Helping international students become better self-regulated learners

Adapting to a new language learning context can be a difficult task for international students. Students’ expectations of classroom experiences and their approach to learning is deeply informed by their home culture, which may differ significantly from the norms of classrooms abroad.

Seeing how international students approach their learning tasks, and how they respond to getting results that are poorer than they expected, caught Dr. Douglas Sewell’s attention. In particular, he was interested to see how these students self-regulate their learning – in other words, how they think and work through their studies as they attempt to become more effective learners.

Self-regulated learning (SRL) – where students plan, enact, and reflect on their actions through the learning process – is a cycle which supports students in taking responsibility and directing their studies. Students who are self-regulated learners use their knowledge of themselves and the task to set, and work to achieve, certain goals. Whether or not they were successful in reaching the outcome they wanted, the SRL process can help students understand what they can change in order to improve their performance in future.


Working with students in the International Foundations Program, Dr. Sewell investigated how these learners self-regulate: How do these students set goals? What do these students attribute their success and failure to? Why might a student not change their behaviour even if they receive poor results?

The study revealed a number of key issues which prevent these students from self-regulating effectively. For example, many students did not create well-defined goals. Without setting clear goals, students cannot plan actions to achieve them, nor monitor and measure their success towards them. This meant the students continued to complete their work as they usually did, rather than changing to more effective approaches.

By not addressing strategies and approaches related to achieving their goals, the students in the study attributed their success and failure to their own effort, or external factors. Almost half of the students stated they were not trying hard enough, while others blamed the material, the teacher, or the test when they received a poor result. Fewer than 2% of the students connected their achievement to their study methods, or the strategies they used to complete the task.

Dr. Sewell identified that these issues are connected with the students’ understanding and internalization of classroom expectations. While they are discussed, modeled, and reinforced by the instructors, some students did not respond to the standards by changing their work or habits. By not adapting to the new context, the students would receive poorer results, but without seeing the connection between their strategies and achievement.

Setting goals

Dr. Sewell is continuing to investigate how instructors can support these students in adapting to the expectations of their programs through becoming more effective self-regulated learners. By considering key criteria and possible strategies, students can better plan and adapt strategies to meet their targets. This will help students to set, monitor, and evaluate quality goals – in order to understand their achievement, and find ways to continue to improve as learners.

See more from Dr. Douglas Sewell on his profile

Connected Citations

Sewell, H. D. (2016). Helping international students adapt to new language learning contexts and expectations. Paper presented at the IATEFL Conference, Birmingham, UK.