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Self-Regulated Learning in Higher Education: Basic Dimensions, Individual Differences, and Relationship with Academic Achievement


Päivi Virtanen, tutkijatohtori, kasvatustieteellinen tiedekunta, Helsingin yliopisto, PL 9, 00014 Helsingin yliopisto (Siltavuorenpenger 5 A),



Lectio praecursoria

My doctoral dissertation is a research focusing on self-regulated learning in higher education. Self-regulated learning has been more than two decades one of the most central research areas in educational psychology.


Why self-regulated learning then plays such an important role in the context of higher education?

International research has widely shown that processes of self-regulated learning have a central role in managing and learning new and complex topics, which is crucial in higher education studies. Previous research has shown that self-regulated learning is strongly related to successful learning. This may originate from the active and conscious approach towards learning which is characteristic for self-regulated learning. Research has also shown that self-regulated learning is the most important determinant for the ability to cope with the challenging transition to higher education. Higher education students with strong self-regulation are able to utilise various learning strategies and it is easier for them to identify the specific cognitive challenges that affect their learning. On the other hand, difficulties in self-regulated learning are connected to experiences of academic stress and exhaustion, and with non-completion of higher education studies.

Self-regulated learning skills are needed also in working life now and in the future. As the highest level of educational systems, university studies prepare students for autonomous and very demanding expert tasks, where learning-to-learn and metacognitive thinking skills are needed. For students in teacher education, it is essential to become effective in self-regulation. Teachers have to be able to facilitate their pupils’ and students’ development in self-regulation of learning, which has recently been mentioned in educational plans of several countries.

However, the previous research has shown that while some students enter higher education with effective skills in self-regulated learning some students would need a lot of guidance. In addition, previous research has evidenced inconsistent results in correlations between higher education students’ self-regulation in learning and study success. There is an obvious need to understand more deeply how higher education students’ self-regulated learning is structured and how students with different self-regulated learning skills learn most effectively.

This study was carried out in Finnish university context aiming to identify the basic dimensions of self-regulated learning, how higher education students differ in self-regulated learning, and how university students’ self-regulated learning is related to their study success and achievement of professional competences.    

In Finnish universities, learning and studying include a lot of freedom and flexibility and students are expected to be able to make many decisions independently from the very beginning of their studies. Most of the Finnish higher education studies are not strictly structured as study programs. In most of the disciplines, students select the courses for their major and minor subject studies rather freely and they plan their own learning schedule. To make a successful study plan, students need to have good self-knowledge and good skills in self-regulated learning. Students should be aware of their skills in acquiring information and how they use time to study effectively. In Finland, in contrast to many other countries, teacher education is provided by the universities and student teachers are expected have high autonomy and good skills in self-regulated learning.


What is self-regulated learning?

My doctoral dissertation is theoretically based on Paul Pintrich’s General Model of self-regulated learning, which he constructed based on his analyses of several self-regulated learning theories. Pintrich’s model is based on the models developed by researchers, such as Monica Boekaerts, Lyn Corno, Dale Schunk, Philip Winne, and Barry Zimmerman. Paul Pintrich claimed that self-regulated learning is based on the following four assumptions:

  1. Firstly, learners are active and constructive participants in the learning process. They construct their own meanings, goals, and strategies from the information available from the external environment and their own minds.
  2. Secondly, learners can potentially monitor, control, and regulate certain aspects of their own cognition, motivation, behaviour, and some features of their environments, but there are constraints that can interfere in these processes.
  3. Thirdly, students should make comparisons against goal, criterion, or standard in order to assess whether the process should continue unchanged or if some type of change is necessary.
  4. And, fourthly, self-regulatory activities are mediators between personal and contextual characteristics and actual achievement and performance.

According to Pintrich’s model of self-regulated learning and also according to many other theories of self-regulation in learning, learners should self-regulate their learning in different phases of learning: before the learning task, during learning and after learning. My study concentrates on specific self-regulation components that learners can utilise during these learning phases.

In self-regulated learning it is crucial to reflect and think thoroughly how effective the used regulation- and learning strategies were – or should something be changed for the next learning task to better reach the goals set for one’s learning. For example, if a student would think over and realise, she is procrastinating and running out of time and that is why her learning outcomes are not satisfying; or notice that she probably would learn better by thinking more critically what she was reading, she should change the situation by beginning to apply new management and learning strategies.

