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Regulating learning in the secondary classroom – how does theory reflect reality?

Written by: Thomas Harriott
9 min read
Thomas Harriott, Senior Leader, Riddlesdown Collegiate, UK; Doctoral Researcher, University of Cambridge, UK


This article outlines the findings of a study that sought to improve practitioner understanding of how students regulate their learning in classrooms and how this relates to theory. Being able to regulate the learning process is essential for effective learning both inside and outside the classroom (Järvelä and Järvenoja, 2011; Zimmerman, 2008) and even emotional maturity (Järvenoja et al., 2013). Recent attention has been focused on social aspects of regulation in recognition of the classroom as a social space. Effective regulation and the sharing of regulation of learning in social settings are crucial in order to engage in collaboration and to make the most of social learning opportunities (Malmberg et al., 2017). Despite recent studies focusing on the nature of socially shared regulation, empirical studies of this phenomenon in naturalistic settings are scarce. How this occurs and what it looks like is therefore not well understood.

There already exists a range of approaches available to classroom practitioners for the promotion of regulation of student learning, including a review by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2021). In their meta-analysis of published approaches, Dignath and Büttner (2008) conclude that the most effective interventions at secondary level focus on building on students’ strategic approaches, which they have already developed by this point. Across both primary and secondary levels, ‘long-term interventions should provide enough opportunities to practice and automate strategy use in order to facilitate transfer to other learning situations’ (Dignath and Büttner, 2008, p. 258).

For practitioners to effectively implement these approaches and to provide opportunities for practice and automation, a deep understanding of what regulation looks like in the classroom is necessary. A greater understanding and ability to assess regulation as part of classroom practice would allow more effective support for its development and internalisation. My work intended to do exactly that, lifting the lid on student-led regulation of collaborative learning in the classroom.

Regulation of learning

According to Zimmerman (2000, p. 14), self-regulation concerns ‘self-generated thoughts, feelings and actions that are planned and cyclically adapted to the attainment of personal goals’. In short, it is the set of processes that allow the planning, monitoring and evaluation of learning in real time. Development of these competencies is essential for lifelong learning, as it is the set of processes that allow self-direction, perseverance and iterative improvement.

It is generally accepted that regulation of learning comprises at least three phases, which generally fit a preparatory, performance and appraisal framework (Puustinen and Pulkkinen, 2001), but the number of phases, names and sub-processes vary depending on the specific model (Pintrich, 2000; Winne and Hadwin, 1998; Zimmerman and Schunk, 2011). Self-regulated learning is more often than not viewed as a process, frequently represented as a cycle (Figure 1).

Figure 1 shows how regulation is often represented as a cycle and usually fits a preparatory, performance and appraisal framework.

Figure 1: Regulation is often represented as a cycle and usually fits a preparatory, performance and appraisal framework

Regulation of learning and collaboration

The models of regulation most widely seen continue to view regulation as an individual aptitude. In these models, the learner has absolute agency and is distinct from any social structures (Meyer and Turner, 2002; Post et al., 2006). In their historical review, Post et al. note this shortcoming in the early literature on self-regulation, saying that it has ‘tended to focus on the individual learner and does not dispose of the conceptual apparatus fully to take account of learning as social performance’ ( 2006, p. 75). I argue that in the classroom, students cannot be accurately seen as isolated from peer influence and distinct from social structures. Instead, individual learners influence and are influenced by the behaviours of others. This extends to regulation of learning and the regulatory behaviours that make up this process.

Today, there exists a variety of nuanced models of regulation of learning in the literature, some of which have begun to diversify beyond self-regulation and consider regulation in social learning environments such as the classroom and workplaces (e.g. Järvelä and Hadwin, 2013). My work aims to go one step further and to build a picture of how this actually manifests in the classroom and, as such, how it can be observed and responded to. Ultimately, better understanding is required to provide supportive classrooms for the development and practice of student regulation.

The current study

My research was carried out in a secondary school in inner London with a sixth form. It aimed to find out how student-led, shared regulation of learning appeared in the classroom, at a point where expectations for student regulation were high and support was often low. Observations and video recordings of Year 12 students were analysed and coded to build a picture of the regulatory behaviours displayed by individuals and groups while collaborating. Using data across multiple classrooms, patterns and tendencies were recognised in the behaviour of these groups, which in turn led to recommendations for practice.


A coding scheme based on the following dimensions was developed (see Figure 2) and used to code video recording (Harriott, 2021). Inter-rater reliability was tested, with a moderately high agreement found using Fleiss’ kappa (κ=0.666, p=<0.01; 73 per cent agreement). 

Aspect of regulation Types of behaviour Examples
Planning: Preparing for successful learning Goal setting

Role setting

Preparing environment

Planning the process

Clarifying task

‘Finish this question, and then do that one.’

‘You stir and I will read the thermometer.’

‘I need to get some graph paper.’

Monitoring: Assessing progress against goals in real time Commentating/narrating

Reviewing progress

Correcting errors

Providing constructive feedback

Proposing action

‘We’ve done the first two steps.’

‘This should be a three, not a four.’

