Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

The impact of two years of tertiary study on the development of self-regulation in mature age students

Alex Radloff
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology
Irene Styles
School of Education
Murdoch University
Self-regulation has been shown to play an important role in effective learning and in contributing to reflective practice and life-long learning, but the concept of self-regulation is not clear and there are few studies of the development of self-regulation in adult learners over the period of a whole course of study. This paper describes the findings of a longitudinal study into the development of self-regulation in two groups of tertiary students - hospital trained nurses and TAFE lecturers with vocational qualifications. A model of self-regulation of learning was developed and used to derive a prototype of a self-regulated learner. Data analysis using the prototype, showed that, at the beginning of study, the majority of students did not exhibit high degrees of self-regulation of learning. Most did become more self-regulated in their learning over the two years of university study but development of self-regulation was neither smooth nor predictable. The findings showed that adult learners are not necessarily self-regulated learners, nor that self-regulation of learning is an essential requirement for, or inevitable outcome of, successful post-compulsory study. The results have implications for adult learning and professional education.

Self-regulation of learning

Self-regulation of learning (SRL) refers to the way in which learners select and articulate their goals for learning and understand and manage the learning process in order to achieve these, and includes motivational, attitudinal, strategic and metacognitive components. Students who are self-regulated learners are also likely to be effective and successful learners (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994; Mithaug, 1993; Newman, 1991; Pintrich, De Groot & Garcia, 1992; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman, 1989; Zimmerman, Greenberg & Weinstein, 1994; Zimmerman & Schunk, 1989). Moreover, SRL is important for transfer of learning with self-regulated learners being better able to apply their knowledge and skills (Lupart, 1995; Redding, 1990). SRL can contribute to learning beyond formal education in terms of on-the-job learning and ongoing professional development especially in professions such as nursing and teaching which deal with ill-defined problems and require reflective practice (Atkins & Murphy, 1993; Hatton & Smith, 1995; Jarvis, 1992).

There is evidence that aspects of SRL, especially metacognition, develop with age and that cognitive development, especially the development of formal or abstract thinking is a necessary prerequisite for SRL (Schuster & Ashburn, 1992).Thus, older learners are more likely than younger learners to be self-regulated. Indeed, adult learners as a group are often characterised as self-regulated or self-directed learners (Candy, 1991; Confessore & Long, 1992). However, some authors have questioned this assumption, suggesting that adults are not inevitably or 'naturally' self-regulated learners (Boulton-Lewis, Wilss & Mutch, 1996; Brookfield, 1986; Brookfield, 1990).This paper describes a study which aimed to investigate SRL in adult learners and any changes in SRL over two years of tertiary study.

Description of the study

The study involved a group of 34 adult learners - nurses and TAFE lecturers - who were enrolled in either a B Ap.Sc. (Nursing) or BA (Teaching - TAFE) program. All the participants had had experience of post-compulsory education in the form of either hospital-based nurse training or vocational apprenticeship training and successful work experience prior to embarking on university study. The study used both quantitative methodology in the form of a questionnaire and survey instruments, and qualitative methodology in the form of three semi-structured interviews (at the beginning of study, Time 1, at the end of the first year of study, Time 2, and at the end of the second year of study, Time 3), to gather data about participants' study experiences.

A model of SRL consisting of goals, beliefs, learning engagements and metacognition was developed and used to generate a prototype of a self-regulated learner. The prototype was made up of 23 categories of attributes and behaviours typical of self-regulation and 8 categories of attributes and behaviours suggesting a lack of self-regulation. The self-regulated learner was characterised as having mainly cognitive rather than task goals for learning; aiming for high achievement; seeing the self as competent, responsible and autonomous; defining learning in qualitative rather than quantitative terms; using complex rather than basic learning strategies and seeking help and cues to aid learning when necessary; using volitional strategies such as persisting and managing affect; and showing metacognitive knowledge and the ability to plan, monitor and adapt their learning.

Using the prototype categories as the basis, interview data were analysed and coded using NUD-IST, a computer package for qualitative analysis of unstructured data such as interviews (Weitzman & Miles, 1995). Self-regulation scores (SRSs) were derived for each participant by subtracting their self-regulation (SR) category scores from their non self-regulation (NON SR) category scores, yielding a SRS between 23 and -8. The SRSs were used to determine individual levels of SRL and any changes in SRL over time.

SRL at the beginning of tertiary study

At the beginning of two years of study, few of the participants showed evidence of high levels of SRL as defined by the prototype, suggesting that despite their earlier successful learning experiences, the majority were not self-regulated learners.

The majority of participants, both nurses and TAFE lecturers, had very functional goals for studying related to their work and careers with many, especially the TAFE lecturers, undertaking university study reluctantly in response to job requirements, as the following quotes illustrate.

