What makes an expert learner? Honing the skills of self-regulated learning

By Chris Carr posted 30-09-2021 10:54


When was the last time you had to learn a new piece of information or develop a new skill? Perhaps you’ve recently had to fix a household DIY problem or maybe you’ve started a new job where you lack experience in your new role?

The chances are that if you’re a teacher, you’ll almost certainly be adept at coping with these situations because you are, as evidenced by your own academic success, an ‘expert learner’. You’ll have the ability to employ the three strands of self-regulated learning which are cognition (the mental process involved in knowing, understanding and learning); metacognition (the ways that learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning) and motivation (the willingness to engage cognitive and metacognitive skills and apply them to learning) – and switch between them subconsciously as the situation demands.

Spare a moment then to think about young people who face new learning challenges every day as part of their school or college life, but have not yet developed the capacity or experience in self-regulated learning to cope.

As teachers, we often spend a great deal of time focused on developing the cognitive skills of our students. There is a great deal of research around this, in particular the skills of pedagogy that are needed to successfully impart knowledge. Cognitive neuroscience offers various strategies to improve retention of knowledge, as discussed in our Science of Learning course, by the Learning Scientists and indeed, we will look in more detail at cognition in future blogs.

However, research into the most effective strategies to improve the progress of learners (EEF toolkit, 2021) highlights the importance of developing metacognitive skills – in simple terms, this is the ability of a student to monitor, direct and review their own learning. With very high impact for very low cost, it is quite simply one of the most effective skills that we can teach to young people.

A key point to bear in mind is that the skills of self-regulated learning usually need to be taught explicitly. There are perhaps some exceptions to this – the students who seem to ‘naturally’ progress through their school/college life at the top of the class and are always well organised and motivated – but for the majority, explicit instruction on how to manage their learning is essential to develop their skills at learning.

The Education Endowment Foundation has produced two guidance reports (Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning and Improving Secondary Science) which discuss self-regulated learning and provide recommendations and practical suggestions for the classroom. On the recurrent theme of explicitly teaching learners to plan, monitor and evaluate, a number of strategies are suggested. For example, the use of exam wrappers can provide a powerful tool for learners to analyse their performance in tests or assessments and commit to addressing specific shortcomings or skills. Personal learning checklists are also valuable in that they allow a thorough scrutiny of an exam specification and can help students to evaluate their performance and confidence against very specific learning objectives. Examiner reports published by exam boards are often regarded as being written solely for the benefit of teachers, but they can be used as a coaching tool for students to consider the quality of their responses to exam questions.

Modelling thinking is a technique that can be used to develop metacognitive and cognitive knowledge. Many schools and colleges use this technique when delivering ‘walking talking mock exams’, where the teacher will model their thought processes as they work through answering a question. This technique can be brought into the classroom through the teacher modelling and verbalising their thought processes as they tackle a problem – it can be made even more powerful if students are encouraged to do this, perhaps by being invited to the ‘front’ of the class to demonstrate how they tackled a particular question or exercise.

Linked to the idea of modelling is that of promoting metacognitive talk in the classroom. Allowing students the time to talk about a question provides valuable opportunity for cognitive and metacognitive processing. For this reason, various techniques such as pose, pause, pounce, bounce have emerged in recent years to encourage open ended discussion and deeper thinking and understanding. A technique as simple as think-pair-share where students share their thoughts on a problem before responding to the teacher can yield surprisingly dramatic results in improving student confidence and engagement with a lesson. For teachers who wish to take this a stage further, a socratic seminar can provide a very deep thinking exercise although careful planning and management of the session is required.

Techniques such as those described above do take time to develop with a class. However, if employed routinely and regularly, evidence suggests that students develop a much deeper understanding and make much greater progress – this is particularly true of disadvantaged students who may lack the grounding in self-regulated learning that their more advantaged peers enjoy.

Why not try some of the ideas listed above and evaluate them for yourself – or maybe consciously consider your own thought processes the next time you are learning a new skill or knowledge. You may surprise yourself at how much of an expert learner you are…

We have a number of CPD courses that explore the ideas discussed above. You can find the booking links below:

Metacognition and self-regulated learning in science

Developing self-regulated learning and resilience in Triple Science students

Developing learner’s resilience and independent learning skills in post 16 science

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