Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

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Emergence of self-regulation among online learners


Cindy Ann Dell, Montana State University-Billings


Cindy Dell, EdD, is an assistant professor in the department of Educational Theory and Practice in the College of Education.



The author examines the emergence of indication of increased self-regulation strategies among online adult learners as part of a qualitative study of elementary education students in an online cohort.  After two rounds of open-ended surveys, an unexpected theme emerged, indicating that participants increased self-regulation strategies while learning online.




Online instruction is accelerating as a mode of teaching and learning.  In addition, research aimed at best practices for online teaching and learning is increasing.  Most instructors are interested in long term learning results, and learners who are self-regulated are more likely to transfer their knowledge to future problems or life situations (Driscoll, 2005; Mayer, 2002).  In addition, adult learners who have experienced effective teaching models (both instructors and peers) tend to use those skills into adulthood (Pressley, 1995). However, indications of self-regulation during online learning have not been extensively studied. 


We find ourselves, then on the brink of a new medium for teaching.  Online learning is an emerging trend among college students, but leaves faculty questioning if the quality and intensity of learning among online instruction leads learners to meet predetermined learning goals.  One way to determine if quality learning is occurring may be to examine the amount of self-regulation that online learners engage in, and perhaps compare successful online learners with those who do not tend to be successful in that medium.  This paper describes some emerging evidence that learners in an organized cohort for online degree completion in a teacher education program report increased level of self-regulated learning.


Social Aspects of Self-Regulated Learning


Self-regulated learning is closely related to motivation and is the process in which learners use their cognitions, learning behaviors and emotions in order to attain learning goals (Driscoll, 2005; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994).  Learners who are self-regulated set learning goals and regulate their behaviors toward meeting those goals.  They actively observe their performance and determine their effectiveness to meet established goals, and adjust their performance to move closer to the goal.  Schunk and Zimmerman (1994) refer to this as an enactive feedback loop, the essence of self-regulated learning.


As learners develop new strategies and experience self-efficacy with self-regulated learning, they tend to improve their ability to transfer their skills to novel conditions (Driscoll, 2005).  In turn, as learners become more skilled in performance or increase conceptual constructs, they also develop increased self-regulation, as they perceive it as useful in achieving their goals.  Self-efficacy, then, can lead to increased self-regulation, although Pressley (1995) maintains that these metacognitive skills are developed over an extended period of time.


An interesting development is the social aspect of self-regulation.  Pressley (1995) maintains that self-regulation is mediated by long term social aspects concerning overall learning.  He draws upon Vygotsky’s learning theory to demonstrate that learning is largely social, even though learners may be studying in isolation.  Years of teacher modeling, peer interaction and interactive dialog tend to guide learners toward using those particular procedures to continue to learn independently, or in a self-regulated manner. They tend to use the very skills modeled in the past to engage in independent learning, hence, providing their own scaffolding.  To encourage and maintain self-regulation in learners, Pressley (1995) recommends that instructors design curriculum and classes in such a way to encourage such self-scaffolding.  He suggests that teachers support learners as they continue to learn independently.  Providing learners with diverse learning opportunities that encourage increased effort, allowing students to practice metacognitive and performance skills, and that continued monitoring of performance toward a goal (or effort) are worthwhile to pursue. 


Given the social nature of self-regulated learning, what happens when learners engage in perusing a goal of learning in an online format?  Learning online is a solitary pursuit, one that requires self-directed and self-regulated learning in order to maintain motivation.  Online learning communities may enhance the online learning experience, and therefore lead to strategies that enhance self-regulated learning. (Dell & Hobbs, 2006a) which may enhance the development of self-regulated learning among learners.   


Groups of learners who develop relationships, share knowledge and together use that knowledge may be considered to be a learning community.  Learning communities, as proposed by Wenger (1998) serve to build and use knowledge within a community to increase its application among the group.  Wenger explains that “people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one another” (Wenger, 1998, p. 73).  He further explains that these actions are mutually negotiated by the community, which defines the enterprise they are engaged in. This in turn, creates mutual accountability among participants.


Adult learners function well in an established learning community.  They tend to become more self-regulated in their approach to learning, and desire to immediately apply new knowledge to real life circumstances.  In addition, they seek to share their knowledge as a source of learning for others in the community, and collaborate with class members and faculty (Ausburn, 2004; Brookfield, 1986; Knowles, 1984; Fellenz & Conti, 1989).  Wenger (1998) explains that learners bring what they know to the learning community and influence others there.  They achieve their identity in the community by the way they participate. They build a shared knowledge about problems, events, methodology, etc. 


