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Being able to track your learning, make adjustments, and recognize when you have learned—those are skills that make a difference, both professionally and personally. Barry Zimmerman (1986), known for his work on self-regulated learning, defines learners with those skills as being “metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their learning” (p. 308). These are learners who can name their strengths and weaknesses, set challenging but realistic goals, monitor their learning as it happens, and reflect on it after the fact. Unfortunately, that doesn’t describe how many of our students handle their learning experiences.
I live with an amazing self-regulated learner. Having to write makes him sweat, but he can build or fix pretty much anything. Though it usually takes more time and money than he anticipates, the results are regularly impressive—witness my Chesapeake Bay Light Water Craft (Figure 1). He’s taken a couple of blacksmithing courses and determined he’ll start here at home with some decorative iron before he tackles bladesmithing. He’s critical as he works, constantly evaluating options, questing for the best ones. After the fact, there’s more critique: the new door to the laundry room “looks good, but it’s bowed and because I put those crossbeams opposite the grain of the panels.”
Figure 1. Maryellen kayaking on Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks
Being around this skilled a learner causes me to regularly wonder, What teaching strategies and approaches help students develop these skills? We can tell them the value of being able to manage their own learning, but it’s always better if students discover for themselves what’s of import. Faculty researchers involved with a nonmajors introductory biology course tested a couple of strategies aimed at cultivating self-regulating learning skills (Smith et al., 2019). Immediately after taking each of three course exams, students responded to a set of survey questions designed to measure the extent to which they used self-regulated strategies (the SMASH instrument—for student metacognition, affect, and study habits). After receiving their exam scores, they then completed an exam wrapper that asked them to assess the effectiveness of their study habits and whether they planned to make any adjustments before the next exam.
The research team was interested in several areas, including the following:
Some of what they found has been substantiated in other research. Specifically, low-performing students consistently overpredicted their performance, and high-performing students underpredicted theirs. Additionally, performance prediction accuracy improved on the second exam, but that improvement did not carry over to the third exam. What makes it difficult for students to predict exam scores? They take lots of exams, and they know what they studied and how much. They make predictions to each other. What variables prevent accurate exam score predictions?
More surprising was the lack of relationship between students’ use of self-regulated learning strategies and their performance. For example, as the course progressed, students reported an increase in the difficulty of the content at the same time as the number of students who reported that they planned to adjust their study habits decreased. The researchers call this a “concerning result” (p. 73). Finally, also surprising, there were “few differences” (p. 74) in the study strategies employed by those doing well, average, and poorly. Both low- and high-performing students reported using the same strategies.
I wonder whether a takeaway from this study and related work is that we still haven’t figured out how to teach these learning skills. Strategies such as exam wrappers and the SMASH survey used in the study mostly develop awareness. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Knowing that your study habits aren’t producing high exam scores doesn’t mean you know about other ways to study or that you’re motivated to use them. Even though students in this study did a better job of predicting their scores on the second exam, their exam scores did not improve unless they’d indicated that they planned to adjust their study habits. That indication correlated with an average 3.6 percent exam score improvement—progress, but not an impressive amount.
One final note: even though awareness doesn’t always change behavior, change begins with awareness, and the 15-item SMASH instrument developed by this research team is a valuable tool faculty can use to cultivate awareness (Metzger et al., 2018).
Metzger, K. J., Smith, B. A., Brown, E., & Soneral, P. A. G. (2018). SMASH: A diagnostic tool to monitor student metacognition, affect, and study habits in an undergraduate science course. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(3), 88–99.
Smith, B. A., Metzger, K., & Soneral, P. (2019). Investigating introductory nonmajor biology students’ self-regulated learning strategies through the implementation of a reflective-routine. Journal of College Science Teaching, 48(6), 66–76.
Zimmerman, B. J. (1986). Becoming a self-regulated learner: Which are the key subprocesses? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 11(4), 307–313. https://doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(86)90027-5
I find it a bit distressing that studies as interesting as the one described in this note use exam performance as an indicator of students’ learning. In my opinion, exams are blunt instruments to measure student memorisation ability, at best. In today’s world we should be interested in how confident are students at using information and knowledge to solve problems, not solving exams.