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How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners?

A selection from How Learning Works:
7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

Susan A. Ambrose, etal*

The "A" Student

I was exhausted from reading and grading twenty-five papers over the past weekend, but I was glad to be able to hand them back so quickly.  It was the first big assignment in my freshman seminar on immigration, and it required students to state an argument and support it with evidence from course readings and supplemental documents.  After class, one of the students, Melanie, approached me and insisted that she needed to talk with me immediately about her grade (not about her paper, mind you!)  Hers was a typical first paper in this course—it lacked a clearly articulated argument, and there was only weak evidence to support what I inferred was her argument.  As we walked across campus toward my office, she began explaining that she was a "gifted" writer who had always received As on her high school English papers.  She made clear to me that there must be some mistake in this paper's grade because her mother, a high school English teacher, had read the paper over the weekend and thought it was wonderful.  Melanie admitted that she had started this assignment the night before it was due, but insisted that she worked best under pressure, saying, "That's just how my creative juices flow."

Professor Sara Yang

The Hamster Wheel

After I saw John's grade on the second Modern Chemistry exam, I couldn't help but ask myself, "How can someone attend every single lecture—sitting attentively in the front rowand go to every recitation and lab, no less, and still do so poorly on my exams?"  I had explicitly told the students that my exams are designed to test conceptual understanding, and yet John seemed to be thrown for a loop.  His first exam score had also been pretty low, but he wasn't alone in that, given students' first-exam jitters.  By this time, however, I thought he would have learned what to expect.  I asked John what had happened, and he too seemed perplexed.  "I studied for weeks," he said, flipping open his textbook.  I could hardly believe how much of the text was highlighted.  The pages practically glowed with neon yellow.  He went on to describe how he had re-read the relevant chapters multiple times and then memorized various terms by writing their definitions on flashcards.  I asked where he had learned this approach to studying, and he explained that it had always worked for him when he used to prepare for his science tests in high school.

Professor Gar Zeminsky

What is Going on in These Stories?

On the surface, these stories seem quite different:  Melanie starts her history paper at the last minute, whereas John studies hard (and harder) for weeks before his chemistry exams.  However, both students perform well below their expectations without understanding why.  As we analyze the details of each story, other issues emerge.  We see that John has a set of study strategies—mostly involving rote memorization of facts and definitions—that were sufficient in his high school classes but that are proving to be ineffective for the intellectual demands of a college course.  Rather than changing his approach after poor performance on the first exam, however, John doggedly redouble s his efforts only to find that more of the same does not help.  Melanie also enlists strategies that worked for her in the past, but she fails to recognize important differences—in both disciplinary approach and level of sophistication—between the kinds of writing expected in her college history course.  Furthermore, she does not even acknowledge that she did poorly on the current assignment.  Both Melanie and John are encountering new sets of intellectual challenges.  Unfortunately, neither of them recognizes the shortcomings in their strategies, and they fail to develop new ones.  To complicate matters, Melanie holds beliefs about her own abilities, based in part on past performance, that make her unwilling to admit that there is anything wrong with her current approach.

What Principle of Learning is at Work Here?

Although these two students are struggling with different tasks in distinct courses, their difficulties point to similar shortcomings in metacognition. Metacognition refers to "the process of reflecting on and directing one's own thinking" (National Research Council, 2001, p. 78).  Both Melanie and John have trouble accurately assessing their own learning and performance, and they fail to adapt their approaches to the current situation.  As a result, both students' learning and performance suffer.  In other words, when it comes to applying metacognitive skills to direct their own learning....Melanie and John fall short.

Principle: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.

This principle lays out the key metacognitive skills that are critical to being an effective self-directed (also called "self-regulated" or "lifelong") learner.  Such skills arguably become more and more important at higher levels of education and in professional life as one takes on more complex tasks and greater responsibility for one's own learning.  For example, compared to high school, students in college are often required to complete larger, longer-term projects and must do so rather independently.  Such projects often demand that students recognize what they already know that is relevant to completing the project, identify what they still need to learn, plan an approach to learn that material independently, potentially redefine the scope of the project so they can realistically accomplish it, and monitor and adjust their approach along the way.  Given all this, it is not surprising that one of the major intellectual challenges students face upon entering college is managing their own learning (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).

Unfortunately, these metacognitive skills tend to fall outside the content area of most courses, and consequently they are often neglected in instruction.  However, helping students to improve their metacognative skills can hold enormous benefits.  The benefits include not only intellectual habits that are valuable across disciplines (such as planning one's approach to a large project, considering alternatives,and evaluating one's own perspective), but also more flexible and usable discipline-specific knowledge.  Imagine if John and Melanie had learned to evaluate the demands of the tasks that they were given and had been able to adjust their approaches to learning accordingly.  By the second exam, John might have shifted from highlighting his textbook and memorizing facts to concentrating on the conceptual underpinnings of chemistry, perhaps creating a concept map to test his understanding of key ideas and the causal relationships between them.

What does the Research about Metacognition Tell Us?

Researchers have proposed various models to describe how learners would ideally apply metacognitive skills to learn and perform well (Brown et al., 1983; Butler, 1997; Pintrich, 2000; Winnie & Hadwin, 1998).  Although these models differ in their particulars, they share the notion that learners need to engage in a variety of processes to monitor and control their learning (Zimmerman, 2001).  Moreover, because the processes of monitoring and controlling mutually affect each other, these models often take the form of a cycle.


The figure above depicts a cycle of basic metacognitive processes in which learners:

  • Assess the task at hand, taking into consideration the task's goals and constraints
  • Evaluate their own knowledge and skills, identifying strengths and weaknesses

  • Plan their approach in a way that accounts for the current situation

  • Apply various strategies to enact their plan, monitoring their progress along the way

  • Reflect on the degree to which their current approach is working so that they can adjust and restart the cycle as needed.

In addition to the many ways in which these processes can overlap and interact with each other, students' beliefs about intelligence and learning (such as whether intelligence is fixed or malleable and whether learning is quick and easy or slow and effortful) represent a factor that can influence the whole cycle.

*(Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, & Marie K. Norman)