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Education Theory Made Practical – Volume 4, Part 8: Self Regulated Learning Theory

For the fourth year, we are collaborating with the ALiEM Faculty Incubator Program to serialize another volume of Educational Theory made Practical. The Faculty Incubator program a year-long professional development program for educators, which enrolls members into a small, 30-person, mentored digital community of practice (you can learn more here); and, as part of the program, teams of 2-3 participants author a primer on a key education theory, practically linking the abstract to practical scenarios.  

They have published their first and second e-book compendium of this blog series and you can find the Volume 3 posts here (the e-book is in progress!) As with the previous iterations, final versions of each primer will be complied into a free eBook to be shared with the health professions education community. 


Your Mission if you Choose to Accept it:

The ALiEM Faculty Incubator Program would like to invite you to peer review each post. Using your comments, they will refine each primer. No suggestion is too big or small – they want to know what was missed or misrepresented. Whether you notice a spelling or grammatical mistake, or want to suggest a preferred case scenario that better demonstrates the theory, they welcome all feedback! (Note: The blog posts themselves will remain unchanged.)

This is the eighth post of Volume 4!  You can find the previous posts here: Cognitive Load Theory; Epstein’s Mindful Practitioner; Joplin’s Five-stage Model of Experiential Learning; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; Miller’s Pyramid; Multiple Resource Theory; and Prototype Theory.

Self Regulated Learning Theory

Authors: Annahieta Kalantari (@akkalantari); Eric Lee (@EricLeeMD);
David Zodda (

Main Authors or Originators: Barry J Zimmerman Ph.D, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, City University of New York

Other important authors or works:

Part 1: The Hook

Melissa is a new emergency medicine intern. She was one of the highest ranked candidates on her residency’s match list. Her medical school grades and evaluations were excellent. She excelled during her medical student audition rotation and is well liked by faculty and staff. However, since starting residency, Melissa seems to struggle with regard to her general performance. After some critical shift evaluations, her residency director meets with her. In the meeting, she reveals that she is having a hard time figuring out how to be a good doctor.

When asked what abilities and characteristics make a good doctor, Melissa has a hard time coming up with specific attributes. She states that learning was easier in medical school as she was able to monitor her success through her performance on regular quizzes and exams. Now, in residency, there are no grades and the expectations are higher. She wants to step up and succeed but she is not sure where to start.

We can all relate to the difficulties Melissa is facing. Many of us can also relate to the challenges her residency director faces as she/he works to help Melissa achieve her goals. In this AliEM segment, we will take a look at education theory and take a deep dive into the key elements of self regulated learning. We will discuss how self regulated learning techniques can be utilized by both residents and educators to achieve their academic goals.

Part 2: The Meat


Self regulated learning theory is the process by which learners modulate affective, cognitive, and behavior processes throughout a learning experience to reach a desired level of achievement.1 It was introduced by Zimmerman in 1989 as an integrated theory that addressed the interaction of cognitive, motivational and contextual factors.2 It is made up of three basic components: regulatory agents, regulatory mechanisms and regulatory appraisals.1 Each of these components are described in detail below.


Self regulated learning theory is often confused with metacognition and self directed learning. Metacognition was first introduced by Flavell and described as thinking about one’s own thinking. Although this is an essential component of self regulated theory3, it differs in that self regulated theory incorporates knowledge of cognition in addition to self regulatory mechanisms and self efficacy. Moreover, self regulated learning theory differs from self directed learning because in self regulated learning, instructors provide a scaffolding and guidance for learning. In self directed learning, the process is entirely learner independent.2

Regulatory agents

The first stage of self regulated learning is the planning phase. This is primarily done by setting goals. Goal setting is most effective when they are specific, individuals are committed to reach them, individuals possess task knowledge and individuals receive feedback on goal progress.1 In Melissa’s case, her medical school goal was to score well on exams. She was able to develop study plans, sustain motivation, and assess her progress in achieving goals with each exam. Her residency goal is to be a good doctor. This is not specific enough. Because it lacks specificity, she is unable to develop an effective learning plan and is unable to assess her progress effectively.

Regulatory mechanisms

Regulatory mechanisms are under the control of the learner and are the crux of self regulated learning. They are:

As learners engage in goal achievement, self efficacy will redirect which regulatory mechanisms should be incorporated or require adjusting.1

Regulatory appraisals

Regulatory appraisals involve determining where a learner is in the goal achieving process and identifying which factors are contributing or preventing goal achievement.

There are 3 main components of regulatory appraisal.

Modern takes or advances

The emergence of FOAMed and digital resources have the potential to greatly contribute to self-regulated learning theory. Traditionally, learners read through textbooks and deciphered what was relevant and essential to learning. Blogs and podcasts have already curated that which is essential. Online testing resources allow learners to independently assess their medical knowledge progress as well. What FOAMed cannot provide are the essential steps of the planning phase but this can be done with academic coaching.

