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Can we improve exam attainment in science through self-regulation?

Written by: Michael Jerstice
11 min read


Throughout my teaching career, I have consistently observed that attitude, rather than baseline data, indicates future success. Whilst some will inevitably struggle more with challenging concepts or a mathematical method, those who persevere tend to benefit. This led me to question whether self-regulated learning could promote improved attainment in science.

A potential to succeed is more likely to be met if one views intelligence as a malleable set of abilities (Dweck, 2012) Following this simple, intuitive ideal, I conducted an initial study utilising Dweck’s self-reported questionnaire, which demonstrated that the attainment at A level of a cohort of 120 6th form students correlated better with their mindset than with the ALIS data supplied by CEM. Obviously, the small size of the year group in comparison with the national cohort, and reliability of a self-reported questionnaire must be questioned, and it is also possible that high attainment contributed to students’ growth mindset, for example; however, this really sparked my curiosity to find out more about the relationship between successful outcomes and positive behaviours.

Further exploration of research into social psychology yielded little in the way of practical advice on how to engender a growth mindset, promote grit or to produce resilient learners ready to take advice on board. All the literature I read pointed back to metacognition. Once I started reading around this, it became clear that metacognition was a facet of a learner’s ability to self-regulate. In the course of the study outlined below, I have attempted to assess whether self-regulation could be improved across a cohort of forty-six Dual Award science students, and whether this would correlate with improvements in attainment.

Defining self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to not only monitor, but control one’s thoughts and actions, encompassing everything from mindset when reflecting on a task to self-efficacy in approaching work. Zimmerman (2002, p.65) states that:

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. Learning is viewed as an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching.

To flesh out this definition and provide more concrete examples of what is quite an abstract concept, we can provide a list of the cognitive, behavioural and motivational strategies which students adopt in order to take control of their progress:

a) Setting specific proximal goals

b) Adopting strategies for attaining goal

c) Monitoring performance selectively

d) Restructuring the physical and social context

e) Managing time effectively

f) Self-evaluating one’s methods

g) Attributing causation to results

h) Adapting future methods (Zimmerman, 2002, p.66).

The attributes listed above are associated with successful learning outcomes (Schunk and Zimmerman, 1994). In order to explore how I could apply this finding in practice, I conducted a year-long intervention with my Year 11 boys to encourage reflection and target-setting following feedback on their Year 10 end-of-year assessments and January mock examinations.

 The Intervention

I based the intervention on Zimmerman’s cyclical model for self-regulating learning (Zimmerman, 2002), dividing the final year of study into two complete cycles. Each three-part cycle involves approaching a task, monitoring progress and then reflecting upon the outcome. Zimmerman’s ideas were introduced to the year group during 4 assemblies, each with a focus on a part of the self-regulatory process timed to coincide with reflecting on Year 10 attainment grades, approaching mock examination preparation, reflecting again on performance and approaching revision for the IGCSE examination period. In between these assemblies, monitoring of progress and target-setting exercises were undertaken, supervised by the classroom science teachers. This took the form of regular reviews of progress against the targets that had been identified at each key junction. Traffic lighting exercises, reviewing targets and evaluating learning strategies were encouraged in collaboration with peers under the supervision of the classroom teacher.

The first phase of the cycle was ‘reflection’, through which attribution theories were introduced. This gave learners an appreciation of how their attitude to outcomes influenced their approach. Highlighting the dangers of internalising success and failure as a reflection of ability and sought to encourage reflection on effective learning strategies and effort (Blackwell et al., 2007). A focus on the formative nature of feedback following examinations encouraged pupils to regard assessment as a guide to improvement, rather than a judgement. At the beginning of Year 11 students were supported in self-evaluating not only their performance throughout Year 10, but also their reaction to this performance. Ideas about defensive and adaptive reactions to both positive and negative results were explored with the group, alongside ideas about what intelligence means, and how it can be developed. This was to ensure that students viewed effort and outcome as linked, which is crucial in encouraging the self-efficacy required by pupils to allocate sufficient effort in the next steps of learning (Bandura, 1989).

