A student’s journey: ‘Self-regulation’ paved the way to success

I’m about to meet a runaway success story. Yvonne is a 21-year-old college senior at UC Berkeley.  She’s the first member of her family to ever graduate from high school and attend college, let alone one of the best public universities in the world.  I want to find out how she got to where she is.  If she’s unlocked the secret, then maybe other students can do the same.

When I catch up with Yvonne in Berkeley, I ask how her experience at an Envision high school in San Francisco helped her as a college student. “One word,” Yvonne said. “Revision. We always did multiple drafts at Envision, so when I came to Berkeley, I had internalized a sense of what ‘good enough’ looks like to me. I just had to learn what it meant for others.”

Yvonne’s key project at Envision was her final graduation requirement – a senior portfolio defense. As a 17-year-old, Yvonne had dressed up as if for a job interview, stood in front of a panel of 10 teachers, and presented three of her best pieces of work from her senior year. It was just a small piece of what she’d produced, but all the work she’d done during the year mapped back to the moment when Yvonne completed her presentation to prove she was ready for college.

Envision’s approach develops students as deep thinkers about their own learning, not just recipients of information. Envision’s teachers help students know when their understanding breaks down and what they can do to get back on track. “I’ve received some pretty direct feedback from professors,” Yvonne told me. “But because of Envision, I knew how to receive constructive feedback and what to do with it. I also know when to seek out professors to get more insight into their comments about my work. Then the next time around, I knew what questions to ask the professor and how to structure my essay.”

Researchers call this kind of learning “self-regulation.”  At its core, self-regulation is about becoming a self-reliant learner, which is a student who has developed a set of thoughts, feeling and behaviors to reach his or her goals.

Self-reliant learners like Yvonne are proactive in the efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations, and guided by their own goals and strategies. For example, they might use an arithmetic addition strategy to check the accuracy of solutions to subtraction problems.

But it doesn’t stop there.  As Barry Zimmerman, an educational researcher at the City University of New York, explained, “This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning. Because of their superior motivation and adaptive learning methods, self-regulated students are not only more likely to succeed academically but to view their futures optimistically.”

As I listen to Yvonne talk about her growing confidence, I understood what self-regulation feels like. “[Envision] helped me to be more confident and prepared to participate in my college classes. The defense process was all about figuring out what you need to move forward and where to go to get it.  It gave me confidence to go into classrooms that are predominately filled with Asians and whites and know that I’m intelligent too.”

What does self-regulation look like in practice?  It can be as simple as setting specific goals for oneself, adopting powerful strategies for attaining the goals, and then monitoring one’s performance for signs of progress. It also includes managing one’s time efficiently, and using self-evaluating methods to achieve goals. And when you aren’t getting the results you expect, you’d know to change strategies.

Yvonne spoke to me about another important self-regulation skill — feedback. “Envision helped to know how to receive and give feedback. I had to learn how to deliver the feedback so that people could understand what I’m trying to say; that I value their perspective and see their side of things but I had something to offer them that might improve their work.”

Yvonne is just one student, but her story is a powerful reminder that self-regulation is important for success in college as well as after graduation from high school or college. For our kids to succeed – whether at work, college or as a citizen more broadly – they need to know how to adapt. That means learning how to learn and believing that they can do it, just as Yvonne has.

With the Hewlett Foundation’s support, the California Performance Assessment Coalition is bringing together schools like Envision to develop and test performance assessments like Yvonne’s portfolio defense. The hope is that these assessments will serve as a pathway for students to demonstrate their readiness for college.

Performance assessments can take a variety of forms, but they typically involve students producing a work product that reflects a real-world challenge requiring higher order thinking, evaluation, synthesis, and deductive and inductive reasoning, like proposing a way to solve climate change or developing a method for improving access to potable water in developing counties. Performance assessments, unlike standardized tests, offer a more holistic approach to schooling which requires students to demonstrate understanding. This type of competency-based graduation requirement reinforces California’s alignment of K-12 academic standards, college and career.

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