Exploring the Source of Self-Regulated Learning: The Influence of Internal and External Comparisons

By Miller, Janice Williams | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Source of Self-Regulated Learning: The Influence of Internal and External Comparisons


Miller, Janice Williams, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This study explored the ways in which students become self-regulated learners. High school students (N = 297) were self-administered ACT practice examinations and Bandura's self-regulated learning subscale (from his Multidimensional Scales of Perceived Self-Efficacy) with specific reference to English and mathematics. Path analytic results suggested that these students depended primarily on external comparisons rather than on internal comparisons in determining their self-regulated learning perceptions, a pattern consistent for both female and male students. The strong association between the English and mathematics self-regulated learning components may also provide some insight into the structure of self-regulation among college-bound students in academic settings.

Self-regulated learning capabilities have been linked to motivation and achievement in school settings (Bandura, 1997). Educators have therefore questioned how they might advance perceived self-regulation in the classroom. Research on this issue has traditionally sought to identify the personal attributes and strategies used by effective self-regulated learners (Zimmerman, 1994). For example, Pintrich and De Groot (1990) examined individual differences in a variety of self-regulated learning strategies among students (e.g., rehearsal, persistence, comprehension monitoring). Zimmerman and Martinez-Pons (1988) contrasted strategy use among high- and low-achieving students. Little information, however, is available on how self-regulated learning capability perceptions are formed. Furthermore, due to differences in self-regulated learning across disciplines (VanderStoep, Pintrich, & Fagerlin, 1996), the formation of self-regulated learning capability beliefs may be domain-specific. The current study determined the ways in which students cultivated self-regulated learning capability perceptions in two content domains (English and mathematics) in an effort to increase our understanding of self-regulation.

Theoretically, self-comparison and referential comparison with others are believed to provide standards of contrast or frames of reference in educational environments (Bandura, 1991). Both personal standards and performance knowledge contribute to self or internal comparison. Internal comparison occurs in the classroom when a student infers their ability in one area by comparing their performance in that area (e.g., English) with performance in another area (e.g., mathematics). Referential or external comparison is obtained through the social comparison process. External comparison occurs when students evaluate their own capabilities with respect to the attainments of peer groups in similar academic settings. Although researchers have established that both frames of reference come into play as students determine their academic self-concept (Marsh, 1990), self-concept judgments are not assessments of capability (Bandura, 1991; Pajares & Miller, 1994). In other words, asking students "Can you do math?" differs conceptually from asking them "How well can you do math?" Alternate frames of reference may come into play as students form capability perceptions of self-regulated learning (SRL).

One theoretical model developed to assess the reference comparison process (Marsh , 1986) posits that use of external comparison should produce a substantial positive correlation between English and mathematics achievement (I am smart relative to others), as well as strong positive direct effects for both English achievement on English SRL and mathematics achievement on math SRL. A weak negative direct effect of English achievement on math SRL and mathematics achievement on English SRL would result from an internal comparison process (I am better in English than I am in math). Theoretically, if students use both internal and external comparisons, the positive and negative processes should cancel each other out thereby producing a near-zero correlation between English and math SRL components. …

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