Self-regulation is the educational psychology term for being able to focus one’s thoughts, feelings, or efforts to achieve predetermined goals or complete tasks. It’s an essential skill for anyone to have in their toolbox for efficient and effective learning and goal completion—when was the last time you tuned up this tool? Here are 3 practical ideas to incorporate into your working and learning routines to improve self-regulation.
Self-monitoring occurs when we are aware of what we are doing, how we are feeling, or what we are thinking. Have you ever reached into a bag of chips (or cookies) just to realize they’re already gone? That’s poor self-monitoring. Periodically assessing your paper’s abstract word count and flow is good self-monitoring. One self-monitoring strategy is called a time-sampling measure
: for a specified duration of time students focus on a task, and at the end report whether or not they did indeed focus only on that task. To put this into action, start with 30 or 45 minutes and set a timer. Establish some rules: no Facebook, no checking your phone or email, and no getting up. For the duration of time, focus only on your specified task—homework, reading, writing, etc. Did you make it the full time period? Challenge yourself to see what balance of focus and break time works best for you, such as 45 minutes of work, and then 15 minutes of break.
Self-instruction is establishing stimuli or patterns to prompt self-regulatory behaviors. A simple stimulus could be an alarm set on your phone for each afternoon to remind you to review notes from previous class periods. If your work requires you to learn or perform tasks often, verbalizing each step of the task can improve focus and accuracy. Take a moment to think about it—in what area of your learning or work would you like to improve your ability to stay on task? Talking out loud as you work may be one way to do so. Just make sure to warn your peers; otherwise they may think you’ve gone off the deep end.
Alright, you’ve made it to the third and final recommendation—go ahead and pat yourself on the back! This is called self-reinforcement. It’s the process of reinforcing a desired behavior, often with a positive reward. The trick is to make sure your reinforce is something that you individually enjoy. That pat on the back probably isn’t as enticing as, say, your favorite chocolate bar, or an episode of your favorite TV show. Make sure your reinforcement is on the same “level” as your task (e.g. no watching Grey’s Anatomy
if all you’ve done is ten minutes of studying), and stick to your rules—you don’t get to reward yourself if you have not completed your predetermined task. With some trial-and-error and time, this may boost your academic or work performance in a specific area.
Educational psychology research has seen the efficacy of these practices through the lens of behavioral theory. These three suggestions have the ability to reduce problematic behaviors and boost desired behaviors by increasing our ability to self-regulate—but you don’t have to take my word for it; Barry Zimmerman, a pioneer researcher on self-regulated learning, said “Self-regulation is not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather it is the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills.” The belief is that we can improve this process with practice over time. And the best time to start is now.
Ally Miyazaki is a masters student in the Department of Educational Psychology