In this, the seventh in a series of posts examining a report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning, I take a closer look at Principle 7: “Students’ self-regulation assists learning, and self-regulatory skills can be taught.”

Before getting into the thorny matter of whether self-regulation can be taught, we need to be clear about what we actually mean by the term. Rather than attempting a definition, the report merely says self-regulation helps students to master curriculum content and includes, “attention, organization, self-control, planning, and memory strategies”. Psychologists define self-regulation as the ability to control our behaviour and impulses in order to meet standards, achieve goals, or reach ideals. It involves being able to set goals, monitor our behavior, and have the willpower to persist in a course of action until our goals are achieved. As such, self-regulation is one of many ‘non-cognitive skills’ that seem to correlate strongly with outcomes.

This report by the EEF gives a thorough overview of the research supporting each of the skills. To summarise, they end up saying that, “There are signs of promise that non-cognitive skills have an impact on positive outcomes for young people, but causal evidence of impact is so far limited.” In particular they point out that, “Less is known about whether young people’s non-cognitive skills can be developed through interventions, and whether this leads to improved outcomes, especially in the long term.”

We know that at least some of these non-cognitive areas mature over time, but can they, as the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education report claims, “be taught or enhanced, specifically through direct instruction, modeling, support, and classroom organization and structure”? Or as the EEF suggest, are they “more akin to stable personality traits than to malleable skills”? Clearly this is important if teachers are going to be asked to spend time teaching students this stuff. My own view is that these skills can be taught, but with two important caveats: 1) they may not be learnable, and 2) they should not be a separate subject.

With this in mind, some of the suggestions for teachers are probably worthwhile pursuing, while some are sensible in their own right but seem to have little to do with developing self-regulation. For instance, helping “students plan by helping them identify and evaluate the short- and long-term consequences of their decisions” is almost certainly a good idea. As novices, students are unlikely to understand the consequences of the decisions they make and so teacher input might be valuable and result in an improved awareness of what it means to self-regulate.

Other suggestions seem more akin to basic precepts of good teaching. Teachers are advised to “present the goals of lessons and tasks very clearly to students,” and “break down tasks into smaller, ‘bite-size’, meaningful components and clearly spell out the criteria for successful task performance.” Obviously, for less experienced students this seems solidly sensible, but I’m not sure how it might help  them to self-regulate unless specific work is down to make explicit that breaking down larger topics in this way is a useful approach to managing workload and focussing on important areas. My problem is that for this to have any effect significant time would probably need to be devoted to such processes with time allocated for students to practice how to do it. It may well be more efficient to wait until students have become more expert in a subject before committing curriculum time in this way.

Other advice, such as the suggestion that “Teachers also can provide time and opportunities for students to engage in practice,” seems both blindingly obvious and unrelated to self-regulation. Likewise, reminders like “Some processing time and activity (e.g., summarizing, questioning, rehearsing, and practice) are necessary for long-term remembering,” and “use cues to alert students that important information is to follow when introducing a new concept to increase student attention,” maybe useful for teachers, but I’m not at all sure how this will help students regulate themselves – surely this is the teacher doing it for them?

The final piece of advice, to “organize classroom time by incorporating periods of focused time, interactive periods, and so forth, so students are able to practice intense focusing followed by more socially interactive methods of learning,” is possibly the most useful and most troubling of all the suggestions on offer. Providing “more socially interactive methods of learning” is probably an effective way to see whether students have the ability to self-regulate. Will they choose to get on with their work, or will they chat to their mates? The missing link is to consider the classroom culture the teacher has established and the wider school culture enforced by the leadership team. If either of these permit students to make poor choices with little or no consequence, self-regulation will be largely left to the motivation and personality of individual students.

In conclusion, being able to regulate ourselves is essential to success in pretty much any area and will have a huge impact on academic achievement. But despite the bold claims of the report, the jury’s still out on whether these skills can be taught. Certainly they can be encouraged, modelled and rewarded, but this may not result in students learning them. I’d absolutely recommend spending time getting students to think about the need to self-regulate within subjects, showing them how to self-regulate as a mathematician, historian or linguist and acknowledging their successes, but I would advise against committing curriculum time to a programme designed to teach a set of generic skills. This is very much my position on character education in general. Maybe we can sum up with this:

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References cited by the report