Friday, January 18, 2019
In my last post, I expanded on my claim that blanket policies against external sources of learning are unwise. I focused on how those policies undermine students’ metacognition by limiting the resources available to eliminate the “unknown unknowns.” In this post, I will continue my critique by focusing on “self-regulated learning” and “autonomy support.”
Self-regulated learning and autonomy support are both positively correlated with successful learning. Therefore, any educational practice that undermines these concepts will also undermine learning and, thus, academic success. What are these important concepts?
Self-regulated learning involves more than just what its name implies. While metacognition focuses on whether a student monitors what they learned, self-regulated learning deals with whether the student monitors and tweaks how they learned. Experts on SRL describe three stages of the process: forethought, performance, and self-reflection. In the first stage, the learner sets goals and considers strategic plans to attain those goals. In the second, the learner sets out on the tasks identified in the first stage and monitors her focus and adherence to the strategies. In the final phase, the learner evaluates whether she met the learning goals, determines the cause of attaining or not attaining the goal, and then restructures her original plan based on this causal attribution so as to improve the learning cycle and provide better results. There is a world of difference between the learner who says “I did poorly on my first midterm because I’m not good at torts” and the learner who says “I did poorly on my first midterm because I studied wrong.”
Autonomy support is a subset of self-determination theory, whose focus is to determine the necessary conditions for optimal motivation and, in turn, optimal performance. SDT’s first precept is that social environment matters in learning. This “social environment” includes actions by instructors. This means nothing more than that instructors can influence students’ success. This can occur when a student perceives a high degree of autonomy support, i.e., an environment in which instructors support the learner’s ownership of learning. Autonomy supportive environments conduce to powerful “intrinsic motivation,” while controlled learning environments conduce to weaker “extrinsic motivation.” As one study put it:
"[A]n individual in a position of authority (e.g., an instructor) takes the other’s (e.g., a student’s) perspective, acknowledges the other’s feelings, and provides the other with pertinent information and opportunities for choice, while minimizing the use of pressures and demands. An autonomy-supportive teacher might, for example, provide students with necessary information while encouraging them to use the information in solving a problem in their own way. In contrast, an authority who is controlling pressures others to behave in particular ways, either through coercive or seductive techniques that generally include implicit or explicit rewards or punishments.” (Black & Deci, 2000)
Importantly, heightened levels of perceived autonomy support are correlated with autonomous self-regulation. Self-regulation, in turn, is correlated with improved academic performance. Therefore, if we undermine perceived autonomy support by using blanket prohibitions against extrinsic materials, we make it less likely that students will self-regulate their learning. If we make it less likely that students will self-regulate, they will not learn optimally. If they do not learn optimally, their performance in law school, the bar exam, and in practice will suffer.
In fact, by overly controlling students’ learning autonomy, we undermine the likelihood that they will be good lawyers. We can all agree that a new lawyer who can act autonomously and without a supervisor’s handholding is a more valuable employee and better lawyer than one who needs constant oversight. By controlling students’ learning methods, we inhibit students’ growth into being “self-regulated lawyers,” and we condemn them to a career of second-rate lawyering and perpetual oversight by superiors.
In my next post, I will discuss how bans on external learning sources run afoul of one of the most powerful tools students can use to improve their learning.