What Is Self-Regulated Learning and Why Is It Important?

After I finished school in 2007 and later graduated from high school in 2012, I thought it was all over. I kind of swore that I’d never touch a textbook again. “Welcome world,” I said, “I’m ready and now I know everything!” Boy was I wrong. I learned the hard way that our complex and rapidly changing world increasingly demands adopting new skills. And what I’ve accumulated as knowledge during my time behind the desk was not even close to what was happening in the real world. Learning, not simply during the years associated with formal schooling, but across the lifespan seemed a must.

Mark Twain famously said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” More than 100 years later, that’s still the case – or at least it should be. We should not, let the material we study now, or years ago when we were in school, satisfy our appetite and our thirst for knowledge.

In our current setting, it’s extremely important to educate yourself and regularly expose yourself to various topics that are not covered by your school, and/or job, curricula. Simply digesting what your teacher shares or what your company is doing is not enough to stay afloat. You need a different point of view. Make unusual connections. Look for inspiration in topics that others might call crazy or insane.

If you’re a student reading this, you probably haven’t yet discovered that the information shared by your teacher is not enough to help you get a nice job or start a business. If you have already dealt with the school bureaucracy, fought your way through countless exams and unusually not useful school practices, and you’re now a proud owner of a Job, congrats! You know how little our school system has given to us. You know, I hope, how little you know and how much is yet to be explored. Especially today, when things constantly change and where, as many modern authors state, “change is the only constant.”

Our complex and rapidly changing world creates a need, demands a need, for self-initiated and self-managed learning.

If you still don’t know how little you know, and how much you need to acquire to get a new job, keep your current one, or completely change directions, in this article, I’m going to share why it’s so damn important to become master of your own learning process. To become a sophisticated learner. To learn how to learn and to keep doing it till your very last day.

What Does Self-Regulated Learning Mean?

Self-regulation in the learning process is commonly related to formal education. We think that becoming better at learning is not for us if we’re not in school. “I graduated with honors. I don’t need to get better at learning,” you might think.

That may be true. I mean, yes, being your teacher’s favorite student is probably a thought that makes you feel all fuzzy and good. But the information you accumulated in school as I just elegantly pointed out, is not enough – it never was – to transform you into a blossoming individual.

A self-regulated learner is a person who is aware of what he’s consuming and actively working towards self-imposed goals to acquire more relevant information. In this case, relevant means things that are closely related to the interests and skills of that person. Or the interests and skills the person wants to acquire. In other words, self-improving, as banal it might sound.

To avoid interpreting what has just been mentioned as something dry and unimaginable, let us give an example:

So, for example, let’s say that you’re a professional photographer. You’re making a living taking pictures. You are good. You have regular clients. Your Instagram profile is widely known in your country. Yet, for how long do you think this will last?

As stated, things are changing. And they are changing fast. Reportedly, video is becoming more and more popular. In this situation, if you want to get to the next level, you probably need to school yourself on shooting and later editing video. Then, probably, you need to figure out how to properly attune your clip to fit across the newly created social media channels. And then, you need to learn all the growth-hack techniques other online entrepreneurs so enthusiastically share on their profiles.

To put it differently, there is always something new to learn. But this is not always obvious. In most situations, we reach a certain level of expertise and we settle. We get comfortable. And the moment we get too cozy with what we know is the moment others get ahead.

Self-regulation means actively monitoring your learning process. Being mindful about how and from where to obtain, and master, new information. Setting goals and motivating yourself to expand your expertise.

Plainly, continuously asking yourself the following: “Is the thing I’m reading, watching right now, helping me get better at X?”

Why is Self-Regulated Learning Important?

To make things even more difficult, if we have to go back to the example of the photographer, the simple realization that one needs to learn new things is not enough to make him better. The person also needs to have a good learning process.

Something we’re not thought in school, sadly.

The school, the system that runs the school, doesn’t do much to teach us how to actually improve our learning skills. It’s presumed that we know how to learn and study. The material is handed to us and we are expected to know what to do with it.

Or as stated in a scientific paper about self-regulated learning, “There is an overwhelming assumption in our educational system that the most important thing to deliver to students is content.”1

Besides sharing what is supposedly thought by teachers as great content, there is also a need to organize and remember that content. And today, in the 21st century, there is also the need to find great content. Since there is so much stuff out there, you need to know how to adequately sort the good from the clickbait-y.

Regrettably, schools are not actively teaching us about these things. We’re given a lecture. A paper with resources. Commonly also some sort of assignment. And that’s it. We need to figure out how to best connect the pieces. But that’s not the worst of it. We’re also not though that these things also need to happen outside school premises – when we now have jobs and families. That after there is no longer a teacher who is monitoring your assignments and actually imposing them on you, that you should take his role and set assignments for yourself.

When we don’t know any of these things, they end in the graph of unknown unknowns.2 Or in other words, things we don’t know exist. Hence, we don’t do them. And since we don’t do them, we never get better at what we do.

Self-regulating your learning process involves creating your own curriculum – being both the teacher and the student. This involves seriously considering what you want to learn and how you need to approach this subject.

What Are The Self-Regulated Learning Fundamentals?

