What is Self-Regulated Learning?

As a a first-generation college student and a single mom, Tina strives for a better life for herself and her daughter. She knows that a college education will set her on a path to a rewarding livelihood, but juggling college, work, and family puts many different demands on her time. Tina is dedicated to her studies and she dutifully highlights her textbook readings, memorizes vocabulary words, and spends long hours studying the night before her first exam. And yet, she earns only a mediocre grade. I guess I'm not cut out for college after all, she muses. I work so hard, but I still don't have what it takes to earn the grades I need.

What Tina doesn't realize is that not all forms of studying are equal. For students like Tina, learning to direct time and energy to the most productive ways of studying and learning will result in a more effective and rewarding learning experience, which in turn can boost self-efficacy and motivation. The key, particularly for first-generation students and those who do not come from a background of academic rigor, is to learn how to reflect on one's own process of learning. It's not something that comes naturally to most students, and that is where the right teacher can literally change the course of a student's life.

The Cycle of Self-Regulated Learning

Self-regulated learning is a cyclical process, wherein the student plans for a task, monitors their performance, and then reflects on the outcome. The cycle then repeats as the student uses the reflection to adjust and prepare for the next task. The process is not one-size-fits-all; it should be tailored for individual students and for specific learning tasks (Zimmerman, 2002).

The figure to the right illustrates the key steps of the process. These steps are performed by the student, but instructors play a vital role in guiding and coaching students through each step. The bullet points below provide additional information, and are drawn from Zimmerman (2002) and Zumbrunn et al. (2011).

Jump down to:
1. Plan and set goals | 2. Use strategies and monitor performance | 3. Reflect on performance

1. Plan, set goals, and lay out strategies

This first step of the cycle may be overlooked by many students as they dive headlong into a task. Encouraging students to establish a plan before they start working on a task will help them strategize right from the start. Although students may see this as taking a step backward, it will ultimately help them be more efficient with their time and effort.

Guide students though this process by helping them ask themselves the following questions:

  • Analyze the learning task. Is this a task I've done before or something new? Does it build off of a task I've done before? How much time will it take? How much focus will I need?
  • Set goals. How will I structure this task? What are the intermediate checkpoints and sub-goals? Can I complete an outline with two weeks to go, and then a rough draft one week prior to the due date? That would allow time to get extra help as needed.
  • Plan strategies. Will I need resources from the library, a color printer, help from my lab partners, or an appointment for office hours? Given my needs, when should I get started on this task?
  • Set expectations for the outcome. Given how much time I have available, my strengths and weaknesses, and my current standing in the course, what type of outcome would I like? Do I need to "ace" this, or is it OK if I can just complete it successfully?
Instructor tips:
  • When students are new to a task, help them map out the most effective strategies to match the goal.
  • Set intermediate, shorter term goals along the pathway toward a larger goal.
  • As students gain proficiency, allow them to plan for themselves.

2. Use strategies and monitor performance

In this phase, students carry out the plan that was outlined in the forethought phase. Ideally, students can proceed with confidence because they have already established a detailed plan of action.

Here are some key points you can use to coach students through this phase.

  • Use self-observation to reflect on the actions taken by the student and the effectiveness of the results.
    • For example, when I studied in a quiet location in the library, I completed the reading more quickly than when I read at home.
  • Because things don't always go smoothly, have students make a plan for what to do when obstacles arise (Flanagan, 2014).
    • For example, if I get stuck on the math in this assignment, I will go to the TA's weekly help session.
  • Prompt students to stick with the strategies, even though it may be tempting to revert back to known (but ineffective) strategies. Unfamiliar approaches may feel inefficient at first, but learning the method can be as important as learning the material.
  • Have the students monitor their progress on the intermediate goals, and the strategies they are using. At the same time, you can also monitor their progress and offer feedback (see structuring feedback for self-regulated learning).

3. Reflect on performance

Many students focus solely on the extrinsic outcome of their grade. While grades are important, you can help students reflect on how they think they did on a particular assignment, and why. This self-reflection can help them understand why they earned a certain grade and how to improve their performance. Activities like an exam wrapper can solidify this process.

  • Ask students to evaluate their own performance and their results. Students should compare their performance to their original goal, rather than comparing themselves to others.
  • Reflect on the effectiveness of strategies used. Did they select an appropriate strategy? Did they follow through with the selected strategy?
  • Encourage students to attribute poor outcomes to the effort made and/or the strategy used. Students should be coached to not attribute failure to lack of ability.
  • Help students manage their emotions, and in time, direct them toward productive lines of thinking about how they can improve their performance. Even if their outcome is not what they had hoped, they can still learn from the experience.
  • A key part of this process is that students use this reflection to plan for the next task. How will they adapt their planning, strategy, time management, and self-monitoring?


Flanagan, L., "Why Understanding Obstacles is Essential to Achieving Goals" MindShift, KQED News, (December 2014) Accessed online at http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/12/26/why-understanding-obstacles-is-essential-to-achieving-goals/.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 64-70.

Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E. D. (2011). Encouraging self-regulated learning in the classroom: A review of the literature. Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC).

See the complete list of all references used in this module.