A bit depressing: students know about learning strategies — but don’t use them

Last year I translated the great free posters by The Learning Scientists into Dutch. The six posters describe the most effective learning strategies. This study gives us some depressing news: the researchers found that university students do have high levels of knowledge about self-regulated learning strategies, but… many students don’t use them. The researchers suggest that specific training on how and when to use these techniques could help more students to maximize their academic potential, but please I hope you don’t think this means more separate classes on metacognition as Hattie (2012) states that to be effective you need to practice within the context of what needs to be learnt and you’d better use tasks from the same domain as the subject(s) that are being dealt with.

From the press release:

Many university students don’t use common learning strategies, despite knowing that they exist, finds a study in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. Specific training on how and when to use learning strategies could help more students to maximize their academic potential.

The first year in university is a steep learning curve for many students. Living away from home, managing finances and balancing socializing with classwork are all new challenges. Another big change is planning and organizing their own learning, including dealing with various forms of academic assessment, from multiple-choice exams to essays.

New students typically work out their own strategies for learning, often through trial and error. However, strategies to prepare for one type of test or assignment may not work for another. As a result, students may find themselves underprepared and struggling. Even post-graduate students can encounter new challenges, such as writing a Master’s thesis, that might require different learning techniques.

Self-regulated learning (SRL) strategies are a very effective way for students to maximize their academic potential, and considered essential for academic success by educational researchers. “SRL refers to evaluating, planning, and executing your own learning,” says Nora Foerst of the University of Vienna. “SRL includes many different learning strategies, such as planning your approach, structuring your learning content, rewarding yourself after accomplishing a goal or making realistic demands to avoid frustration.”

Previous studies found that many students know about common SRL strategies. However, researchers are less sure how often students actually use the techniques, whether they can use them effectively, and whether they know which techniques are most appropriate in specific learning situations.

These unknowns inspired Foerst and her colleagues to survey students enrolled in Bachelor’s or Master’s programs in Psychology or Economics at the University of Vienna on their learning strategy knowledge and actions. The scientists asked students whether they knew about beneficial SRL strategies for specific learning situations. They also assessed whether the students put the techniques into practice, and if not, why not.

As expected, most students could correctly identify many SRL strategies. However, fewer students actually applied them while studying. In some cases, as many as one-third of the students who correctly identified a technique as beneficial admitted that they didn’t use it in their own learning.

Both Psychology and Economics students showed a similar discrepancy between knowledge and action. Psychology students were slightly better at identifying the strategies, likely because their curriculum included information about SRL techniques.

The survey revealed a variety of reasons for not using self-regulated learning strategies. Many students felt they didn’t have enough time to use the strategies, or were unable to apply them effectively. Some failed to see the benefits of the strategies for specific tasks, or believed that using them would be too much work.

So, how can universities increase the number of students that benefit from self-regulated learning strategies? “We want this study, and future studies, to encourage universities to provide more SRL training for their students,” says Foerst. “Specifically, it appears that students need hands-on training to learn how and when to apply SRL strategies for specific learning situations. In addition, they need help to understand that the techniques could save them time and enhance their learning outcomes.”

Abstract of the study:

University students are supposed to be autonomous learners, able to adapt to an educational environment significantly less guided than school. Entering higher education poses a challenge of self-regulation, in which beginning students are often not prepared with self-regulation strategies needed. Since there are many studies assessing self-regulated learning (SRL) via classical self-reports, we know a lot about how students generally self-assess their SRL strategies. However, SRL and performance do not always correlate highly in these studies. The aim of the present study is to determine whether there are discrepancies between students’ knowledge about SRL and their action in applying adequate SRL strategies in relevant learning situations. We also want to know whether such discrepancies generalize across domains and what the reasons for discrepancies are. The situation-specific Self-Regulated Learning Questionnaire for Action and Knowledge (SRL-QuAK) was used in a sample of 408 psychology and economic sciences students. Descriptive data analysis was conducted to determine potential discrepancies between SRL knowledge and action and differences between the study domains in an explorative way. The reasons for not using SRL-strategies were derived via qualitative content analysis. The results showed that although students had quite advanced knowledge of SRL strategies, they did not put this knowledge into action. This dissonance between SRL knowledge and action was found in both domains. In terms of reasons, students stated that they (a) lacked the time to use SRL strategies, (b) would not benefit from SRL strategies in the given situation, (c) would not be able to put the strategies to use effectively or (d) found it too arduous to use SRL strategies. The implications of these results will be discussed, e.g., the consequences for measures to overcome students’ dissonance between knowledge and action and therefore to promote academic performance and well-being.

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