Self-Regulation of Learning & Health Lab Projects

Drawing on the self-regulation literature, in particular the Theory of Planned Behavior, Goal Systems Theory, Mental Contrasting, Implementation Intentions, Expectancy-Value Theory, etc. our research program has sought to understand how motivational dynamics relate to learning and health outcomes across the phases of goal attainment.

For example, in Don’t Tell Me What to Do (Buzinski & Price, 2015, SAGE Open), we find that simply reflecting on the restrictive properties of a set academic goal was enough to cause an increase in students’ desire to procrastinate. One reason for this shift in desire is that the reactance engendered by a goal’s restrictions renders temptations as “multifinal” means (i.e., means that simultaneously serve two goals).[1] In other words, in the restrictive goal context procrastination not only allows students to avoid work, but it also rebukes a threat to their behavioral freedom. This imbues it with greater “bang for the motivational buck” (Kruglanski, et al. 2002). The health outcome side of our lab is currently testing an intervention that promises to moderate this effect – the establishment of (goal) implementation intentions. Prior research has demonstrated that implementation intentions can buffer associated goals from the motivational pulling effect of accessible alternative goals, such as reactance (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).

We are conducting similar, motivation-centered, investigations in the domains of goal striving (e.g., how the perception of goal progress alters student preferences for means set variance) and subjective fatigue (e.g., how campus norms interact with subjective fatigue to influence the motivation to be non-prejudiced[2], how subjective fatigue influences the value placed on studying-related multifinal means). Consistent with the work on goal setting described above, these projects aim to further unpack the influence of motivation on student learning outcomes.

Self-Regulation Lab Alumni, Matthew Cohen, “I am especially excited about our Social Anxiety and Active Learning Distress project and I think it has important implications for the way that students experience college classrooms. Through our research in this area, we hope to bring awareness to the subset of students who find it difficult to engage in active learning and examine ways of helping these students to persist in classroom settings despite the discomfort that may be associated with this experience.”

Higher education is becoming increasingly social – class sizes are larger than ever, assignments require more peer engagement, and even the standard lecture is (slowly) ceding time to more interactive classroom approaches[3]. This necessitates a better understanding of how social cognition may produce barriers to learning. For example, how does the perception of one’s peers influence student outcomes? In Insidious Assumptions (Buzinski, Clark, Cohen, Buck, & Roberts, 2018, Teaching of Psychology), we find that students misperceive their peers’ studying behavior, and that the extent of this perception error (assumed behavior – actual) is related to students’ own studying. Moreover, it is related to their exam performance, a relationship that is mediated by a sense of relative preparedness. Fortunately, it appears that a brief norm-correcting classroom intervention may eliminate this error and its relationship with exam performance.

Such social comparison effects are particularly likely when people lack unambiguous standards or norms (Festinger, 1954). Students don’t know how much their peers study, and so have to estimate. They also do not know how supported their peers feel while on campus. Their estimations in this domain reflect a classic “better-than-average” effect, wherein students believe their own social support is greater than that of their typical peer. But perhaps more interesting is that a stable minority believe the opposite. That their own social support is less than average. Compared to their better-than-average counterparts, these students report lesser satisfaction with their University, worse adjustment to college life, and lower self-esteem. Thus far, this line of research has been correlational, so my lab is currently testing an experimental, intervention, model of these effects.

Social influences during class are likely to affect all students in some way, but for socially anxious students the very sociality of active learning is what is particularly challenging. We have recently found that students with greater general social anxiety experience significantly more discomfort in active-learning classes – both for internal (e.g., feeling more dread when walking to class) and behavioral (e.g., being more distracted during group discussions) symptoms. Social anxiety differs from the domain-specific anxieties (e.g., math anxiety) that scholars of teaching & learning have previously researched, in that it does not interact with performance. In other words, the experience of success in a course does not seem to reduce the aversiveness of its active learning components to socially anxious students. This work suggests the need for a “best practices,” exposure-based model of incorporating active learning into the higher education classroom.

[1] My undergraduate co-author on Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Allison Price, completed a Senior Honors Thesis that investigated the multifinal-temptations hypothesis.

[2] This research was published in the Journal of Social Psychology:

[3] A shift away from full-class lecturing is a positive pedagogical development, research does not currently support a complete elimination of this practice. I believe in the effectiveness of narrative and direct instruction during class discussions, interweaved with active learning techniques.