Conducting Investigations

Designers Should Provide Support by Promoting Self-Regulated Learning

Steven McGee, Bruce Howard, & Lisa Ann Scott
Copyright 2001.

What is self-regulated learning?

Similar to lifelong learning, which encompasses a wide range of generally applicable knowledge and skills, self-regulated learning simply means that students engage in learning strategies that help them to take charge of their own academic learning. For example, the problem-solving skills that students acquire in independent science research are also useful in other academic areas. Self-regulated learners not only engage in sophisticated learning strategies (e.g., planning, setting goals, monitoring progress, and self-evaluation), but they are also aware of the relative effectiveness of learning strategies for different situations (Zimmerman, 1990).

Howard, McGee, Shia, and Hong (2000) identified five learning strategies that self-regulated learners use in a problem-solving context: (1) Problem representation. They seek to understand the nature of a research question before proceeding with an investigation. (2) Knowledge of cognition. They are aware of the mental operations required to effectively engage in an investigation. (3) Subtask monitoring. They break an investigation into subtasks and actively manage the completion of each one. (4) Evaluation of subtasks. They evaluate the execution of each subtask to ensure that it has been done correctly. (5) Objectivity. They reflect on the relative effectiveness of various learning strategies and take steps to improve them.

Why is promoting self-regulated learning important?

  • Self-regulated learning leads to more effective problem solving.
    When students face complex, unfamiliar tasks, their ability to use self-regulated learning strategies is a significant predictor of problem-solving performance (Schwartz, Andersen, Howard, Hong, & McGee, 1998; Shin, Jonassen, & McGee, in press).
  • Self-regulated learning is particularly useful for low-achieving students.
    Research has shown that low-achieving students who use self-regulated learning strategies are able to perform as well as, or better than, their higher-achieving peers on problem-solving tasks (Howard, McGee, Shia, & Hong, 2001; Swanson, 1990; White & Fredericksen, 1998).

How does a designer promote self-regulated learning?

  • Provide reflective prompts for students during the investigation.
    Guided questioning (King, 1994) and reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984) both teach students a self-questioning learning strategy. In each approach students are provided generic question-stems that prompt them to self-check their understanding of the material. Both lead to greater conceptual understanding, foster comprehension, and build connections with prior knowledge. White and Frederiksen (1998) describe an approach that teaches students to use a reflective assessment learning strategy during investigations. Students are provided with prompts throughout the investigation to help them assess their understanding of the science as well as their ability to do the science, communicate the science, and engage in teamwork. Use of these prompts leads to greater understanding of the inquiry process and more positive attitudes toward science.
  • Strike a balance between action and reflection.
    Students view the task of responding to a series of generic prompts as repetitive and unnecessary (White & Frederiksen, 1998). Developers must exercise creativity and variety in the prompts they use. They should use prompts only at important transition points in the inquiry process. Meanwhile, teachers should be encouraged to help students see the benefit of the reflection initiated by such prompts.


Howard, B. C., McGee, S., Shia, R., & Hong, N. S. (2000, April). Metacognitive self-regulation and problem-solving: Expanding the theory base through factor analysis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. Retrieved from

Howard, B. C., McGee, S., Shia, R., Hong, N. S. (2001, April). The influence of metacognitive self-regulation and ability levels on problem solving. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from

King, A. (1994). Guiding knowledge construction in the classroom: Effects of teaching children how to question and how to explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 338-368.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.

Schwartz, N. H., Andersen, C. A., Howard, B. C., Hong, N., & McGee, S. (1998, April). The influence of configurational knowledge on children's problem-solving performance in a hypermedia environment. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

Shin, N., Jonassen, H. D., & McGee, S. (in press). Predictors of well-structured and ill-structured problem solving in an astronomy simulation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

Swanson, H. L. (1990). Influence of metacognitive knowledge and aptitude on problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(2), 306-314.

White, B. Y., & Frederiksen, J. R. (1998). Inquiry, modeling, and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction, 16(1), 3-118.

Zimmerman, B. J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.

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