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Enhancing Self-Regulation for the Online Learner

Research has shown that key variables for success in an online course include motivation (e.g., goal orientation, self-efficacy), utilizing learning strategies (e.g., metacognitive strategies), and resource management (e.g., time management, help seeking) (Cho & Kim, 2013). While some students may seem to possess more of these skills than others (for example, those who have previous experience with online learning tend to have enhanced self-regulatory skills), it is important to realize that how we design and teach an online course can strongly influence self-regulation  (Holcomb, King, & Brown, 2004).

How do we define self-regulation?

Self-regulation applies to a wide range of life experiences; self-regulatory skills are used in everyday life when we set an alarm clock to ensure that we wake up on time, or when we distract ourselves from a tempting treat in order to get two treats later, like in the famed marshmallow study in which kids could either get one marshmallow immediately, or wait 20 minutes and get two marshmallows (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Raskoff Zeiss, 1972). Self-regulation is defined as “how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals and live up to standards” (Baumeister and Vohs, 2004, p. 500). Self-regulation is a learned behavior that includes multiple skills: “(a) setting specific proximal goals for oneself, (b) adopting powerful strategies for attaining the goals, (c) monitoring one’s performance selectively for signs of progress, (d) restructuring one’s physical and social context to make it compatible with one’s goals, (e) managing one’s time use efficiently, (f) self-evaluating one’s methods, (g) attributing causation to results, and (h) adapting future methods” (Zimmerman, 2002).

Why is self-regulation important?

  • Students who continually improve their learning methods and other self-regulatory skills “are not only more likely to succeed academically but to view their futures optimistically” (Zimmerman, 2002)
  • Online students’ lack of self-regulated learning skills is a significant reason for learning concerns (Schott et al., 2003) and high dropout rates (Lee & Choi, 2011)
  • Self-regulation is not only reflected in students’ interaction with the content, but also their interaction with the instructor and other students
  • The research continually points to the importance of strong instructor support in the online environment. One study, for example, found that students’ “perceived instructor support, instructors’ scaffolding to promote interaction, and mutual respect” led to improved student motivation and engagement (Ryan & Patrick, 2001)

Consider these tips to help students regulate their learning:

  • Design assignments that include authentic or real-life problems; these enhance intrinsic motivation, which leads to larger gains in self-regulatory skills (Cho & Shen, 2013)
  • Prepare students for interaction by providing detailed guidelines, e.g., what exactly they should discuss in the Discussion Board, how many sentences they should include, whether or not they should use APA format for citations, etc.
  • Provide models of assignments and sample Discussion Board postings so students know how to meet requirements
  • Have students review the rubric or assignment guidelines thoroughly
  • Have students re-do the same/similar problems to those they missed and explain the proper procedure for reaching the correct answer after receiving instructor feedback 
  • Have students reflect on a graded exam by answering questions such as:
    • How do you feel about your grade? Were you surprised?
    • How did you study? Did you study enough?
    • Why did you lose points? Any patterns?
    • What will you do differently to prepare next time? (Nelson, 2014)
  • Be consistent: have assignments due on the same day each week, and avoid using too many different technology tools for major projects
  • Let students know your response time for email, grades, etc.
  • Include some method of self-quizzing within each unit—this allows students to reflect on their own learning (MarylandOnline, 2016)
  • Adjust Moodle settings so students receive an email after you have provided grades/feedback
  • Create a calendar in Moodle so students can have a visual of when assignments are due
  • Send weekly email updates that recap key concepts from the previous week and include reminders for the upcoming week
  • Add Completion Tracking in each week’s lesson and course projects—this will let the student see a green check when a module or unit has been completed


Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Self-regulation. In C. Peterson & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (pp. 499–516). Washington, DC/New York: American Psychological Association/Oxford Press.  

Cho, M. H., & Kim, B. J. (2013). Students’ self-regulation for interaction with others in online learning environments. The Internet and Higher Education,17, 69-75.

Cho, M., & Shen, D. (2013). Self-regulation in online learning. Distance Education, 34(3), 290-301.

Holcomb, L. B., King, F. B., & Brown, S. W. (2004). Student traits and attributes contributing to success in online courses: Evaluation of university online courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 2(3) Retrieved from PDF/2.3.4.pdf.

Lee, Y., & Choi, J. (2011). A review of online course dropout research: Implications for practice and future research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59, 593–618.

MarylandOnline. (2016). Quality Matters rubric standards, fifth edition. Retrieved from MarylandOnline, Inc. website   

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218. doi:10.1037/h0032198

Nelson, D. (2014). Developing self-regulated learning: For success in the classroom and for lifelong learning. IDIG Presentation.

Nilson, L. (2013). What is self-regulated learning and how does it enhance learning? Chapter 1 in Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Retrieved from:  

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents’ motivation and engagement during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 437–460.

Schott, M., Chernish, W., Dooley, K. E., & Lindner, J. R. (2003). Innovations in distance learning program development and delivery. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(2).

Zimmerman, B. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner. Theory Into Practice, 41(2)  DOI: 10.1207/s15430421tip4102_1 Stable link for NCSU