Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Higher levels of agency for students: Participation, self-regulation and the learning process

Catherine McLoughlin
Science, Technology and Engineering
Edith Cowan University

Expectations of graduates

The focus of national reports and initiatives have identified the purposes of higher education in Australia today and into the 21st century. In clarifying the purpose of higher education, the characteristics and attributes that graduates should have following their experiences at university have been documented (Ramsden 1992; Chubb 1992; Mayer 1992).

Much of the recent emphasis in on the connection between higher education and employment. Stated simply, graduates are expected to have developed both generic skills or competencies in addition to discipline specific knowledge such as:

....critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, problem solving, logical and independent thought, effective communication, and related skills in identifying, accessing and managing information: personal attributes such as intellectual rigor, creativity and imagination; and values such as ethical practice, integrity and tolerance. (Chubb, 1992, p.22)
There is considerable overlap between these personal attributes and the Key Competencies documented by the Mayer Committee (1992) as essential for effective participation, not only in work but also in further education and adult life.

Competencies for lifelong learning

Recently, the National Board of Employment, education and training (NBEET) commissioned a report to investigate on the extent to which undergraduate education can assist graduates to enhance their skills, and attitudes to lifelong learning, in particular, how university education can assist learner to take conscious control of their own learning. The outcome was a report (Candy, Crebert and O'Leary 1994) which suggest the qualities and characteristics of the lifelong learner as: The mission statement and goals of many universities now explicitly endorse the development of lifelong learning skills in students. From the foregoing, it is clear that empowering students to participate in decision-making and giving them an active role in their own learning is an intended outcome of lifelong learning. How can university education best develop self-regulatory processes in learners, and increase their sense of personal agency, while ensuring that essential learning skills are developed? In the first instance, there may be preconceptions as to the respective roles of 'teacher' and 'learner' which act as barriers to self-regulated learning, and therefore to the development of lifelong learning competencies. Secondly, there must be a clear understanding about what competencies and abilities self-regulated learners should possess.

Abilities of self-regulated learners

Self-regulated learning (Simons 1992; Biggs, 1987; Zimmerman & Schunk (eds) 1989) means having the ability to: Very often these functions are performed by teachers themselves, by preparing students, setting the stages of learning, assigning tasks (assignments) to provide feedback and designing materials and activities to keep students motivated. However, undue structuring of the learning experience can prove counter productive by robbing the learner of the necessary psychological functions that underlie self-regulatory processes. These are described by Shuell (1988) as follows: A self-regulated learner is able to execute learning activities that lead to knowledge, comprehension and higher order learning (Paris & Byrnes, 1989) by using processes such as monitoring, reflection, testing, questioning and evaluation. In most learning contexts, teachers have had a dominating and central role in performance judgement and feedback, a role which tends to minimise learners' own sense of agency in the development of self-regulated learning. But there are other barriers to cultivating self-regulated learning in the university context.

The paradox: an insurmountable obstacle?

Constructive learning, as it demands effort and mindfulness on the part of learners and skilled planning on the part of instructors, may not always be easy to bring about. There may be obstacles which prevent its development and realisation.

One such obstacle is the interactions that occur between students and teachers, the relationships they build and the expectations that are sometimes implicit in the learning experiences planned. While teachers are usually supportive of the idea of independent learning, they may find that students are not always willing or able to employ learning strategies on their own. Consequently, many teachers feel obliged to take back control over the learning process by providing structured, informative even didactic learning experiences (Laurillard, 1991). Students as a result do not have opportunities to develop their own skills of self-regulation. Furthermore, some students may contribute to this dependent style of learning by surrendering decision-making processes. Others may come to believe that it is the province of the teacher to make decisions, and thus reinforce the didactic teacher-centred approach.

It may be difficult to break through this circularity, but it is argued here that a way must be found to encourage, promote and support self-regulatory learning in students.

Facilitating independent learning

In tertiary classrooms, various approaches have been adopted to enable students to develop skills of judgement and self-motivation. Taylor (1995) indicates that constructive learning should be: These qualities are also fundamental to Laurillard's (1993) model of university teaching. Moreover, there is increased optimism that certain pedagogical principles can bring about self-regulated learning, reflection, metacognitive development and problem solving. Training studies conducted by Palincsar and Brown (1984) on reading comprehension, on mathematical reasoning by Schoenfield (1985) and Volet (1991) on computer programming indicate positive results for apprenticeship systems of learning. These studies have been categorised as 'apprenticeship models' as they share some common properties. The focus in all these studies has been to develop students' cognitive strategies by modelling expert users' knowledge and skills when solving problems.

