Self-Regulation in Education and its Secrets

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Self-regulation as a term is being used more and more during the last months. The global shift to distance education and remote working is apparently changing the way we talk, perceive the world and interpret facts. Scholars have always emphasized the importance of self-regulation in distance education, stating that students in such contexts have the overall responsibility of their own learning due to the reduced external control (e.g., Shea & Bidjerano, 2010; Visser, 2012, White, 2003). Moreover, the concernment on self-regulation is not limited only to education contexts.

During the first decades of the 21st century, we placed our attention to the social and interpersonal competences as labour force since networking and collaboration reached a next level. We are now heading to an era of individualization where more emphasis is given to our ‘internal skills’. Labour market is demanding favourable behavioural attributes of individuals that will keep their performance in high levels without the need to intervene. Autonomy, resilience, problem solving, flexibility, adaptability and self-regulation are examples of this cluster of skills, which will probably be taught in classrooms soon. However, although we talk much about self-regulation, little is applied in practice yet.

In fact, self-regulation is not a novel term and it gained more recognition within the research community three decades ago. Due to the various theoretical approaches, definitions may vary making self-regulation a complex area of study, but at the same time important for the independent function of self. Zimmerman (2000, 2002) as an educational psychologist gave a broad definition of self-regulation explaining that it is the process we generate, activate and sustain our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and actions for attaining academic goals. Some years later he summed up his findings stating that “self-regulated learning refers to how students become masters of their own learning processes” (Zimmerman, 2015, p. 541)!

Baumeister et al. (2007), from the viewpoint of social psychology help us conceptualize self-regulation giving three main components, arguing that these are necessary and pivotal for high self-regulatory levels:

  1. Standards are explained as concepts of possible and desirable states, which include ideals, expectations, goals, values, and targets that form subject’ future self and therefore, orient today’s actions. Central element of this idea is the commitment to these standards that will keep effort and motivational forces on track.
  2. Monitoring, linked with self-awareness, is considered essential in evaluating subject’s progress and identifying areas for improvement, required to achieve the desirable standards. This process is directly associated with feedback and formative evaluation.
  3. The capacity to make changes, perceived as subject’s willpower. Here, authors present the idea of an internal strength to control the unavoidable fatigue and depletion of mental and psychological resources.

The above reminds us Anders Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice. Ericsson basically dedicated the most of his scientific work trying to identify how people become “experts” in any domain. His ideas became widely known -but distortedly presented- by the book Outliers of Malcolm Gladwell. Deliberate practice is defined as the process of learning and skill acquisition through optimal improvement of performance (Ericsson et al., 1993). Researching extensively expert performers, Ericsson (2020) resulted that deliberate practice and consequently performance is maximized under five basic conditions:

  1. Goals: Individuals should be engaged in activities with clear and well-defined goals.
  2. Monitoring: Individuals need to gain immediate informative feedback on current performance and try new strategies or methods that will accelerate improvement.
  3. The presence of a teacher/trainer whose role is to design the practice task and provide individualized instruction and guidance.
  4. Independent practice which allows individuals to perform the task by themselves. It requires adequate levels of pre-existing knowledge and skills, as well as carefully given instructions.
  5. Motivation to persist, exert effort and maintain repetition, to augment accuracy and speed of performance.

As it is evident, characteristics of these two theories are connected, and in some cases matched. Although they have different starting points, self-regulation and deliberate practice share strong similarities. So, what could this mean? What could it teach us? Well, one could argue that when we show high levels of self-regulation, we instinctively meet some of the criteria of deliberated practice i.e., our optimal improvement of performance. Therefore, self-regulation ensures in some extent high performance levels, namely academic achievement within educational settings. Risemberg & Zimmerman (1992) expressed a similar idea explaining that self-regulation can help learners reach their full potential. Baumeister & Vohs (2007, p. 842) more broadly confirm that “self-regulation appears to be an important predictor of success in life”. To be accurate, we need to acknowledge that here theories are simplistically presented, and their theoretical framework is not explicitly explained. In fact, researchers have emphasized the complex nature of human psychology and pointed out numerous internal and external factors that carry weight.

Self-regulation, as well as other psychological characteristics like motivation, choice, or persistence, are not stable. They may fluctuate towards different circumstances and conditions, and here is exactly where the role of educators becomes critical. Modern scientists urge us to focus attention and teach virtues like self-regulation, instead of providing more information to learners. Information becomes every day more accessible, but it is always up to students’ intention if and how they will utilize it. However, how we teach self-regulation is still under exploration, but scientific suggestions begin to arise.

Demos Michael is project researcher at CARDET (Centre for the Advancement of Research & Development in Educational Technology) while his expertise focuses on educational research. He is interested in topics related to equity and inclusion of educational effectiveness, as well as non-cognitive processes that affect academic achievement. More specific fields of interest are motivation, achievement choices, expectancy beliefs, mindset, perseverance, persistence, self-efficacy and others. He has been recently involved in the implementation of various projects in adult education and other research activities. He believes that all individuals have a special capability on at least one domain where they can develop genius.


Baumeister, R. F. & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-regulation and the executive function: The self as controlling agent. In A. Kruglanski & E.T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (2nd ed., pp. 516–539). New York: Guilford. A recent and thorough overview of the research in a broad context.

Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Given that the detailed original criteria for deliberate practice have not changed, could the understanding of this complex concept have improved over time? A response to Macnamara and Hambrick (2020). Psychological Research.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T. & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.

Risemberg, R., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1992). Self-regulated learning in gifted students. Roeper Review, 15(2), 98.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721–1731.

Visser, L. (2012). Trends and Issues in Distance Education 2nd Edition: International Perspectives: Vol. 2nd ed. Information Age Publishing.

White, C. (2003). Language learning in distance education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attainment of self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 64–72.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2015). Self-Regulated Learning: Theories, Measures, and Outcomes. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 541–546.

First published on “EPALE” on “February, 15 2021”.

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