Academic coaching is a process where a learner meets regularly with a faculty member to create goals, develop learning strategies and further develop professional identity.(x) The goals should be consistent with the S.M.A.R.T format: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Coaching will allow the learner to reflect and develop SMART goals. Once these goals have been created, FOAMed and online resources can be utilized for regulatory mechanisms and regulatory appraisals.

Coaching can also guide the learner’s selected resources. For example, as a novice learner, Melissa may not know which resources to utilize to further her learning. Her coach can provide her with a list of relevant resources that align with her level of training. She will continue to meet with her coach and appraise her progress. As she successfully achieves set goals, she and her coach can gradually increase the complexity of her learning goals and her coach can provide more advanced FOAMed resources.

Other examples of where this theory might apply in both the classroom & clinical setting

The clinical setting is a new frontier for many medical students and residents as they transition from tests to clinical performance. Those who came from a problem-based learning curriculum have been shown to use more self-regulated learning skills in their clinical performance.8

Annotated Bibliography of Key Papers

Sitzmann T, Ely K. A Meta-Analysis of Self-Regulated Learning in Work-Related Training and Educational Attainment: What We Know and Where We Need to Go. Psychological Bulletin. 2011;137(3):421-442.1
This paper provides an overview of our current understanding of self regulated learning and cites important research studies in the field.

Zimmerman, Barry J (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology. 81 (3): 329–339.5
An early originator of self regulated learning, Zimmerman introduces the self regulatory processes of learners that is central to the theory.

Cho, K. K., Marjadi, B., Langendyk, V., & Hu, W. (2017). The self-regulated learning of medical students in the clinical environment — a scoping review. BMC Medical Education, 17(1), 112.9
This paper reviewed literature specifically focused on self regulated learning in medical students adapting to the clinical environment. It identifies patterns in their self regulated learning during different stages of their education.


It is essential to stress that self regulated learning is not an entirely learner independent process. This learning theory requires an instructor to help build foundational elements required for success.

Novices and experts view their learning in different ways. It is more difficult for novices than experts to engage in self-regulated learning because novices are more reliant on external feedback and direction at the beginning of their training.7 Self-regulated learning may be harder to develop in interns as opposed to senior residents.

This can be overcome with appropriate coaching and guidance. With appropriate guidance, a learner can set goals that are appropriate to his/her level of training. Educating the learner about the different regulatory mechanisms will assist them with goal achievement. Utilizing an inquiry and advocacy framework will assist the learner in developing the skills of self reflection that are required for regulatory appraisal.

Part 3: The Denouement

Melissa is an emergency medicine intern struggling to achieve her goal of becoming a good doctor. She is smart and motivated and recognizes that she needs to specify exactly what she means by becoming a good doctor. Her residency director introduces her to the educational theory of self-regulated learning in an effort to help Melissa achieve her professional goals.

Together, Melissa and her residency director develop an action plan focusing on three main academic areas: medical knowledge, patient care, and professionalism. Melissa develops a self-study plan composed of peer-reviewed FOAM resources and weekly question bank expectations. Self-study sessions take place during protected time in the hospital library to reduce distractions and include a mechanism for regular performance monitoring by her residency director.

Help seeking, motivation, planning, persistence, goal setting, and environmental structuring are all key elements of the self-regulated learning strategy. Baked into Melissa’s action plan are self-regulatory appraisals such as scheduled performance monitoring by her residency director. To further enhance her learning, Melissa also chooses to include regular self-evaluation via personal journaling, social media posting, and self-reflection.

Fast forward just a few months later and Melissa is excelling in her intern year. Her weekly quiz score leads her class. Her shift cards continue to rack up positive comments on patient care and professionalism. Self-regulated learning has made a real difference in Melissa’s development and success. As she gains more experience and insight, she will be able to independently set new goals, develop plans, determine progress, and titrate adjustments in her learning.

Don’t miss the ninth post in the series, coming out Tuesday, April 14, 2020!



1. Sitzmann T, Ely K. A Meta-Analysis of Self-Regulated Learning in Work-Related Training and Educational Attainment: What We Know and Where We Need to Go. Psychological Bulletin. 2011;137(3):421-442.

2. Lajoie S. Metacognition, Self Regulation and self-regulated learning: A rose by any other Name? Educ Psychol Rev. 2008;20:469-475.

3. Jeong J, Frye D. Self-regulated learning: Is understanding learning a first step? Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2019.

4. Pintrich P, DeGroot E. Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1990;82(1):33-40.

5. Zimmerman, Barry J (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology. 81 (3): 329–339.

6. Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E. D. (2011). Encouraging self-regulated learning in the classroom: A review of the literature. Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC).

7. Deiorio NM, Carney PA, Kahl LE, Bonura EM, Juve AM. Coaching: a new model for academic and career achievement. Med Educ Online. 2016;21:10.3402/meo.v21.33480

8. Zimmerman, B.J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41 (2), 64-70.

9. Cho, K. K., Marjadi, B., Langendyk, V., & Hu, W. (2017). The self-regulated learning of medical students in the clinical environment — a scoping review. BMC Medical Education, 17(1), 112.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. For more details on our site disclaimers, please see our ‘About’ page


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