To conduct my study, I collected the research data by self-reporting instruments among students representing different disciplines in several universities. For gathering the data concerning self-regulated learning, I used an instrument developed further from Pintrich and colleagues’ Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire. The IQ Learn instrument that I applied was developed in a multidisciplinary research project to measure self-regulated learning in Finnish higher education. The IQ Learn instrument consists of three scales: Forethought of learning scale including motivational and affective components; the scale Regulation Strategies, and the scale Learning strategies. The two other self-reporting instruments used for data collection were Active Learning Experiences Instrument and Professional Competencies Instrument both developed by Hannele Niemi and her research group  in 2002.


I will next present the main findings of my study.

The first major finding of my study is that there is quite a lot diversity in higher education students’ skills to self-regulate their learning. My study revealed that most of the undergraduate students began their university studies with good skills in self-regulated learning. These students set their learning goals high, were persistent and kept self-evaluating their progress.

However, I discovered also groups of students who lack self-regulation in learning. One group of students were highly motivated and had high expectations of their success but at the same time they had difficulties in regulation strategies. These students were not fully able to profit from active learning methods and they most likely hampered by difficulties in time management and persistency. The original studies showed that 60 % of students encountered this kind of challenges.

Furthermore, my study demonstrates that there are higher education students who lack the skills in critical thinking and in self-evaluation. However, surprisingly the study success of these students was not significantly weaker than the study success of students with excellent skills in self-regulated learning. This finding invokes thoughts of whether it is possible to study and get a degree from university without developing advanced learning strategies. In addition, a student group with high performance anxiety and ineffective use of management and learning strategies was found in this study.

For the summary part of my thesis, I conducted additional second-order analysis using the data from the two original studies. The aim of this analysis was to find latent relations between the self-regulated learning components and to investigate whether bigger self-regulated learning components could be identified. The second-order analysis revealed, as the second major finding of my study, that the most important components in higher education students’ self-regulated learning are resource management strategies, advanced learning strategies and self-efficacy beliefs. Self-efficacy in my study includes the beliefs about the ability to perform a task and expectancy for success in a learning task.

The third main finding of my study concerns the connection between self-regulated learning and academic achievement. I examined the relationship between self-regulated learning measured in the first study year and study success related to cumulative Grade point average. My finding, that there was no statistically significant correlation is in contrast to some previous studies that found positive correlations between course-specific study success and self-regulated learning. However, there also are several previous studies that have produced inconsistent results on self-regulated learning’s impact on academic achievement. This finding calls for more research, especially in longitudinal research settings.

The fourth main finding of my study, and one of the most interesting one revealed that student teachers with different self-regulated learning skills diverged how they benefitted from the use of active learning methods in teacher education. Excellent self-regulators profited substantially from active learning methods, while the students with less developed self-regulation did not benefit as much. My study also gave evidence that when student teachers’ experiences of active learning increased, they better achieved the professional competences.

The effectiveness of active learning is based on the cognitive and metacognitive processes that it initiates in students when they take responsibility of their learning. These active learning processes are also essential in self-regulated learning. Thus, it is not surprising that my study revealed that to fully benefit from active learning, students must possess effective self-regulated learning skills as well.


What kind of educational implications my study brings out?

First of all, my study shows the importance of identification of students’ self-regulated learning for students themselves. Learners should be provided with knowledge of various self-regulated learning components. It is very significant for a student to know how she regulates her own learning and what possibilities there are if she desires to develop her learning.

It is useful also for university’s teaching staff to know which students would profit from stronger teacher regulation to be able to plan the most suitable learning tasks. In addition, if students needing support are identified, they can be offered specific guidance.

The results of my study also call for variable ways to enhance higher education students’ self-regulated learning.  For example, active learning and other student-centred pedagogies could be used more to promote students’ autonomy as individuals and as collaborative learner groups.

In addition, higher education students’ differences in self-regulated learning skills should be acknowledged in continuous education of teaching staff, particularly in courses of university pedagogy. Also study psychologists will benefit from the findings of my study, as they offer guidance and counselling regarding issues such as academic skills, motivation, time management and well-being.

In recent years the diversity of information sources has grown greatly and coping with the multiple learning opportunities provided by digitalisation demands independency and responsibility from students. More research is needed to find new ways to advance students’ learning and well-being.

To conclude, this research provides new knowledge of particularly higher education students’ self-regulated learning, but the continuous development of learning innovations and changing learning contexts call for effective learning strategies in all educational levels. Living in a rapidly changing world demands self-regulation from all of us and not only in learning contexts, but in all fields of life.


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