Introduction to self-regulation

Students with self-regulation skills are able to manage and regulate their own learning processes, so that they can both pursue and persist with learning. Self-regulation involves effective management of information, resources and time, in order to gain and process new knowledge and skill and relate it to prior learning and experience, as well as making good use of guidance. It requires students to be aware of their learning processes (metacognitive) and needs, and to be able to identify and harness opportunities available.

Processes of self-regulation therefore involve heightened capabilities for self-control of cognition, emotion, and behaviour. Important components of self-regulation such as self-control processes, beliefs about personal control, and hoped-for future goals, can be taught and reinforced from the early years of schooling, as can supporting students to identify and use the most appropriate strategies for the task at hand. Self-regulation evolves and develops with age, so that secondary and college students’ behavioural regulation involves “goal setting, planning, self-monitoring, and asking for help when needed,” whereas younger children’s behavioural self-regulation may be characterised by “approach/withdrawal, distractibility, and persistence”.

Self-regulation is composed of three cyclical parts:

  • Forethought/planning, which revolves around motivation (link) for learning, and is linked to how students wish to develop as people.
  • Performance and self control, which revolves around engagement (link). This is the ability to maintain effort and stay focused despite possible distractions, including self-defeating thoughts and emotions, and environmental distractions.
  • Self-reflection, which revolves around the outcome of actions and their effectiveness.

To help students gain better self-control over their own learning, it is important to teach, coach, mentor and scaffold students’ forethought, performance and reflection.

  • To support forethought, teachers can help students to link schoolwork to a vision of a future possible self. The concept of a possible self is developed with influence from the social environment, and teachers and parents can prompt possibilities linked to students’ interests and abilities. Teachers can also support students to plan their work and studies.
  • To support performance and self control, teachers can help students to consider potential distractions and then devise strategies to manage these. Teachers can also help students to review their learning beliefs (growth mindset – link) and self-efficacy beliefs which can help or hinder their learning progress. Students can be taught processes for self-instruction (hyperlink to section) and self-monitoring (hyperlink to section) to manage actions and thoughts.
  • To support self-reflection, teachers can offer students particular learning strategies (such as rehearsing information for retention, or elaboration for deep level processing) and metacognitive strategies (knowledge of the brain, or about memory and how it works). They can also encourage students to reflect on their learning strengths and areas for improvement, as well as strategy use (selecting the best strategies for particular tasks).

Self regulation tasks for forethought, performance and reflection


Defining the task

Determine what the task requires

Consider what is known and what you need to find out

Consider how difficult it will be and potential challenges


Setting goals and making plans

Set goals

Set specific criteria for knowing when goals are achieved

Form plans to achieve goals

Plan strategies for dealing with challenges

Performance and self control:

Putting into action and monitoring

Ensure you have a suitable environment for the work

Carry out your plans and manage time carefully

Seek new information and organise information

Manage distractions

Seek assistance from others when required

Regularly stop to measure your progress towards the goals and criteria, and adjust plans as necessary

Reflection Reflect on the effectiveness of plans and strategies

Reformulate the task, or goals, strategies and plans: what would you do differently next time?

Adapted from Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated learning. In D.Hacker, J. Dunlosky & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp.277–304). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc

In simple terms, teachers might explain to students that self-regulation, or managing their own learning, involves:

  • Thinking ahead to the schoolwork they need to do and why it is important;
  • Thinking while they’re doing their work and remaining focused;
  • Then thinking back over what they have learned

There are particular characteristics of classrooms that support and enable students to learn strategies for and practise self-regulated learning. These are:

  • Complex, open-ended learning activities with opportunities for student choice about how to engage in the work; or, in early childhood, opportunities for play
  • Explicit instruction on successful learning strategies (such as self-instruction (hyperlink to next section), planning and monitoring work, managing resources, help-seeking, homework partners, and self-evaluation);
  • Tasks providing optimal, and gradually increasing, level of challenge, accompanied by a shared belief in the importance of challenge and error for learning;
  • An emphasis on learning and a down-playing of the importance of grades or marks;
  • Discussion of themes of self-reliance and independence (perhaps through children’s literature).
  • Cooperative work in which students take responsibility for positive work habits in the group, thereby learning the processes that are also necessary to control their own learning.


Self-instruction is self-talk that guides thinking. It can support metacognitive control, by reinforcing plans and strategies (“I will check my work”) and reinforce motivational focus (“I’m staying focused on finishing my essay”). But it is also very important for emotional control (“I’m not supposed to understand it straightaway”, “I will just take it one step at a time”).

Teaching self-instruction:

  • Explain the importance of positive self-talk: “I’m too stupid, I can’t do it” is self-defeating talk, whereas “I’m not stupid, I just didn’t use the right strategies” is a positive move that helps students maintain positive attitudes towards continuing with learning.
  • Model or give students self-instruction scripts or task them to develop their own.
  • Select tasks and have students practise the accompanying self-talk that will enable them to be most successful. Model and prompt at first, and perhaps use cue cards and posters. Gradually fade these supports until students are independent.

Adapted from Alderman, M. K. (2008). Motivation for achievement: possibilities for teaching and learning. New York, NY & Abingdon, UK: Routledge.


Self-monitoring involves the observation and evaluation of one’s own processes and outcomes. Students’ self-recording and self-evaluation can be helpful here. Ask students to selectively attend to specific actions, such as on-task behaviour or growth/fixed mindset thoughts, as they work. Self-monitoring might also focus on ways in which time and resources are managed to accomplish goals.

Support students with self-monitoring by scheduling regular reflection and check in time. Structure this time with questions and prompts that encourage students to review their goals, progress and strategies for meeting their goals. For example encourage students to revisit their goals, measure their progress towards them, and reflect on whether their strategies are helping them make enough progress.

Taken from Alderman, M. K. (2008). Motivation for achievement: possibilities for teaching and learning. New York, NY & Abingdon, UK:Routledge.

Download this research guide

Have you supported your students to self-regulate?

Share this guide

Share This Guide