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For successful open learning, train for self regulation

Alex Radloff
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology

Open learning allows for the upgrading of existing skills as well as the development of new skills in a variety of work and other settings. Open learning may take many forms and may involve the use of different technologies. However, to be successful, open learning requires that participants be able to learn effectively. Unfortunately, many adults are not very effective learners. As a result, open learning may not lead to successful learning for them.

It is possible to identify the skills necessary for effective learning and to include instruction in these in any learning programme. This paper outlines these skills and suggests how open learning programmes can best incorporate them in their design, in order to facilitate learning and transfer.

Difficulties experienced by adult learners

Many adults in the workforce are confronted with the need to acquire new knowledge and skills in order to remain productive and to have greater opportunities for promotion. The availability of new learning experiences is increasing across all areas of the workforce. However, many adults will not be able to make full use of such opportunities even where the content of training programmes is well structured and relevant to their needs because they do not have the necessary learning skills. In other words, they do not know how to learn.

A number of factors may account for adults' failure to acquire new skills and to use these appropriately. Some adults have not had recent learning experiences and may feel that they have "forgotten" how to learn. Others may be using learning strategies which are inappropriate for the type of learning they now need to do. Yet others may have had previous negative learning experiences which affect their attitude to learning and therefore their motivation to become involved in new learning.

Furthermore, many adults have to contend with the typical obstacles to adult learning, such as competing role and time demands, anxiety about their own capabilities and fear of the unknown (Brookfield, 1986; Knox, 1987). As a result, much of the effort expended in developing learning programmes may be wasted, especially where the main focus of such development is on curriculum and instructional design with little attention being paid to the process of learning.

Skills necessary for effective learning

Recent research has identified the approaches to learning which differentiate more successful from less successful learners (Ramsden, 1985). Although there is no single set of strategies which will ensure high quality learning, it is possible to identify some key characteristics of effective learners. Effective learners are positive about learning, have cognitive skills appropriate to the learning task, take responsibility for their own learning, and use metacognitive strategies to reflect on and control the learning process.

Metacognition is a key concept in describing effective learning (Brown, 1987). Metacognition refers to the individual's knowledge about his or her own learning and thinking, and control over both in order to complete learning tasks successfully. By using metacognitive skills, the learner is able to plan, monitor, and evaluate learning. In turn, this ability to control learning results in feelings of self efficacy (Bandura, 1982), and a positive view of oneself as a learner.

The above characteristics typically describe learners who are self regulated in their learning. Self regulation allows learners to be active participants in their own learning. They are able to select and structure appropriate learning experiences, choose the form and amount of instruction they need, develop and use a variety of learning strategies and use metacognition to control the learning process (Zimmerman, 1989b).

Self regulation in learning is associated with a deep approach to learning (Biggs, 1987; Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle, 1984; and Ramsden, 1985). A deep approach to learning is characterised by conceptions of learning which emphasise the importance of a personal world view and see the task of learning as the understanding of principles rather than the rote learning of unrelated bits of largely meaningless information. Learners who adopt a deep approach to learning express a high level of interest in, and satisfaction with, their learning. They are more likely to see new learning as a challenge rather than as an externally imposed burden.

Self regulated learning has been linked by a number of researchers to success in learning (Belmont, Butterfield and Ferretti, 1982; Nickerson, Salter, Shepard and Herrnstein, 1984; Sherman, 1985; Zimmerman, 1989a; Zimmerman and Schunk, 1989). Moreover, self regulation increases the probability of retaining new knowledge and skills and using them effectively in the workplace.

Most importantly, self regulation of learning encourages independence in learners so that they are more likely to continue learning beyond the initial structured learning experience. In short, self regulation in learning facilitates the process of lifelong learning, which is a prerequisite for increasing productivity, improving work quality, and enhancing worker satisfaction.

Encouraging self regulation in learning

How should learning programme designers respond to the need to foster the development of self regulation in adult learners? Should there be special courses devoted to developing appropriate learning strategies especially in terms of self regulation of learning? Indeed, can self regulation be formally taught? Questions such as these are currently being debated. What is emerging from the research and theorising is a general consensus that learners do need help to improve the way they learn; that such help is most effective when it is provided in the context of a particular learning programme rather than in isolation, and that learners are able to become more self regulated in their learning as a result of such intervention (Perry and Downs, 1985; Ramsden, 1985; Sherman, 1985; Weinstein, Goetz and Alexander, 1987; Zimmerman and Schunk, 1989).