My priority is that I get a degree. (N03 1)

Well, I'm really doing it so that I can further myself professionally. (N11 1)

My goal when I first came into it was just to get through it. (T14 1)

....just get it over and done with because my job depends on it. (T18 1)

Participants demonstrated strong quantitative views of learning with the majority defining learning in terms of absorbing information, as the following quotes illustrate.
Acquiring something that's new to me that maybe I have not known before. Getting new information, if you like. (N09 1)

Taking knowledge, what is passed on from the lecturer. (T28 1)

In line with their work focus, they also saw learning in terms of applying knowledge to the job. This was particularly true for the TAFE lecturers who needed the teaching qualification to gain permanence and the opportunity for promotion in the TAFE system, as the following quotes illustrate.
I see that you are trying to make us better equipped to get the particular message across to our students. In other words, you are instructing us to be better instructors. (T22 1)

I can't see that there's any objectives apart from making us better communicators and doing it in front of a class ... (T24 1)

Learning success was perceived by most participants in terms of an external measure such as a grade or feedback from the lecturer, as the following quotes illustrate.
That [the mark] gives you an idea how your tutor, lecturer feels you've done. (N01 1)

On the basic criteria - whether I pass the units or not. (N07 1)

The higher the mark obviously, the more successful you've been. (T14 1)

Almost half also mentioned feelings of personal achievement and satisfaction as a measure of success. In terms of learning strategies learners were using or planning to use, rehearsal was most often mentioned. Almost half the nurses and about a quarter of the TAFE lecturers mentioned learning with and from other people.

Participants in general did not express very positive views of themselves as learners with only about a third seeing themselves as either competent or effective. About two thirds of the nurses as opposed to fewer than a third of the TAFE lecturers expressed ownership and responsibility for their learning. Very few participants saw themselves as competitive, wanting to perform exceptionally well. Indeed, just over one fifth of the TAFE lecturers wanted to exert the minimum effort to achieve their goals, as the following quotes illustrate.

I would say I work as hard as I need to work to achieve the goal that I set myself. (T16 1)

The C is the ultimate mark because it means that you pass with the least amount of effort. (T19 1)

About two thirds of the participants expressed positive feelings such as pride and enjoyment at being at university, as the following quotes illustrate.
I enjoy the experience. It's a whole new game to me. I really enjoy walking around the campus and meeting other people and talking to them. People who are half my age. And I find them really friendly and I really like the atmosphere. (N06 1)

I like the interaction. I mean, I always come here and I learn something. I love that. I love participating. (T17 1)

However, a third expressed negative feelings such as frustration and anxiety, as the following quotes illustrate.
I'm slightly frustrated because I can't give it [study] as much time as I'd like. (N03 1)

I was frightened I suppose. It's sort of intimidating, the word 'university'. (T23 1)

I am worried that I won't pass. (T26 1)

As would be expected, given that more than three quarters of the participants were working while studying and about 70% had children living at home, the main perceived obstacles to learning were lack of time and work and family commitments.

There were individual differences in level of SRL and differences between low SRL and high SRL participants, with high SRL participants showing more evidence of metacognitive orchestration, that is, planning, monitoring and adapting learning, supporting the contention that metacognitive strategies are central to SRL.

Patterns of change in SRL over time

Changes in SRL over time were evident in the group as a whole with mean SRSs going up from 5.35 to 8.21 (out of a possible 23) between the beginning and end of two years of study. The changes are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Changes in mean SRSs for all participants over time (N = 34)

Participants did not follow a uniform path in terms of changes in SRL, with variations in individual patterns of changes over time being evident. Based on these patterns, four SRL sub-groups were identified: Developing SRL (a continuous increase in SRL over time); Increasing SRL (an increase in SRL over two but not all three occasions); Variable SRL (increases and decreases in SRL over time); and Steady SRL (either no significant changes over time or a decline in SRL) (Radloff, 1997). The four SRL sub-groups did not differ significantly in terms of group, gender, age or previous qualifications but they did show differences in changes in SRSs over time as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Changes in mean SRSs for the four SRL sub-groups over time (N = 34)

The Developing SRL sub-group which started off with the lowest SRSs at the beginning of the study, had the highest SRSs at the end of the study while the Steady SRL sub-group which had the second highest SRSs at the beginning of the study ended up with the lowest SRSs at the end of the study. The Variable SRL sub-group started with the highest SRSs but did not increase over time and were surpassed by both the Developing SRL and Increasing SRL sub-groups.

Just under two thirds of the 34 participants - those in the Developing SRL and Increasing SRL sub-groups which included almost 75% of the nurses and just over 50% of the TAFE lecturers - showed development in SRL. The other one third of participants - those in the Variable SRL and Steady SRL sub-groups - did not show clear development in SRL. At the end of the first year of study, about half the Variable SRL sub-group had increased their SRSs and about half had decreased their SRSs and at the end of the two years of study, two of the participants in the Steady SRL had decreased their SRSs in comparison to the beginning of the study. Thus, it would appear that SRL did not inevitably develop during tertiary study. For some learners, SRL development was smooth and steady across semesters; for others it appeared to reach a plateau; for yet others, it showed little or no movement; and for a small number, it appeared to decrease over time.

