Outcomes of a Learning to Learn Course: Implications For Future Research


Myron H. Dembo and Terrance G.  Jakubowski

University of Southern California




            The purpose of this article is to a) describe an educational intervention based on a social cognitive approach to help students become more self-regulated learners, and b) discuss outcomes with implications for future research for developing educational interventions to improve students’ learning and study behaviors.

 The social cognitive approach to self-regulation has been discussed extensively in numerous papers (e.g., Schunk, 2001; Zimmerman, 1989, 1998, 2000); therefore, we will only summarize the basic tenets of the theory. The social cognitive perspective views self-regulation as an interaction of personal, behavioral, and environmental triadic processes (Bandura, 1986). Thus, it focuses not only on behavioral skills in managing one’s environment, but also on the knowledge and sense of efficacy (a personal variable) to employ the skill in relevant contexts. Self-efficacy, defined as a learner’s beliefs about his or her capabilities to learn or perform behaviors at designated levels, is considered a key factor in developing self-regulatory behavior. Research has shown that a person’s sense of efficacy influences choice of tasks, effort, and persistence (Schunk, 1998). Behaviors also influence personal variables. For example, as students solve chemistry problems successfully (behavior), they track their learning progress (personal variable). This perception conveys to them that they are capable of learning. As a result, they raise their sense of efficacy regarding the task.

Zimmerman (1998, 2000) has suggested that self-regulatory processes and accompanying beliefs fall into three cyclical phases: forethought, performance or volitional control, and self-reflection. The forethought phase refers to processes and beliefs that precede efforts to learn and establish the basis for learning. Examples of these processes include goal setting, planning, and numerous self-motivational beliefs such as self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and the extent to which the learner values the task. The performance phase refers to processes that help learners focus on the task and optimize their performance. Examples of these processes include self-control mechanisms (e.g., self-instruction, imagery, and attention focusing) and self-observation processes (e.g., self-recording one’s behavior). The self-reflection phase refers to processes associated with self-observations: self-judgment and self-reactions. Self-judgment involves evaluating one’s performance and ascribing causal meaning to the results, such as whether a poor performance is due to one’s limited ability or to insufficient effort. Self-evaluation refers to comparing information gathered about one’s performance with a standard or goal. That is, answering the question: Did I improve my behavior or performance?  These self-reactions, in turn, influence forethought regarding future efforts—thus completing the self-regulatory cycle.


Description of Learning to Learn Course

The “learning to learn” course at the University of Southern California is

required for a group of entering freshman students (approximately 250 students per year) who have been accepted to the university with either lower SAT scores (M=1070) and/or high school grade-point-averages (M =3.24) (Fall 2000; Spring 2001) than the incoming freshman class average (SAT = 1308; GPA = 3.89). The student population includes student-athletes, art, music, and architecture majors, as well as a large number of undeclared students.

            The course content is based on six components of self-regulatory skills identified by Zimmerman and Risemberg (1997): motives, methods of learning, use of time, control of physical and social environment, and evaluation of one’s performance. The textbooks assigned for the course include: Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success (Dembo, 2000), Procrastination: Why You Do It What To Do About It (Burka  & Yuen, 1983), and How To Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You (Ellis, 1998).

            The course is four- semester credit hours, and involves two hours of lecture and two hours in a laboratory/discussion section format. The entire class, divided into two lecture sessions of 75-100 students, meets for a two- hour lecture led by the professor where principles, concepts, and research findings in cognitive psychology and motivation are presented. In addition, smaller groups of 20-25 students meet once a week for laboratory sections led by graduate teaching assistants. The laboratories attempt to link theory and practice, and enhance application and practice in self-regulated learning.

The course is taught by a tenured faculty member and a part-time clinical psychologist who has taught the course for seven years. Both instructors use a common syllabus but use different quizzes and exams.

            At the beginning of the course, students take the Learning and Study Skills Inventory (LASSI) (Weinstein, Palmer, & Schulte, 1987) and write a short paper analyzing the results of the inventory. They take two exams and 12 quizzes given before each lecture based on the assigned readings for the week. Before each 10-point quiz, the students read the questions and evaluate their efficacy regarding how well they expect to do on the quiz by a rating from 1 (low) to 10 (high) (a procedure recommended by Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach 1996). They complete homework assignments to practice learning strategies in different contexts, and maintain a journal describing their successes and failures in applying the strategies. At the end of the semester, the students write a self-management paper where they identify an academic problem, develop an intervention strategy to help resolve the problem, and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy (see Dembo, 2000 for more information on this assignment).


