage students to collaborate with others in the planning and goal-setting stage. Students can exchange ideas on approaches and strategies for studying and completing the course’s various assignments. An electronic journal activity or assignment can effectively promote reflection. After every module, students might write a journal entry describing what they learned, how they learned it, how confident they are that they know it, what they found challenging, what helped them learn, and what changes they might want to make in studying material in the next module.

Development of a detailed course syllabus—The syllabus in an online course should be thought of as a road map that students use to find their way through the course. It contains information on course requirements, deadlines, and academic policies. The syllabus can also visually show how course content is organized, and how the various modules relate and build to create a coherent body of knowledge. Self-regulation skills are promoted by a syllabus that students can use to answer questions they have about the course—in the beginning and as they make their way through it.

Testing for prior knowledge—Self-regulated learners begin learning tasks by reviewing what they know related to what they have to learn. Modules in online courses might begin with a listing of learning objectives followed by a series of questions students can ask themselves to ascertain their familiarity with the material. Answers to such prompts can give students a starting point from which they can approach the course material.

Teach self-regulated learning skills—Teachers can make available materials relevant to self-regulated learning skills. It might be a podcast on time management, a slide presentation on goal setting, or links to good resources on reflection. Students can be encouraged to avail themselves of these resources. For students new to online learning environments, perhaps a course assignment can involve the use of some of these resources.

The authors conclude by pointing out that online courses can be designed in ways that encourage the development and use of self-regulated learning skills. Not all students bring these skills to online courses, and without them, their ability to do well in the online environment can be seriously jeopardized.


Rowe, F. A., and Rafferty, J. A. (2013). Instructional design interventions for supporting self-regulated learning: Enhancing academic outcomes in postsecondary e-learning environments. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 9 (4), 590–601.

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