Self-Regulation & Metacognition

Take control of your writing processes so you can work smarter not harder. Reflect on your writing processes to overcome rigid, counterproductive behaviors.

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What are Self-Regulation & Metacognition?

Self-regulation, a personality trait, refers to taking control of learning and the writing process oneself.

Metacognition literally means ‘about thinking’. Metacognition involves thinking about thinking—about being self-reflective about your learning and thinking processes. Metacognition is usually considered to include two components:

  1. knowledge of cognitive processes and 
  2. self-regulation of cognitive processes, affect, and behavior.

For example, consider the task of remembering a phone number. You know that it is difficult to remember phone numbers (metacognitive knowledge) so you write it down (metacognitive self-regulation).

Metacognitive Knowledge

Writing is a cognitively challenging endeavor, requiring attention to

  • the content to be conveyed, 
  • the audience and purpose, knowledge about appropriate genres, 
  • organizational demands, 
  • clarity of expression, word choice, 
  • evaluation for multiple criteria during and after drafting, 
  • conventions, and 
  • a host of other considerations. 

Proficient writers have a rich body of knowledge about the cognitive processes involved in writing. Research analyzing the writing processes of more and less proficient writers shows dramatic differences in the strategies used for planning and revising (e.g., Hayes & Flower, 1980; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). When proficient writers plan, they set rhetorical goals based on careful thought about audience and purpose; they have strategies for generating content; and they use knowledge about genres to organize their writing. When they revise, they keep their audience and purpose in mind as they consider whether their text will meet their purposes, evaluating their overall ideas and organization as well as local matters of language and conventions. In contrast, inexperienced writers often engage in minimal planning and revise primarily at the sentence level. 

Research on writing instruction also shows dramatic improvements in writing quality resulting from helping learners develop more sophisticated strategies for planning and revising (e.g., Graham & Perin, 2007). The strategies help students to regulate their writing processes and become more effective writers. You will find information about such writing strategies in the Writing Commons sections on Invention, Organization, Revision. 

What is Self-Regulation?

In addition to developing skills, knowledge, and writing strategies, writers need to learn to organize and self-regulate their efforts. Writing is hard work, so writers need ways to maintain their motivation through the difficulties and uncertainties of composing. They need to set attainable goals, make plans, and evaluate whether their plans are working. In short, they need to take control of their writing processes.  Zimmerman and Schunk (2011, p. 1) defined self-regulated learning and performance as “the processes whereby learners personally activate and sustain cognitions, affects, and behaviors that are systematically oriented toward the attainment of personal goals.”

Theories of self-regulation have been conceptualized in multiple ways (for a thorough review, see the edited volume by Zimmerman & Schunk, 2011). One schema of types of self-regulation based on Zimmerman and Schunk (2011) and writing research with college students (MacArthur, Philippakos, & Ianetta, 2015) includes five categories:

  1. Goal setting. Clear and specific goals can provide direction for writing efforts and motivation when goals are achieved. In writing, goals can focus on aspects of writing (e.g., clear introduction), on effort (e.g., setting a time to work), or on outcomes (e.g., writing 3 pages). To be effective, goals should be clear and measurable, relatively short-term, and realistic. 
  2. Selection and implementation of effective writing strategies. Knowledge of writing strategies has no impact unless writers independently select and use strategies appropriate to the task.
  3. Task management. Writers at all levels of skill need to manage their time, find a place where they can work productively, and manage distractions, both internal and external.
  4. Motivation management. Writers need ways to enhance positive motivation and avoid negative thoughts. All writers need to manage their motivation, but it is especially important for writers with low confidence in their writing skill. 
  5. Progress monitoring and reflection. Reflecting on one’s progress completes the circle that began with setting goals. Evaluation of the strategies used and success in meeting the writing goals contributes to understanding the strategies and building confidence and motivation. It also leads to the next round of goals. 

In summary, like other highly demanding cognitive tasks, writing well requires commitment and practice. Ultimately, other people cannot make you a better writer. Rather, you need to invest in yourself. This requires a strong work ethic and conscientiousness

Resources on Metacognition

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