Course Outcomes


As part of our evaluation of the course, we assessed students’ self-efficacy,   anxiety, and self-regulation on a pre- and post-test questionnaire. Self-efficacy was measured by the 9-item subscale of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1991). Anxiety was measured using the 8-item subscale from the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI) (Weinstein, Palmer, & Schulte, 1987). Finally, self-regulation was measured using 24 items from the Dynamic and Active Learning Inventory (DALI) (Iran-Nejad & Chissom, 1992).

Our self-report data indicate that students in the course experienced a significant decrease in self-regulation and self-efficacy scores, and a significant increase in their anxiety scores from the beginning to the end of the course. The letter grade in the course was not related to any of these changes. Gender was significantly related to the change in self-efficacy during the course with females demonstrating a significant increase in self-efficacy while males demonstrated a decrease in their efficacy scores. Ethnicity was not related to any of the changes.

As you might expect, we were surprised (perhaps a bit shocked!) upon learning about these data. After all, our goal was to enhance students’ sense of efficacy so they would become more self-regulated learners and improve their academic achievement. We began asking questions like: Would the students be better off not taking our course? Are we doing more harm than good?

When we looked at the data more carefully, we first learned that there were significant differences in the evaluation of the two professors teaching the course. We don’t know the extent to which the evaluation also was influenced by the quality of their teaching assistants even though there did not appear to be major differences in the evaluation of the teaching assistants assigned to each professor. More specifically, the difference between the two professors was accentuated in the response to the question: “To what extent did the professor provide students with a valuable learning experience?”

The students taught by the tenured faculty member showed increases in self-regulation and self-efficacy scores, while students in the section taught by the part-time faculty member showed decreases in the two variables. Students in both sections showed an increase in anxiety.

            The mixed evaluation data indicate a need to explore a number of important variables that may have influenced the cognitive and noncognitive outcomes of the course. To begin, our teaching assistants noted a difference in the instruction of the two professors. The tenured faculty member spent more time teaching the specific learning strategies in the course, whereas the part-time professor focused more on the affective dimensions of becoming a more successful student. In addition, the part-time professor’s quizzes and exams were perceived by his students as very difficult because they included very specific information from the textbooks.

             The simplest explanation for the decrease in self-efficacy and self-regulation in one of the sections is that the students identified weaknesses in their learning and study skills that they were not previously aware of, but did not learn the specific strategies necessary to remediate these newly identified deficiencies (outcome of the self-reflection subprocess of self-regulation). More simply stated, the instructor did a poor job in teaching learning strategies such as note-taking, reading comprehension, goal setting, and time management. A second possible explanation regarding instruction is that the students adequately learned new strategies, but had difficulty transferring them to other courses they were taking. Therefore, the students’ may question the usefulness or need to take the course. The problem of transfer of training has been identified as a major problem in teaching learning strategies (see Hattie, Biggs, & Purdie, 1996 and Hofer, Yu, & Pintrich, 1998 for a more detailed discussion of this issue).

Problems in self-regulation and the increase in anxiety for all students also can be related to Zimmerman’s (1998, 2000) discussion of the cyclical phases and subprocesses of self-regulation identified earlier in this paper. Many students enter college with a lack of knowledge of what is needed to be successful (Reisberg, 2000). Participation in the course may help these students develop a more accurate assessment of themselves as students. These changes may be the result of the students developing a more realistic perception of their use of effective and non-effective study skills (resulting in lower self-regulation), a better understanding of the skills necessary to be successful in college, and a more realistic assessment of their perceived ability. The combined knowledge and newly acquired perceptions may be the cause of the lower self-efficacy and higher anxiety scores for some students.

Is it possible for some students in the course to show decreases in self-regulation, self-efficacy and increases in anxiety and still show academic gains? An earlier study of students in the same course (Dembo & Jakubowski, 1999) indicated that students attained higher grade-point-averages as compared to a control group beginning with the third semester after completing the course. Can the decrease in self-efficacy be considered an expected temporary effect? That is to say, after coming to terms with the inadequacy of some of their high school learning and study strategies in the first semester of college, the students gradually begin seeing the advantages of changing some of their behaviors, and begin applying their newly acquired strategies in future semesters. In turn, they come to perceive that they can be successful students and only later increase their sense of efficacy as a learner. Obviously, this assumption needs to be researched. However, anecdotal comments from students two and three semesters after the course provide some support for exploring this scenario.

 Based on the social cognitive perspective, the course emphasizes self-observation and evaluation beginning with the results of the Learning and Study Skills Inventory, and continuing with journals and weekly quizzes. Many students do not do well in the beginning because they underestimate the quality of comprehension needed. One of the homework assignments using these skills asks students to graph their efficacy scores (identified before feedback) and quiz scores over five or more quizzes and explain what the information tells them about their motivation and behavior. Perceptions of self-efficacy can serve as clues to areas where students need to apply greater effort, and from this information, they can decide to change their self-evaluative standards or increase their studying to score better on the weekly quizzes (Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996). Self-regulatory processes are likely to be enhanced when there is a relationship between quiz and efficacy scores. That is, when students make accurate judgments about their performance based on their effort and study strategies.