It is through this process that online learners may develop self-efficacy and self-regulation strategies.  Learners make judgments about their likelihood to succeed based on their beliefs about their abilities (Bandura, 1997; Driscoll, 2005).  Success and encouragement though the learning process further develops self-efficacy and continued motivation.  As the learner experiences success, self-efficacy and self-regulation are maintained (Bandura, 1997). 


So it is with a cohort of online learners.  Lapan (2002) maintains that self-regulated learners use their knowledge to guide them in the implementation of self-regulatory strategies and metacognitive knowledge to recognize the conditions and contexts for when these strategies should be used.  As they receive encouragement from the learning community and experience success, they become more self-regulated, and experience higher degrees of self-efficacy, which then contributes to higher levels of motivation (Bandura, 1997).


Qualitative Indications of Self-Regulation


The analysis of self-regulation strategies can be difficult.  However, Butler (2002) explains that researching behaviors through qualitative means can be an effective method to study the development and use of self-regulation strategies.   She maintains that studying self regulation qualitatively allows the researcher to examine the “function of events in context, rather than on the surface features of teacher or student activities” (p. 61).  She also explains that by viewing self-regulation through a “qualitative lens” (p. 61), researchers will begin to contribute to the view that multiple methods can illuminate the relationships between the “social and individual processes that shape SRL in context…(p. 61), as well as begin to examine past theories of self regulation developed using other methods.  Developing theory inductively, in other words, can assist researchers to effectively critique assumptions held regarding existing theories (Merriam, 1998; Creswell, 1998), including an examination of the validity of surveys or instruments, inconsistencies of researcher ratings, or that researchers may have been asking the wrong questions, based on predetermined assumptions (Butler, 2002).




To that end, qualitative methods were used to determine the attitudes and habits of cohorts of online learners perusing elementary education degrees online in a longitudinal study.  Five separate cohorts of online learners pursing degrees in elementary education were the focus of the study.  Each cohort began and ended their programs together, and acceptance and entrance into the teacher education was staggered for each group, so that as one cohort was student teaching, another was beginning the program.  The program required a cohort of students to begin the program in tandem, take all the same classes each semester, come to campus for summer study, and student teach and graduate together.  At the time of the research, there were from three to four separate cohorts moving through the teacher education program, each at different points in the degree requirements. 


During the first round of surveys (fall, 2005), one cohort was student teaching, and two groups had completed three semesters (including one summer session each).  During the next round of surveys (spring 2006) an additional cohort had completed student teaching, one was continuing, and two more new cohorts (one graduate and one undergraduate) were in their first semester of classes. 


Each group (consisting of 5 to 17 members) was twice surveyed regarding the perceived impact that learning online had on them, specifically in relation to the development of a learning community.  Students in each cohort were asked questions such as: “Do you think a shared sense of community among cohort participants is an important factor in online learning?”; “Do you feel a part of a cohort learning community?”; “What pivotal events and/or interactions have contributed to bonding among group members?”; and “Describe how being involved in an online cohort affects your learning?” (Dell & Hobbs, 2006a; Dell & Hobbs, 2006b).  The intent of the study was to determine if the development of strong relationships in a learning community contributed to satisfaction and perceived level preparation to be a teacher.


Analysis and Results


Both rounds of survey results were coded and placed into themes, both pre-established and emerging.  The results from both rounds of surveys suggested the development of strong learning communities, emerging confidence regarding personal relationships, and levels of preparation, which all seem to support their  persistence.  However, because the questions were open-ended in nature, an unexpected theme of self-regulated learning began to emerge in the first round, and continued to emerge during the second round. 


Thirteen of 35 (37%) of students in the first round and 19 of 39 (49%) of students in the second round stated that online learning was an isolated process, and that the group processes required in classes were quite helpful in maintaining motivation to learn.  These processes included discussions, group projects, and established social areas of classes, such as a student lounge.  In addition, almost  50%  of the students (37 of 75) across cohorts and both rounds, suggested that they maintained self-regulation strategies to improve their learning.  This would support Pressley’s (1995) assertion that self-regulated learning is mediated by social interaction, even though they are learning in isolation.  Many comments suggested that the group process moved them to be more responsible to the other members of the cohort, which led them to be more self-regulated in their approach.