Following reflection, a period of planning was encouraged in which target-setting, approach and organisational ideas were discussed. I illustrated how focussing on the process rather than an extrinsic reward such as a grade could be beneficial in achieving mastery of learned outcomes, as demonstrated by Ames (1992), rather than getting blinkered by defining progress as simply performance in examinations. Figure 1 is the handout that was issued, and referred to, at various intervals throughout the process. Students were encouraged to use the questions as prompts. The 3-part cycle is broadly based on the model of self-regulation presented by Zimmerman (2002). A small print out allowed students to put these prompts in a visible space as they revised, such as on the back of their planner.


Figure 1: Handout issued to students to use as a prompt

Figure 1 shows a continuous cycle with three main parts, each with bullet points and connected by an arrow running clockwise. The first part is: "Planning". The bullet points are: "Have you planned your time?", "How motivated are you to achieve your goals?", "What do you hope to get out of these tasks?", and "Do you expect to succeed?". The next part is "Monitoring". The bullet points are: "How effective are your learning strategies?", "Can you spot if they are not working?", "If you are not succeeding, what else could you try?", and "What is your attitude to success and failure?". The third part is "Reflecting". The bullet points are: "What do you feel is the cause of your success and failures?", "What could you have done differently?", and "Do you know what you need to do to improve?".


Monitoring, the final stage of the cycle, was introduced as we approached the January mock examination. I encouraged students to take ownership of the management of their physical environment and time. They were also asked to reflect upon their cognitive processes; self-assessing the effectiveness of their approaches. Through taking responsibility for the management of learning, students would, in theory, know when and how to seek help and develop awareness of the best strategies for success. Ideas taken from Peter’s ‘The Chimp Paradox’ (2012) and Mischell’s ‘Marshmallow test’ (2014) were introduced and discussed in an assembly and an in-lesson workshop to help pupils concentrate on the task-in-hand and allocate sufficient resources. A second cycle of reflecting, planning and monitoring was instigated following the mock examinations set in January, with students supported at each stage by their teachers.

In total, the intervention comprised 4, thirty-five minute periods of teaching time in Year 11. This allowed students to set targets in collaboration with their peers, reflect on two sets of examination results, review targets and discuss what had gone well and badly with their teacher and fellow students. In addition, four assemblies were utilised to introduce theory though presentations and demonstrations. This exposure to social psychology was designed to give a background and a rationale for the target-setting and reflection encouraged in lessons.

Measurement Strategies

In order to measure self-regulatory attitudes, a sample of the year group were asked to take a Likert-scale test based on the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) assessing attributes associated with self-regulation at the beginning and end of the year to provide a baseline score, and before and after comparison. Questions probe cognitive strategy use, self-regulation and self-efficacy by asking students to reflect on their learning, motivation and outcomes. This allowed me to see whether attributes associated with self-regulation improved over the course of the intervention. With a small cohort participating the data yielded was largely qualitatively analysed, utilising trends in response rather than statistical calculations. Students were invited to elaborate on findings in a focus group setting and common themes were recorded.

In order to assess whether academic attainment had improved following the work on self-regulation, progress was measured at key points in their IGCSE science course, the end of Year 10, Year 11 mock examinations and the IGCSE result in the summer. These were comparable to the previous year group according to outcomes in Science in Year 9 and 10 who were also very similar in terms of baseline data and grade expectations according to the data produced for YELLIS (The Year 11 Indicator System).

Results: Can self-regulation be improved?


Figure 2: Improvement in students’ average self-regulation responses

Figure 2 is titled "Self-regulation Responses" and shows a chart with one vertical axis labelled "Self-regulation Score" and ranging from 1 to 7. There are two coloured bars. The blue bar is labelled "Self-regulation Pre test". The orange bar is labelled "Post Test". The orange bar shows a higher score than the blue bar.

Figure 2 shows an improvement in the average response of students (9.3%) in a self-regulation score (1-7) provided by the MSLQ utilised. This does show a difference in many of the attitudes measured and associated with self-regulation following a year-long intervention.  The small sample size (n=35) does, however, mean no statistical testing could be used reliably to judge the significance of this improvement. Other factors could have also resulted in enhanced self-regulatory attitudes, including maturity and proximity to terminal examinations.



Can self-regulation be improved through exposure to ideas?