It is clear from the experiences of those working to encourage more effective learning that there is no prescriptive set of rules which can be applied to the design of learning experiences to maximise learning and transfer. Instead, it is more appropriate to focus on the principles underlying effective learning and use those to develop learning activities which facilitate self regulation in learners. To this end, it is important to stress the need to teach self regulation in context; to inform learners of the goals of such instruction so that they are active participants in the learning enterprise; and to have an instructor who provides the scaffolding to support the learner's growth towards independent learning. Finally, effective learning is most likely to occur in situations where learners are encouraged to learn from one another and to co-operate to fulfil learning goals.

The instructor's role

Instructors can encourage the development of effective learning by including in the design of their instructional programmes an emphasis on the process of learning, on learning strategies appropriate to the content area being presented, on the importance of metacognition in the control of learning, and on specific skills in self management.

A focus on the process of learning provides learners with an opportunity and context to think about their own learning in terms of goals, strengths and weaknesses, personal learning style preferences and the learning strategies which they typically use. In addition, discussions with others about the nature of learning and about concepts such as deep learning, can be used to help adults reflect on their own ideas about such issues. In this way, the adult learner can begin to articulate a personal theory of learning and compare it to other people's ideas. The emphasis on the processes involved in learning allows learners to identify their personal approach to learning and to reflect on how best to meet their individual learning goals.

Effective learners will develop a repertoire of learning strategies and will use strategies flexibly in response to the particular requirements of the learning task. The role of the instructor therefore, is to identify strategies which may be helpful in achieving different goals and, wherever possible, to model their use in context. The instructor should also provide opportunities for learners to try out different strategies in order to find those which work for them. The emphasis in all strategy training must be on choice rather than on the prescriptive use of a "bag of tricks". It is essential that learners not only know various strategies, for example, how to vary their reading depending on the material to be read and its purpose, but also know when to use a particular strategy and be able to judge whether it works for them personally.

lnstructors can help learners to control their own learning by explicitly instructing metacognitive skills. They can do this by building into their instructional material a strong emphasis on the importance of planning learning tasks, on monitoring progress and on evaluating outcomes. Planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning gives learners the chance to assume more responsibility for the learning enterprise and to take control of the learning experience. This, in turn, leads to positive feelings about themselves as learners as well as about the learning activity itself. Learners who have a positive self concept and who value and enjoy learning are more able to benefit from learning experiences, and more likely to seek further learning opportunities in the future.

Self regulation requires not only control over the cognitive aspects of learning, but also over affective factors. A positive attitude towards the learning task and motivation to expend the effort needed to achieve learning goals are both essential for successful learning. In order to encourage learners to be positive about learning, the instructor needs to stress the value and relevance of the material learners are being asked to master. This is best done by linking all learning to the learners' own experiences and stressing the role of new knowledge and skill in meeting each learner's needs. Instructors can enhance motivation by maximising opportunities for learners to experience success in learning. Moreover, learners who are encouraged to take charge of their learning usually respond by becoming more involved in the learning process, both in terms of time and effort (McCombs, 1982).


Adults facing learning challenges often need assistance to learn more effectively. They can best be helped to become effective learners by being encouraged to adopt a self regulated approach to learning. Instructors should keep in mind the need to build into their programmes opportunities for adults to develop the strategies necessary to achieve self regulation. This is not a difficult task. It only requires that instructors use the insights we have gained about how adults learn and apply these in planning their instruction. Instructors should be guided by the material they are teaching and by the individual needs of learners in deciding how to facilitate self regulation.

Open learning aims to provide flexible learning programmes which meet the needs of adults in the workforce. This goal will only be achieved if programme designers go beyond content, the what of learning, and include a focus on the process, the how of learning. The consequences of such a shift in thinking will be more independent, effective learners who can apply what they have learned to solve real life problems and who continue a lifelong process of learning.


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Zimmerman, B.J. (1989b). Models of self-regulated learning and academic achievement. In B.J. Zimmerman and D.H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement. (pp. 1-25). New York: Springer-Verlag.

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Author: Alex Radloff teaches Educational Psychology at both the under and post graduate levels. She specialises in adult learning with a strong emphasis on teaching and research which is student centred. Her current research interests include the development of self regulation in learners and student learning strategies, in particular writing and note taking.

Please cite as: Radloff, A. (1990). For successful open learning, train for self regulation. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 277-282. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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