The following quotes were taken from four separate cohorts, and are part of the emerging themes of self-regulation as enhanced by online learners in cohorts:


š     Online learning demonstrates the significance of individual effort.  When online I look around my room and I am it.  The responsibility of what I do and how I choose to do it falls directly upon me.  Encouragement from other students usually only occurs during summer session and as important as that encouragement is, the individual responsibility to complete assignments is solely an individual endeavor (undergraduate graduate cohort member, third semester, —second round).

š     …I have had to be self-motivated to complete my classes online.  This has prepared me to be independent and self-reliant and to get things done.  It has also given me confidence.  I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. …Online classes are very demanding and I feel I have worked very hard and sense the results of my efforts… (cohort member: student teaching—first round).

š     Online learning is a difficult process, as it is mostly self-directed.  Having a sense of community, and knowing that others are having the same ups and downs as you creates a support system that is valuable, especially when you are having downs! (undergraduate cohort member, third semester—second round).

š     I have much better grades through the cohort than I had on campus.  I am more responsible for my own learning.  I have to read the chapter because the teacher isn't going to go over it class.  I need to read it so I can participate in discussion.  It is putting my education into my hands (undergraduate cohort member, third semester —second round).

š     My level of learning was deep.  The online discussions (forced) were great to make me really express myself and speak out on issues I normally would have remained quiet about in a regular classroom (graduate cohort member: student teaching —second round).

š     I am a very independent learner, although, I've had to discipline myself to really get into the books and readings because they all I've got with the exception of the brief lecture notes that I get from the professors and instructors (undergraduate cohort member, first semester —second round).

š     I think deeply prior to responding. I want to research to back up my opinions and also research when others bring up articles, web-sites, etc. backing their that (sic) differ from mine. I read the text more thorough retaining more information. The discussion allows me to feel I am important in the participation of the class on any given topic or course (undergraduate cohort member, first semester —second round).

š     It makes the learning very self-involved.  You have to have desire to learn.  It is hard to get on that computer after a hard day at work and wanting nothing more than to sit down and watch a movie or relax with wine and a book.  I find online learning more difficult than if I were attending the classes (graduate cohort member, first semester—second round).

š     I'm usually prompted by the cohort discussion aspect to remain current in relating my own discussion entries.  The discussions are essential but it takes me a long time to formulate my answers, so I often "chew" on questions for awhile.  I want to provide some "meat" for others to consider. I sense this is the intent of other members (graduate cohort member, first semester —second round).


These comments suggest the importance of self-regulation for online learning, pointing to independence, reflection time, and being responsible for the social aspects of being prepared to participate in the communal activities included in individual classes. Not only does it appear that the learning community is important in achieving goals, but may also be contributing to the metacognitive processes of self-regulated learning.




The development of a learning community, as the result of a cohort model for online learning, may contribute to self-regulation strategies among adult online learners. 

However, it is important to clarify that the preliminary results of this longitudinal research project are not conclusive, and are subject to further scrutiny. Nonetheless, because of the qualitative lens (Butler, 2002) used to survey cohort members, the unexpected theme of self-regulated learning emerged. Results suggest that strategies, goal setting and performance adjustment (those constructs that frame the definition of self-regulated learning) are not addressed or discussed.  However, the comments made by cohort members across groups and over time suggest that increased self-regulation may be occurring (as seen through an emerging theme).  In order to determine the extent of goal setting, strategy use, and performance adjustment among online learners in the cohorts, more focused surveys, interviews, or focus groups need to be conducted with these groups.  Particular attention should be given to how students have increased their levels of self-regulation because of their participation in online classes as part of a cohort.  A controlled study, comparing self-regulation among students in live and online classes, and both non cohort and cohort, would also be suggested for further study. 


Online learning is part of our educational landscape.  Understanding the cognitive aspects of independent learning is imperative to providing opportunities for academic success. 

To that end, it is of interest to online educators that self-regulation among online learners is an important aspect of achievement and persistence.  Online instructors should scaffold self-regulation during online learning (as suggested by Pressley, 1995) and teach self-regulation strategies as part of the online process.  Knowing that adult learners may increase self-regulation during online instruction could lead instructors to provide scaffolding and strategies to encourage self-regulation for learners who are not demonstrating success in online classes. 




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