Intuitively, high-achievers know how to approach learning. Or they simply found the best way for them after years of trial and error. Others, in contrast, simply go with the flow and do the most obvious exercise when trying to learn something new: they consume the information in front of them, never actually looking for resources on their own, and hope that some of the facts will stick.

These are not the best strategies, though.

The point of becoming sophisticated as a learner requires knowing how to manage your own learning activities.

It requires planning and the process is guided by metacognition (thinking about thinking). Or in our case, thinking about how to learn better.

thinking about how to learn better
Learning new things is very useful, of course, but the danger is that the act of soaking up new facts without first setting up a process can become a time-wasting activity.

This is a deliberate thought process that one must consider before actually approaching anything new. In simple words, this means that you don’t just open Google and start endlessly browsing articles. You first ask yourself: “What do I want to learn?; Why do I want to learn this?” You set expectations and goals. You consider your weaknesses in the learning process and find resources that are most likely to appeal to your persona.

Instead of relying on the algorithms to show you great content, you approach things strategically – you search for great content based on your goal.

Here are the fundamentals to create your own learning process:

  • Establish a plan and find resources: The first requirement, sort to say, is asking yourself what do you want to learn and why. Then, figure out what sources you’ll use, and how you’ll find them, to learn the desired thing. And finally, set a learning schedule and form a plan that will help you along the way.
  • Monitoring and maintenance of knowledge: This is often overlooked. You can’t expect to remember everything from your first attempt. You should monitor yourself and find gaps in your skills – your processes. Then, find new ways to approach things that are hard for you to understand. Additionally, since often learning something new requires retention of certain facts, writing down the most important things is also a must.
  • Self-reflection and adapting: Getting a good grade in school feels awesome. Launching a product and making sales is amazing. But these things are just outcomes. Often, the results we get are a lot of times based on luck, not always dependent on what we did. That’s why it’s far more important to reflect on what you think you did that get you these results and why.

Now, once we have the fundamentals, let’s expand this further…

How to Best Approach Something New?

To put all of the above into practice, let’s consider another following example:

You just graduated from school. And while you are relieved, you just realized that accounting is not for you. You are much more interested in design. But going back to school is not a feasible option. You don’t have money and asking your parents for another college degree will exhaust your family budget.

What do you do?

You take into consideration the above-mentioned approach and you start to school yourself.

You start with:

1. Establish a Plan and Find Resources

Establish a plan and find resources

What do you want to learn and why?

The “what” here is obvious. You want to learn design. But the “why” is also worth answering. This will guide you along your journey. The answer can be something like this: “I want to learn design because I want to express myself” or “I want to learn designed because I’ve always been interested in art.”

Once you have the answers, we get into even more details:

In this planning stage, you have to additionally ask yourself several other things:

  • What is an equivalent of a good designer?
  • What do I need to learn in order to become a good designer?
  • What resources (blogs, videos, podcasts, courses) I can consume to become good at design?
  • What should be my first step?
  • What should be my second?
  • When exactly will I practice during the day?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you have resources that will help you learn the skill you want, it’s time for the next step:

2. Monitoring and Maintenance of Knowledge

Monitoring and maintenance of knowledge

Things don’t always go smoothly. Your initial process might not be the best one. Or simply, the scheduled hours and the material you’re learning are both not the perfect fit. In this 2nd step, you monitor your learning process and you make adjustments. Also, you make sure to write down the most important things from what you consume.

In a way, you are creating documentation of what you are learning. This will help you in two directions:

  1. By describing what you’ve learned you’ll refine your thinking and dive deeper into a topic than if you just think or converse about it.
  2. You’ll have an easily accessible database of notes that will later help you when you are stuck and when you want to go back to a specific problem.

3. Self-Reflection and Adapting

Self-reflection and adapting

This step is about making adjustments in your overall learning process after a certain work is done. If you already learned the basics of design, and you created a piece of art yourself, it’s time to see how well you did. What’s working? What’s not working? What style of design do you love best?

The answers to these questions will help you make corrections to your overall process.

After evaluating your performance, you should take the time to determine how to modify your strategy in order to achieve higher performance in the future. Also, you consider what you shouldn’t do. Basically, you reflect on the outcome and you go back to the planning phase. The cycle is then repeated after each new design.

Final Thoughts

Self-regulation in learning means that we are both the teacher and the student.

We are the teacher because we create our own agenda, evaluate our approach, and later our performance. A student, because we are the ones learning. We basically fully control our learning environment.

This is a continuous process. There is never an endpoint. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that we should be always learning something new. We should schedule time for learning every day. And also, make time to practice what we’ve learned. You can read a mountain of books, but if you only read, you will surely miss making any meaningful improvements in your life. Learning without doing can be a very unproductive approach.

But the other thing is also true. You cannot excel without studying effectively. So, the two – studying and doing – should be both present.3

One chance to actually put on, fasten, and inflate an inflatable life vest would be of more value – in terms of the likelihood that one could actually perform that procedure correctly in an emergency – than the multitude of times any frequent flier has sat on an airplane and been shown the process by a flight attendant.” Robert Bjork

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  1. Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions – Annual Reviews.
  2. There are known knowns – WIKI.
  3. To stay committed. To continue learning. It’s also helpful to learn the concept of self-regulation. See my post on the subject here: Self-Regulation Strategies.
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