The impact of two years of tertiary study

Despite the lack of evidence of high levels of SRL for most of the participants, even at the end of two years of tertiary study, there were changes in learners' approach to learning in terms of goals for learning, how they viewed learning and themselves as learners and the perceived benefits of university study.

Generally, goals for learning were more likely to focus on gaining further job related knowledge rather than just getting a qualification. A number of participants, notably the TAFE lecturers, showed changes in their views of learning, with those from participants with higher SRL showing more sophisticated conceptions of learning. Participants also mentioned changes in their views of themselves as learners with the majority reporting increased confidence, as the following quotes illustrate.

Oh more confident because I've tested it out. I know what I can do. (N05 3)

The biggest thing that it has given me is confidence. I'm just oozing with confidence. (T30 3)

Significant numbers also reported a broadening of horizons, better self-knowledge, increased self assertiveness and feelings of self satisfaction and pride, as the following quotes illustrate.
I most certainly gained a broadening of experience, increasing confidence in carrying out work - not only carrying out professional care but also just generally in interaction [with others]. (N10 3)

I think I am understanding my weakness better or seeing my strength as well as my weakness, I suppose. In the past, I would be very, very critical of myself if I fail. Perhaps now I am more accepting of my weakness, seeing it as me and not being so upset by it. That has changed. (N09 3)

I am very proud of the fact that I finished, that I finished reasonably well. And I can say that I've got a degree so it's given me, I think, better standing in society in my own eyes. (T19 3)

I am not as cynical as I was before. I would have said academic mumbo-jumbo before I came to the course and I even say it now but I don't mean it anymore. I have opened up a bit more. Before, I had closed ideas and closed opinions. Now I am prepared to change my mind if someone can show me something different. I can look at something now and see it from someone else's point of view. (T33 3)

Participants also reported having a more effective and critical approach to their learning. TAFE lecturers, in particular, also mentioned the value for their learning of being part of a supportive and friendly peer group, as the following quotes illustrate.
The rapport with the other students. As I said to them, we all came as strangers to one another. On enrolment day we all looked sideways to see who's he, where does he come from. Getting along with them eventually and becoming a group that was good, great. I enjoyed that very much. And in fact I will miss it. (T15 3)

The friendship. They were an extremely supportive group the one I was in. I don't know about the others but if you had troubles [it was] no hassle to ring any of them and they would let you know exactly where they could help you...They were very helpful. I think that's one of the major factors that's come out of the course. (T23 3)

These personal gains did not come without cost, however, particularly for participants in the TAFE group, 83% of whom commented on negative outcomes of study as opposed to only 18% of participants in the Nurse group. The negatives included stress, lack of time with family and loss of contact with friends.

Participants, especially TAFE lecturers, also commented on how their study had affected their work in terms of their professional roles, how they interacted with patients or students and specific skills which they used at work. Finally, despite the ups and downs of tertiary study, most participants described the experience as personally rewarding and intellectually enriching, as the following quotes illustrate.

It was great. At times it was long and drawn out but now that it is finished you think it was not so bad after all. I look back and think, what have I learned? And I have learned a lot. It's really something that I did not think that I would ever, ever learn to do; to learn about education. (T28 3)

It has been, I would say, the greatest two years of my life. (T30 3)

Conclusions and implications for adult education

Findings of the present study suggest that adult learners engaged in formal learning at the tertiary level may not necessarily be self-regulated learners even though they may have had successful post-school learning experiences. Further, the development of SRL over a course of tertiary study is neither smooth nor predictable but shows individual variations and appears to be sensitive to context - in particular, to perceived obstacles to learning. Thus, tertiary courses should include strategies which will help adults develop SRL. These strategies could include: considering ways in which learners can be encouraged to confront and deal with personal theories of learning especially if these reflect a commitment to quantitative views of learning; considering what impact predominantly task goals as opposed to cognitive goals may have on motivation and affect; helping adults to deal with affect and obstacles to learning as part of orientation to tertiary study through incorporating a focus on 'learning how to learn' in courses; including opportunities for learners to reflect on their own learning as an integral part of the course; and providing opportunities for adult learners to learn with and from other students by nurturing group involvement and cohesion. These recommendations would benefit students of all ages, not just adult learners. Professional education programs which aim to encourage lifelong learning and reflective practice should be sensitive to the learning goals and needs of adult learners and carefully plan curriculum and instruction to provide optimal levels of both cognitive challenge and instructional support which facilitate the development of SRL.


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Please cite as: Radloff, A. and Styles, I. (1998). The impact of two years of tertiary study on the development of self-regulation in mature age students. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 278-285. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/radloff.html

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