Figure 3: Attainment plotted against YELLIS data

Figure 3 is titled "Attainment (Y) plotted against Yellis (X) for 2016 and 2017 cohorts" and shows a graph with two axes and two cohorts. The horizontal axis is labelled "Expected IGCSE grade according to YELLIS (DE-A* A*). The vertical axis is labelled "IGCSE Attainment (DE-A* A*). The cohorts are labelled "2017", in blue, and "2016" in orange. A inclining blue dotted line is displayed above an inclining orange dotted  line.

The scatter graph of attainment plotted against expectations from the baseline data provided nationally for middle school students by YELLIS in Figure 3 demonstrates the comparability of the 2016 and 2017 cohorts, and the greater performance at IGCSE level by the 2017 group following the intervention based upon promotion of self-regulation. Whilst the group is too small to run statistical tests and gain a causal link with publishable levels of significance, these results are encouraging. In 2016 many students achieved what was expected of them, however, in 2017 a larger proportion made progress above the anticipated grade as predicted by YELLIS. I am sure there are many possible reasons for this, however, I feel that having observed the group working and discussed their learning strategies, this model for improving student ownership has merit.


A certain degree of irony is apparent in any assertion that self-regulation can be taught. The attributes of the self-regulated learner outlined above do, however, coincide with almost every desirable attribute of a good student. It is therefore important to me as an educator to try all means possible to engender the skillset in my students that will allow them to thrive at school and beyond. The suggestion that it can impact on attainment makes the pursuit of promoting self-regulation to students worth investigating through a longer term and broader study.

Introduction to ideas such as attribution theories, mindset and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989) seemed to resonate with students trying to identify how to learn along with what to learn and the improvement in performance in a self-reported questionnaire at least indicated familiarity with what I want my students to be doing. Practical advice on setting realistic goals and monitoring progress was afforded along with ideas for managing physical environment and delaying gratification in favour of pursuing longer term targets. I am encouraged that this is the case by the outcomes of the study outlined above, but will work harder to improve the measurable outcomes whilst engendering the key ideas below:

  • Zimmerman (2002) says that self-regulation can be taught, improving motivation and attainment, but it is not, by any means, an individual pursuit. Modelling of good practice by a teacher makes a difference in approaching challenges and solving problems (Deemer & Hannich, 2005), this formed the basis of the year-long intervention.
  • Encouraging student ownership of learning is important for goal setting, and motivation towards achieving a goal (Dweck, 2012). Utilising strategies to organise resources such as time and a work space can be crucial in achieving these longer- term goals (Peters 2012, Mitscell,2014). Students were, for these reasons, encouraged to reflect and take ownership of setting targets.
  • Exposure to challenge is important, but a teacher must allow a student to achieve a degree of success (Ames, 1992). A feeling of self-efficacy was promoted through structured feedback, identifying areas where attainment or improvement were evident. This formed part of a continuous feedback loop to inform progress (Black et al, 2003). This was framed to encourage an incremental view of intelligence (Dweck, 2012) where students were asked to move away from thinking about being clever as something that is fixed.

Whilst I cannot prove a causal link attributing the intervention to the outcomes stated above, my observations of a group comparable to previous years approaching terminal examinations were positive, and I will employ the strategies trialled through this study with all groups.



Ames CA (1992) Classrooms, Goals, Structures and Student Motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology 84(2): 61-71.

Bandura A (1989) Regulation of Cognitive Processes Through Perceived Self-Efficacy. Developmental Psychology 25(5): 729-735.

Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B, Wiliam D (2003) Assessment for Learning, Putting it into Practice Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Dweck CS (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential London: Robinson.

Blackwell LS, Trzesniewski KH, Dweck CS (2007) Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development 78: 246–263.

Education Endowment Foundation, Sutton Trust (2014) Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at (accessed December 2015).

Mischel W (2014) Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. London: Penguin.

Peters S (2012) The chimp paradox: The acclaimed mind management Programme to help you achieve success, confidence and happiness. London: Vermilion.

Pintrich PR, Smith DAF, Garcia T and McKeachie WJ (1991) A Manual for the Use of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ). Michigan, National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

Zimmerman BJ (2002) Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview. Theory into Practice 41(2): 64-70.


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