Recently we’ve seen more attention paid to self-regulated learning as it pertains to student success, especially for at-risk college students (especially first-year students). At least we are starting to recognize the serious contribution of the student in efforts at retention and learning.

Anyways, I digress. Self-regulated learning (or SRL) involves students evaluating what they know, deciding what they need to learn, choosing strategies to bridge that gap, and then … actually using those strategies. Unfortunately, there seems to be a KAP (knowledge attitude practice) gap that is between students and their best intentions towards success.

I found this dissertation, A Qualitative Inquiry Into the Self-Regulated Learning of First-Semester College Students (Toms, 2013), to be an interesting qualitative examination of the KAP gap of SRL. Toms follows eight first-term students through the semester, documenting their successes and failures, their disillusionment as they fall out of love with subjects, their engagement in the larger campus community, and, of course the SRL strategies the develop and employ in that first term.

Chapter 4 is a little like reading an academic serial novel (as much as any dissertation can be) as we watch these first-term students try to find their footing in college (names changed, of course). If you’ve always wondered what on earth students are doing when they say they’re studying, read this dissertation chapter. It’s enlightening. In this chapter we see a few important glimpses into what might be going wrong between how we think students should be engaging outside the classroom and how they are actually engaging.

Woman in hammock reading book
Young woman reading a book lying in hammock

Students don’t know that they should re-read the syllabus

Most of us spend the first day of class carefully walking through the syllabus with students, but what came out in the interviews was that students rarely take another look at it. Consider this quote from a student in the study (and try not to groan out loud):

“He really wants us to keep up with the syllabus. So We’ll be like ‘What, we had something on the Internet due?” and he’ll be like, ‘Yup, i you keep up with the syllabus, you’ll know that,’ because he won’t mention it. So he expects us to literally look at the syllabus.”

Perhaps there needs to be a follow-up syllabus quiz right after the first major assessment or a syllabus challenge question at the beginning of class 2 months in to the semester. That is probably when students will be most motivated to take advantage of the advice, resources, and help lines provided in those startup materials.

We aren’t teaching them how to learn anymore

The students are coming to rely on the digital platform assignments to be the way they study. When there is not an assignment that helps the student prepare for a larger summative assessment, the students are now floundering to know what to do to prepare. Here are a few quotes from students Toms interviewed:

“It’s kind of hard to forget what you’re doing cause the words keep coming up if you keep getting them wrong. You’ll learn eventually.” -referring to LearnSmart

“by studying, I mean I did my chemistry homework”

“homework is the same thing as studying, essentially”

“We are given WebAssigns due on the day of the test. Everything on the test is on is in the WebAssigns. So I tend to save those for the week in advance [of the test], so I can go over everything again instead of do it as we learn it.”

In academia, we like to say we are producing life-long learners, but I think there’s a danger that we are only preparing very focused crammers now. What happens when these students have to learn something completely on their own and are given no LearnSmarts, no WebAssigns, and no structured assignments to get it done (like when they get a job). Should be interesting.


Toms, M. L. (2013). A Qualitative Inquiry Into the Self-Regulated Learning of First-Semester College Students.ProQuest LLC. 789 East Eisenhower Parkway, PO Box 1346, Ann Arbor, MI 48106.

About Author