How to Help Students Internally Regulate Their Learning: Podcast #27

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I’m excited to share with you a recent conversation I had with Dr. Amber Strain, the Senior Director of Cognitive Science at Decooda. Amber is an accomplished research scientist who has expertise in cognitive and experimental psychology. She received a Masters Degree in Experimental Psychology from the University of Memphis, and a Ph.D. from the same university with a concentration in Cognitive Psychology. Her areas of expertise include emotion and cognition, quantitative and qualitative research design, experimental research methodology, social media marketing analysis, and statistical modeling.

Dr. Amber Strain

Dr. Amber Strain | Source

Here are a few notes from our discussion…

Tell us a little bit about your background and the research you do.

I’m a Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology. I got my dissertation at the University of Memphis in 2014, and the research I did there was mostly on education and helping learners be more equipped to regulate their cognition, the way they think, their meta cognition (the way they think about how they think), and their emotions as well.

I have a learning disorder, and as I grew up, I began to see how beneficial it would have been to have an adult beside me helping me overcome this challenge. While looking at Ph.D programs later in my life, the ones that looked most interesting were the ones in education — in particular, helping students overcome the emotional barriers and cognitive barriers to learning.

Could you talk a little about what you think students and graduates really need to become healthy adults? To self-regulate and manage their lives, rather than needing someone next to them all the time, even into their twenties?

I feel that in today’s culture, we do a lot of handholding, even in education. There are many things that students need to learn that we are failing to teach them. One of them is that we need to teach students to have a mastery approach instead of a performance approach. Let me explain:

  • Performance approach: ‘Get the best grades’, ‘get the best grade on the test’, ‘learn just what you need to get the good grade and be done.’ This creates a goal of learning for the sake of looking really smart or avoiding looking stupid.
  • Mastery approach: The goal is learning for the sake of learning and getting better. It’s instilling in students a desire to make sure that they understand this as best they can.

One problem with the Performance Approach is what happens when a student makes a bad grade. They immediately feel stupid and feel they didn’t do a good job. With a Mastery Approach, we talk with students about what it means when you gave it your best and still got a C on the test: what can you take away from this; what do you know you really did well on; what can you learn from getting this C that you can make sure you don’t do next time. This makes it an encouraging experience, not a deflating experience.


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One of the things we often say to parents and teachers is: Don’t think prescriptive, think descriptive. This sounds like what you are talking about, correct? 

I think we have a really big temptation to guide students; we don’t want to see them fail. Some of my research is on boredom, and what you find is that for some of these students who don’t do well in class, it’s often because they are bored. There are some bored children who act out, while others just get quiet. The students that are quiet usually go unnoticed, which means you may not notice they are having a problem until they get bad grades. Then we immediately react by helping them do their homework, make sure they write all their assignments down and have the teacher sign off on them, etc. Rather than teaching students how to reengage when they feel bored in class, we just give them another task to do. Originally, they were getting bored doing the tasks in class, and now we are adding more tasks. In response, the students become more disengaged and check out even further.

Let’s go deeper into this subject. I want to talk about self-regulation. Self-regulating is the ability to not need someone else to regulate my behavior or my thinking. Talk about teaching a student to self-regulate.

In academia, it’s about how to teach students to use different strategies:

  • Cognitive strategies: note taking, summarizing what they read, comprehension
  • Metacognitive strategies: judgments of learning, (Ask: After I read this paragraph, did I really understand what it was saying), feeling of knowing (Saying: I feel like I’ve heard this before. I wonder where I learned it.)
  • Emotional regulation: Asking: ‘I’m frustrated. What does that mean? How do I become unfrustrated?’

Unfortunately, what we’ve done in academia is built these tutoring systems that are suppose to teach self-regulation, but where we’re missing the mark is in not showing them how to use these self-regulation techniques when they’re not in front of a computer. What you hear students say after they use these systems is that they wish they could have these tools with them all the time. It seems they are missing the point of the whole system.

Before we started the podcast recording, you talked about the idea of control and how that’s a detriment. I’d like to discuss this for a minute. What is it that teachers and parents really need to do?

Research has shown that there is external locus of control and internal locus of control. There are countless studies that show giving students internal locus of control increases engagement and learning. One study put two classes of students in the same learning scenario, where the students knew they were going to be tested on a subject. In one class, the teacher said, “You have to learn this and you have no choice.” In the other class, the teacher said, “You will be tested on this, but you can choose to learn this or not.” They actually found out that the second class worked harder, spent more time studying, and did better on the test. The first class felt defiant, and felt annoyed, and when they came across an impasse or obstacle to learning, they became frustrating and checked out.

As you think about a parent, teacher, dean or principal listening in, what would be some words of advice you’d give to those who are leading students and wanting to bring out the best in them?

There are a few things I’d tell them:

  • Give up the temptation to control.
  • Focus on taking the time to help students understand the value of what they are learning.
  • Show students they have an advocate by showing concern and care.


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How to Help Students Internally Regulate Their Learning: Podcast #27