Developing Self-Regulated Learning Skills: A Unique Approach

New college students come to postsecondary education with some accurate expectations. They expect that college will be harder than high school. Most anticipate having to study more. But they also expect that those study approaches that served them well in high school will work equally well in college. For many, those first couple of months in college are a rude awakening.

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New college students come to postsecondary education with some accurate expectations. They expect that college will be harder than high school. Most anticipate having to study more. But they also expect that those study approaches that served them well in high school will work equally well in college. For many, those first couple of months in college are a rude awakening. Beginning students—and many others in the college ranks—are not well prepared to successfully manage their own learning. “College students must go beyond surface-level learning, taking ownership of learning by choosing and using the best resources and strategies for the task, as well as reflecting upon and monitoring their progress toward learning goals” (p. 271). Success in college depends on developing the skill sets associated with self-regulated learning. Students who have and use these skills increase their chances of doing well. To remediate what beginning (and other) students are missing, the faculty and institutional response is to tell—and sometimes teach—students about those skills that make success in college more likely. That approach doesn't always work well, for two reasons. First, students don't always listen all that closely to advice on how to study when it's offered by persons who sound and often look like parents; and second, it's not enough to know what self-directed learners do—students have to use those skills. Consider how this approach might succeed where how-to-study admonitions fail. It starts with a first-year seminar program, that includes both instruction on learning strategies and—more importantly—a seminar assignment called a Strategy Project Assignment. It's a “multistep project requiring students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their newly learned strategies as they prepare for a test in a course in which they are currently enrolled” (pp. 272–273). A copy of the actual assignment appears in an appendix at the end of the article. The assignment includes creating a study game plan, meeting with the instructor about the exam, using the reading review activities that have been covered in the course, using active note-taking strategies, implementing a choice of appropriate exam study strategies, taking the test, predicting the grade, and then—once the test is returned—writing a paper the reflects on one's own exam preparation and performance. Students must provide evidence that all these activities were completed, and this evidence is evaluated to determine the overall assignment grade. This is one of those “authentic assignments” where students do work that requires the application and use of course content. It relies on what's called “deliberative practice.” “In order for a person to achieve mastery levels, practice of the skill in an authentic context is necessary” (p. 272). After the exam, students in five course sections wrote reflection papers; an analysis of the papers revealed five themes. The first and “perhaps most important” (p. 274) involved the value students placed on the assignment, after initially unenthusiastic responses. “This project has to be the most eye-opening project of my entire semester,” one student wrote (p. 274). Second, students commented on the transition from high school to college and their vague expectations of what doing well in college required. Many also wrote about their reluctance to change the strategies that had served them in high school. They didn't want to use the proposed strategies and didn't think they would work—but they did; 45 percent of the students reported an increase of one letter grade or higher on the test they prepared for in the project. Another 26 percent reported smaller improvement gains. The few that reported declines attributed them to personal circumstances, not the project. Perhaps more significant than grade gains were the changes in self-efficacy that resulted from the assignment. Another regular theme addressed students' increased confidence about taking exams; they described feeling prepared and able to handle exam questions. Finally, many of the students reported that the assignment had caused them to make permanent changes in how they prepare for exams across the board. An assignment like this is perfectly suited for a first-year seminar course, but as the author points out, it can be adapted for use in a variety of courses—most appropriately in those regularly taken by beginning students or in those courses where students' preexisting approaches tend not to result in good grades and successful learning. The assignment could also work well in those first courses in a major where students need to learn the ins and outs of studying a particular kind of content. Reference: Steiner, H.H. (2016). The strategy project: Promoting self-regulated learning through an authentic assignment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28 (2), 271–282.