Flipped learning: Bringing self-regulated learning to the forefront

Flipped learning: Bringing self-regulated learning to the forefront

Note: This post originally appeared at the blog of the Flipped Learning Global Initiative.

There are times when we teachers have moments of clarity about our students, when the big picture comes into view. Although we can be overwhelmed by the parts of conducting a class --- the tests, the homework, the grading --- on good days, we grasp the meaning of what we are doing. And that ultimate meaning isn't merely to get students to get good grades or to pass a final exam. Instead, our job is to look forward into the future and prepare each of our students to be skilled, confident learners who have the abilities and the desire to learn new things throughout their lives.

Lifelong learners come in all shapes and sizes, but they have certain characteristics in common: They think about and plan their learning activities before they engage in them. They monitor what they do when they learn, not only the cognitive processes but also their emotions, behavior, even their physical surroundings. They exert control over their learning, selecting appropriate strategies and tasks without the need for a teacher to tell them what to do, and they make changes when it becomes apparent that what they are doing isn't working as well as it could. And they reflect on what they do when learning something, once the task is over, to analyze whether their choices were effective and how they might do better next time.

The kind of learning that exhibits these skills, attitudes, and behaviors is known as self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learning was first formally studied by psychologists in the 1980's and 1990's. One of the foremost researchers in this area, Barry Zimmerman, described it as follows:

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. Self-regulation refers to self-generated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are oriented to attaining goals (Zimmerman, 2002).

So a self-regulating learner not only has abilities and skills, she has the "meta-ability" to transform her existing abilities into new skills, and she is able to do so under her own power and direction. And this is done in an active way, oriented toward attaining certain end goals that she desires.

Another prominent researcher in self-regulated learning, Paul Pintrich, described self-regulated learning as occupying four areas of regulation (cognition, motivation, behavior, and context) and four phases of regulation, combined into the following grid that shows the kinds of tasks that self-regulating learners engage in (Pintrich, 2004):

Pintrich stages of SRL

A self-regulating learner will traverse most, if not all, of the sixteen activities described in this table in any significant learning task.

Self-regulated learning is an ideal state, one that --- when we have those moments of clarity --- we want all our students to attain, and one that we believe all students can attain eventually. It's on us as teachers to help students make incremental but measurable steps along this journey while we have them in our classes.

How do we do that? I believe it's all about the learning environment we make for students. And I'm convinced that flipped learning is the simplest and most effective way to help students become self-regulating learners.

Consider the alternative. In a traditional class design, students spend valuable class time simply receiving information and getting first contact with new ideas, which overwhelmingly often happens through passive listening to a lecture. Then when it's time for students to do interesting things with this information, they are on their own, away from friends and experts. This sounds more like the opposite of self-regulated learning, where instead of becoming confident and independent, students are instead creating unhealthy dependencies upon other people to tell them what to know, what to do, and how to think.

But in a flipped learning environment, all the pieces are in place to bring self-regulated learning to the forefront. A well-designed flipped learning environment supports self-regulated learning by giving students actual practice with self-regulation every day. Let's consider a few specific ways this can happen:

  • When students in a flipped learning environment are encountering new ideas in their pre-class work, we can coach them on forethought and planning in several ways. For example, we can explicitly list the learning objectives that we have for them in the pre-class activity, so students will have a sense of what they should be learning as they learn. Giving a split list of learning objectives with the pre-class assignment --- one "Basic" that describes what students should learn prior to class, and the other "Advanced" that shows what students will learn during and following class --- can help teach students how to set goals for learning tasks and make good decisions about how to focus their energies in preparing for class (and how not to feel guilty for not learning everything before class).
  • In a flipped learning environment, we have a lot more time and space for active learning tasks than in a traditional environment. Therefore we can ask students not to do more work but go deeper. For example, we can give students questions that ask them to plan out a solution before working it out. We can build in times for the whole class to stop working and talk about their thought processes. We can give groups tasks tha t involve looking back over the work of the group and commenting not only on the correctness of the work but the quality of the group interactions and what they would do differently next time. All of these are prime characteristics of self-regulated learning that fit perfectly in an enhanced time frame for group work.
  • Finally, we can continue the process of self-regulated learning once the class meeting is over, by giving out-of-class work that specifically asks students to engage in self-regulated learning behaviors, especially Pintrich's "Reaction and reflection" stage. For example, we can place out-of-class assignments inside metacognitive wrappers that ask students to reflect, react, and evaluate their work and not just "get it done". In a flipped environment, this can even be done as part of pre-class work by including questions aimed at reflection and reaction on the previous class meeting's work.

Self-regulated learning is what we see when we are clear about what we really want for our students in the long haul. It's no easy task, but our course designs can help, and the flipped learning environment provides possibly the best environment of all to help our students get there.


Pintrich, P. R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 385–407. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com/index/U0N624K3X6253519.pdf

Zimmerman, B. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 64–70. http://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4102_2

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.