The following are examples of students’ explanations of the relationship between their efficacy scores and actual quiz scores. Each of the responses indicates possible problems in self-regulatory behavior, especially the self-evaluation and causal attributions that influence the forethought phase of the cyclical process:

My efficacy scores have been lower than my actual scores. This could be because I have no perception of my comprehension of information. But a more logical explanation might be the suggestion that I have a low confidence level when it comes to these things. Perhaps I am just “playing it safe” and don’t want to come off looking too full of myself or arrogant.


My efficacy grades were always lower than my actual grade except on quiz 1. I give myself a lower efficacy rather than a high one so that I don’t expect too much out of myself. That may seem a bit odd, but it helps my confidence when I see that I do better than I had imagined.


The reason why I give myself a 10 for the efficacy rating was because I always try to aim for the highest, even if I do not know the material.


 One girl in class explained her efficacy score strategy to me. She always writes down a 10, convincing herself that she knows the material before she starts taking the quiz. If she put down what she “really” thought she knew, it would be more like a six or a seven. Consistently, she has earned nines on the quizzes. I do not truly think this strategy works. However, I tried it out last week for kicks. I will be curious to see what my score for that test ends up being.


Self-observation, reflection, and evaluation are important components of the course. Is it possible that these processes encourage too much self-criticism for some students (who do not think they need to take the course in the first place) because their learning and study skills have taken them from high school into a major university? They simply may be more entrenched in the way they learn and do not like being reminded that they may have deficient learning and study skills. Most important, observing and monitoring negative aspects of one’s behavior can diminish a person’s motivation to self-regulate these activities (performance and volitional control subprocesses) (Kirschenbaum & Karoly, 1977).

Gender is another variable that should be further investigated. Why was there an increase in self-efficacy scores for females and a decrease in self-efficacy scores for males in the course? It could be argued that since females tend to demonstrate higher anxiety than males (Eccles et al., 2000; Hembree, 1988; Reisberg, 2000), they may find the course more helpful in dealing with their academic concerns leading to higher efficacy scores. However, one would expect a decrease in the females’ anxiety scores rather than an increase.

Another factor that may come into play during self-reflection may be that the increase in anxiety resulting from the identification of new weaknesses may interfere with the cognitive processes necessary to develop the effective self-regulation strategies necessary to overcome the deficiencies. Zimmerman (2000) discusses the possibility of defensive inferences during self-reflection that serve to protect the individual from future dissatisfaction (i.e., helplessness, procrastination, task avoidance, cognitive disengagement, and apathy). Our teaching assistants report numerous examples of these defensive reactions that     Garcia and Pintrich (1994) call self-handicapping strategies because they limit personal development. Some studies have found that males report using more self-handicapping strategies than females (Midgley & Urdan, 1995; Urdan, Midgley, & Anderman, 1998).

In summary, as students self-judge and self-react to the feedback given in class regarding their effectiveness in learning and applying new learning strategies, too many students may be developing self-dissatisfaction that reduces their sense of efficacy and the degree to which they value the need to change their academic behaviors.

To address the reported decrease in self-efficacy and the increase in anxiety (and the resulting decrease in self-regulation), we need to better understand the impact of the instructional activities and demands of our course. We have made some modifications including changing the grading system to allow students to delete a certain number of points at the end of the semester; giving students a better understanding of the quizzes by having some practice quizzes; giving some quizzes at the end of lecture rather than before lectures; providing more opportunities to practice learning strategies in varied settings; and dealing with the issues of transfer by asking students to select a target course to focus more specifically on the use of strategies in different courses.

In conclusion, Zimmerman (2000) has provided a useful model to understand dysfunctions in academic self-regulation. Unfortunately, there is little published research on such problems in the variety of different courses and programs established throughout the country to improve students’ academic performance. We need more evaluation studies of program outcomes along with explanations for why some students fail to improve their sense of efficacy and self-regulatory skills. More specifically, it would be interesting to learn more about the dynamics involved in believing a course has value even though it may make one feel more inadequate about his or her learning! 

Also, more attention should be given to various subgroups of students in the course, especially those who are required to take the course, who do not value it and/or don’t believe it has helped them become more successful learners. Research has indicated that negative attitudes can decrease the probability that students will use more complex learning strategies (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2000). In summary, we need to learn more about the role of affect in teaching students to become more self-regulatory learners.

            We welcome your reactions to this paper as well as learning about your own experiences in attempting to help students become more self-regulatory learners. You can contact Myron Dembo at dembo@usc.edu.






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