June 16, 2022 | By Louise Yarnall
When college students take courses online, technology is only one of many challenges that they must navigate to successfully engage in and complete a course. During the pandemic, college students reported that they needed to manage distractions, time, motivation, isolation, and confusion around course expectations. Such challenges were magnified for students coming to college from under-resourced K-12 school systems and were reported at higher rates.
Student challenges such as these confirm a longstanding view of educational psychologists and technologists: For students to learn effectively online, they need to develop a collection of mindsets and skills to manage their learning. These include both motivational mindsets, such as confidence, goal setting, and a sense of belonging, and the skills to manage coursework, such as planning how to study, tracking learning progress, seeking help, and reflecting on achievement and next steps. These skills are particularly important in introductory STEM courses that experience high attrition.
While research into these competencies using the umbrella term “self-regulation” has helped to define these mindsets and skills over the past 30 years, it has not adequately examined how conditions of inequity affect learners’ opportunities to successfully refine and transfer these capacities to an academic setting. Further, past research has mostly focused on elementary and secondary learners and not on college students and how postsecondary institutions can adjust their practices to support the advancement of these capacities.
The Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, aims to address these research gaps as part of its 5-year research program. This research seeks to develop a framework that will enable broad-access postsecondary institutions to leverage online technology—along with other tools of teaching, advising, and tutoring—to help diverse students manage their learning in introductory STEM courses. While academic researchers typically refer to these capacities as “self-regulation,” the Collaborative has adopted the term “self-directed learning” in response to discomfort raised by some stakeholders about the cultural connotations of regulation as a form of social control.
Developing an equity framing for self-directed learning
To foreground equity, we have consulted experts in multiple related fields (e.g., self-regulated learning, social justice in education, and cultural pedagogy) and are exploring how students and instructors think about and discuss these topics. We are also taking steps to engage students with the research process and interpretation of findings to ensure that those most affected by the research have a voice.
When instructors support students around self-directed skills, researchers recommend they take what psychologists call a “social constructivist” approach, which means that instruction needs to include both social and technological supports for changing the ways learners think and learn. Taking this approach, the Collaborative will consider the whole college learning ecosystem and is working with faculty on strategies for socializing self-directed mindsets and skills. This will include:
- Discovering and creating culturally relevant approaches to engaging students in self-directed learning strategies
- Co-designing strategies to clarify where and how students will find self-directed learning supports
- Building appreciation of the benefits of helping students to develop and apply self-directed learning mindsets and skills, including providing them with access to specially designed technology tools
- Expanding the opportunities for learners in broad-access institutions to get support for self-regulated learning
In its work, the Collaborative will co-design supports for self-directed learning in STEM classrooms with instructors and instructional designers. Typically, colleges assign the responsibility for such support to student services offices and college orientation courses. The Collaborative aims to integrate such supports into online courses and the instructional practices that faculty use. To develop these classroom-level supports, the Collaborative’s foundational research will:
Build understanding of the context of broad-access institutions: The Collaborative is conducting its work with nine institutions of higher education nationwide, comprising both 2-year colleges and 4-year universities. These institutions serve highly diverse populations of college-going students. In this early stage, the research team is gathering information about how these institutions currently support the development of such mindsets and skills and how they identify their future needs and opportunities for expanding opportunities to learn them.
The Collaborative is centering its work around diverse students’ views of self-directed learning. This includes seeking to understand students’ cultural assets around these mindsets and skills and their ways of talking about them. The Collaborative also is conducting focus groups to find out where and how students have encountered or developed some of these before college. We also aim to understand their personal motivational mindsets around school, learning, and getting a degree. We will document their narratives and stories about those motivations in culturally relevant ways.
Develop strategies and tools for faculty: The Collaborative will approach its work with respect for the challenges that faculty in broad-access institutions face in their day-to-day work. We aim to find easy ways for faculty to support self-directed learning. Past research often focused on one competency in self-regulation. We view the support of such mindsets and skills as unfolding over each academic term by first establishing the motivational foundation and then maintaining momentum by providing support for effective learning strategies. Over the term, faculty may provide fewer direct scaffolds as students gain proficiency in using the tools, mindsets, and skills. We will observe a couple of guidelines for co-designing strategies and tools:
- Being mindful to balance social-based and technology-mediated supports
- Aiming for strategies that may be used in multiple campuses and courses
- Looking for tools that help faculty track their students’ uptake and progress in building self-directed learning habits
How the Collaborative’s Focus on Equity Can Contribute to the Field of Self-Directed Learning
In its work, the Collaborative aims to shine a light on the ways that the most diverse postsecondary institutions in the United States can broaden both faculty understanding of, and student access to, the powerful methods of managing STEM learning offered by self-directed learning research. In developing strategies to support self-directed learning, the Collaborative will contribute to the research literature by drawing from the lived experiences of faculty and students at broad-access institutions.