Controlling: Changing behaviour to improve performance or progress towards goals Changing strategy



Imitating model

‘OK, that isn’t right, I am going to try it a different way.’

‘How do I do this bit?’

Evaluating: Reviewing and evaluating performance or outcome Evaluating outcomes

Evaluating process

Reflecting on purpose/value

‘I think ours is good, we got all of those points.’

‘That was really useful.’

Emotional/motivational: Regulating emotions and motivation during learning Resisting distraction



Managing behaviour

Emotional monitoring

‘Stop it, we need to finish this.’

‘Yes, you can do it!’

‘I’m sad I got this one wrong.’

Disengaged: Disengagement from, or the absence of, effective regulation of learning Losing interest

Distracting others

Being distracted by others


Giving up

‘I give up, this is stupid.’

‘What lesson do we have next?’

Figure 2: The coding scheme used to analyse video recordings of lessons


It is important to note that regulation of learning by students was observed in all recorded classrooms. The nature of this regulation was dynamic and adaptive, and the coded data challenged the idea that regulation of learning can be seen as a cyclical or ordered process, such as that shown in Figure 1. Instead, it appears that regulatory acts of various kinds are deployed when required by individuals to aid the progress of the group towards shared goals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sharing was rarely reciprocal or entirely symmetrical. As with other aspects of collaboration, some individuals took on more responsibility for regulating the learning of the group than others. 

If there was an individual in the group such as a teacher who had more inherent authority, the others in the group would often rely somewhat on the contributions of the more adept regulator. In some cases, the teacher disrupted the opportunity for student-led regulation by planning, monitoring, controlling or evaluating student progress for the group. While sometimes necessary, this was driven by task completion at the expense of the development and practice of the behaviours outlined above. This must be a consideration when creating an environment for shared regulation to emerge and be sustained.

The monitoring behaviours observed were at the centre of successful regulation of learning, used by individuals to identify progress towards shared goals. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong relationship between monitoring behaviours and controlling behaviours – assessment of progress against goals was commonly followed by a change in approach to ensure continued progress. This highlighted a clear area requiring further attention for many of the students involved, as the primary type of controlling behaviour observed was help-seeking, often from the teacher. This deferral to a stronger regulator prevented development of alternative approaches, essential for effective learning in the absence of an expert.


Regulation of learning should be seen as an essential aspect of the learning landscape in social settings. This must be considered in teaching practice to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop their own proficiency, and are leaving the classroom better equipped with knowledge of approaches to regulating their own learning. In essence, responsibility for regulation of learning should shift over time from the teacher to students (Figure 3).



Figure 3 shows a graph with two lines, one labelled "Student", the other labelled "Teacher". The horizontal axis is labelled "Time". The vertical axis is labelled "Regulatory input". The graph shows how input to the regulation of learning should shift over time as students become more able to regulate their learning effectively. The student's regulatory input increases while the teacher's regulatory input decreases.

Figure 3: Input to the regulation of learning should shift over time as students become more able to regulate their learning effectively

In order to foster an environment where student regulation is possible, there are three recommendations for practitioners that emerge from this study: 

  1. The teacher must be able to recognise and respond to regulatory behaviours in real time. Teachers can use the coding scheme above to build an understanding of the regulatory behaviours of their students more fully, mapping behaviours to aspects of regulation of learning. This will allow teachers to recognise areas of strength and areas that require support.
  2. The teacher must be aware of their inherent authority over the regulation of learning in their classroom and provide space for this to be student-led. A balance must be struck between task completion and providing opportunities for students to practise regulation of learning by themselves and their peers.
  3. Students must be explicitly taught appropriate controlling strategies and be given opportunities to practise employing them. Help-seeking, i.e. deferral to the teacher as a regulator, was the most common controlling act in this context. Teachers equipping students with a toolkit of approaches to changing strategy is important to ensure that students can persist when the teacher is not present and to reduce the reliance on expert input.


Limitations and future directions

The sample size was relatively small, with 11 participants recorded in total, and all coded lessons took place in one school. It would be useful to look at whether these findings generalise to other contexts. It would also be useful to use this to build a better picture of factors affecting regulatory behaviours and gain a more in-depth understanding of contextual influences on these behaviours.

The coding scheme developed and used as part of this work aims to be exhaustive, but as such is less accessible for practitioners to apply to their own classrooms. Further work is required to develop tools that can be used in real time by teachers.


In this study, the regulation of learning did not manifest as a cycle, but instead, behaviours were employed as required. Teachers must consider key behaviours in their classroom to balance the need for teacher input with the need for students to practise and build knowledge of regulatory approaches, particularly when it comes to controlling behaviours, i.e. responding to monitoring progress against goals. In doing so, teachers must be aware of their inherent authority over the regulation of learning, in order to balance modelling and guidance with opportunities for student practice and automation. The recommendations outlined in the discussion will support an environment where this is possible, but without a set process, and considering individual differences, there is no set formula for fostering effective regulation. While explicit teaching of regulatory approaches can have an impact, it is crucial that practitioners begin to recognise signs of effective regulation of learning in their own classrooms and respond accordingly.

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