Bain (1997) reports that experts have knowledge bases that are tacit or procedural and that skills are applied in an unconscious manner in the integration of new concepts and problem solution. Teachers too are experts in their own knowledge domains, as they have available a rich store of knowledge, skills and concepts. However, they need to articulate, explain and reconstruct their own expert strategies so that students can gain access these cognitive strategies. Therefore, to teach effectively, instruction must be geared towards the development of metacognitive skills (Biggs, 1987). If students (as novices) to develop expert competencies, they need to observe, to apply and to reflect on expert skills and strategies. Effective instruction should therefore include explicit explanations of strategies, their context of use, usefulness and application. Other research (Perkins and Salomon, 1989) emphasises that self-regulated learning should be closely related to subject content, or domain specific knowledge being taught. By synthesising disciplinary and strategic knowledge, students can learn self-management processes that highly specific and contextualised. More recent research by Volet (1991) suggests that modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies allied to a specific disciplinary context improves academic performance.

Conclusion: the paradox resolved

In developing self-regulated learning, the research suggest that strategies which involve cognitive coaching are productive and powerful ways of increasing students' levels of agency. Fostering self-regulative learning, may mean paradoxically, that the teacher assumes a directive approach to student learning at the outset (Simons, 1992). There appear to be three broad stages in the process of fostering self-regulated learners.
  1. Convince students of the importance of becoming a self-regulating, independent learner.
  2. Guide students, through cognitive coaching, in self regulatory behaviours.
  3. Support independent learning by providing opportunities for students to control their own learning.
The apprenticeship systems (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989: Palincsar and Brown, 1989) though not presenting a unified approach to teaching and learning, nevertheless signal the key attributes of successful learning environments as follows: Adoption of these particular strategies has been found to lead to self-regulated learning and illustrate ways to resolve the paradox of how to promote independent learning without depriving students of the opportunity to learn appropriate strategic skills.

In conclusion, for teachers there must be awareness of how beliefs that students hold towards learning may undermine attempts to teach self-regulatory processes. Furthermore, dependent student-teacher interactive patterns may result from misinformed expectations and do not encourage independent learners. Cognitive coaching presents a teaching approach and a perspective on learning that has proved successful in university contexts.


Bain, J. D. (1990). Unpacking the expert to teach the novice. In M. Kratzing (Ed.), Proceedings of the 8th Australasian learning and language conference, (pp. 119-127). Brisbane: QUT Press.

Biggs, J. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Hawthorne, Vic.: ACER.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 10-12.

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G., & O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing Lifelong Learners Through Undergraduate Education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Chubb, I. (1992). Higher Education: Achieving Quality. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Laurillard, D. (1991). Computers and the emancipation of students:. In O. B. Barrett & E. Scanlon (Eds.), Computers and Learning. Wokingham, England: Addison Wesley.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. London and New York: Routledge.

Marton, F., & Saljo, R. (1984). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D., & N. Entwistle (Eds.), The Experience of Learning Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Mayer, E. (1992). Putting General education to work: The Key Competencies Report. Melbourne: The Mayer Committee.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.

Paris, S. G., & Byrnes, J. P. (1989). The Constructivist approach to self-regulation of learning in the classroom. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement, (pp. 169-200). New York: Springer.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are cognitive skills context bound? Educational Researcher, 18(1), 16-25.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Schoenfield, A. H. (1985). Mathematical Problem Solving. Orlando. Fl: Academic Press.

Schuell, T. J. (1988). The role of the student in learning from instruction. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13, 276-295.

Simons, P. R.-J. (1992). Constructive Learning: The role of the learner. In T. M. Duffy, J. Lowyck, D. Jonassen, & T. M. Welsh (Eds.), Designing Environments for Constructive Learning, (pp. 291-313). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Taylor. P. (1995). UCLESA Questionnaire for Evaluating Portfolio Cultures in Postgraduate Teaching. In Summers, L., (Ed) A Focus on Learning: Proceedings of the Teaching Learning Forum '95. Perth, Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University, pp. 252-256.

Volet, S. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students' learning. Learning and Instruction,1, 319-336.

Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1996). Higher levels of agency for students: Participation, self-regulation and the learning process. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p105-109. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/mcloughlin.html

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