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Have you ever asked your students how they learn?

Teaching strategies  

When I asked my A Level history students how they learnt, I was surprised that my most experienced students were not able to tell me in any real detail. I was so focused on getting through the content that I had failed to teach them to recognise how they learn most effectively. I urge you to ask your students the same question – their responses will be enlightening and may take you into an area of pedagogy you had not considered before.

For me, this was self-regulation.

What is self-regulation?

Put simply, it involves self-awareness and taking action to regulate learning. Self-regulation rests on the ability of a student to reflect upon their learning and take the necessary action to ensure their learning is focused, effective and developmental. If it isn’t, then a student should make changes to ensure it is. It could, for example, involve a student realising that their notes are not making sense when they read through them, and so organise them around an essay question.

Metacognition plays an important role in self-regulation. It is the thought process students engage in to set themselves realistic and challenging learning goals – goals which they set out to achieve through selecting appropriate cognitive learning strategies. It is through metacognitive thinking that a student becomes aware of the effort they are putting in to a task and how well they are concentrating. This might result in a student knowing what time of day or in which place they concentrate most effectively, and so plan to study at this time.

However, ‘self-regulated learning’ doesn’t mean that we leave the learner to do everything themself. As teachers we need to see what we can do in our classes to help our learners develop self-regulative skills.

Why self-regulation?

A major draw of self-regulation was the summary of research from the Education Endowment Foundation, which suggests that self-regulative strategies will positively impact learners. On average, a student who knows how to regulate their learning (and applies that knowledge) will make eight months’ additional progress in their learning. This particularly applies to older learners, which was perfect for my A level historians.

I think an even more important reason for developing self-regulation emerged from my reading and time in the classroom – to be self-regulating means that the student takes control of their thinking and chosen learning strategy. If a learning goal has not been achieved, it is not necessarily the ability of the student that is at fault, but the suitability of the chosen strategy to achieve a goal. What an empowering message to give to students!

What teachers can do:

  • Help learners understand what self-regulated learning is.

Explain to your students what self-regulation is and how it can develop them into better learners. Help them to see its value, so they commit to the extra thinking and planning the process needs.

  • Show learners what they are aiming for.

Model what an appropriate and challenging goal looks like, so learners can understand the kind of goals they need to set for themselves. You could provide an example of student work and together with your learners analyse it so they understand what makes it effective. Help them to think about what they need to do to produce work of that standard.

  • Teach learners to use learning strategies.

Explain the purpose of a learning strategy. A student needs to know how, when and why to use different strategies to achieve specific learning goals. This will help guide their strategy selection process, especially when studying independently. At the 2017 Cambridge Schools Conference in Dubai, Dr Duncan Astle and Dr Andrea Greve suggested students should use elaboration strategies to help students remember and retrieve content covered in the classroom. Elaboration strategies require students to draw links between prior information and new information, which they adapt in order to help them remember. Some examples of elaboration strategies include summarising a text, creating and answering test questions or teaching content to someone else.

  • Give your students the opportunity to use a learning strategy multiple times.

Give learners plenty of chances to use strategies so that they become comfortable using them. Encourage learners to reflect and evaluate their use of the strategy itself. They should be asking themselves whether that was the best approach to achieve their goal and, if not, what they will do differently.

Time isn’t running out

It is never too late to begin developing self-regulated learners. My students were in their last year of schooling and it helped to equip them with the questions they should ask of themselves and their learning strategies. This thinking was used to study for their exams and could be taken to university and beyond.

If we teach students to think carefully and strategically about the learning tools they have at their disposal, then we are on the path to creating self-aware, autonomous learners – learners who are ready and equipped to take on the challenges our subjects throw at them.

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