The ultimate goal of “student-centered” education is to empower students to learn beyond educational programs. This means nurturing students' autonomy and fostering the development of their own motivation and mechanisms to become self-directed learners. This idea has been embodied in the “lifelong learning” mantra that pervades contemporary views of 21st century society, economy and (biological) science. For example, the AAAS report “Vision and change” defined as an “action item” to “Develop lifelong science-learning competencies” [1], the “Scientific foundations for future physicians” states that “It is essential not only to read the medical and scientific literature of one's discipline, but to examine it critically to achieve lifelong learning” [2] and the Association of American Colleges and Universities lists lifelong learning as one of the “Essential Learning Outcomes” to prepare students for the 21st century [3]. The big question and the huge challenge is: how can educational programs catalyze the development of lifelong learning? To answer, it is necessary to understand how learning experiences should be designed accordingly, which implies a need to clarify how mechanisms of learning work. Unfortunately, “lifelong learning” is defined quite loosely and not very helpful. The model of self-regulated learning (SRL) may shed a clarifying light on the previous issues and also help on the understanding how to help students overcome conceptual difficulties in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB).

In SRL, the ability to learn autonomously is analyzed with the recognition that all learners are active participants in their learning process [4]. Whenever learners are faced with a learning task, they need to actively integrate the “will” and “skill” components that are required for effective learning. The will is the essential motivational component and includes attribution and self-efficacy beliefs. The main attribution beliefs about success and failure are related to the learner's perceived control over their performance. High performing learners tend to attribute success to factors that the learner can control (such as the study skills that were used), whereas low-performing learners may attribute their lack of success to factors over which they perceive they have no control (such as the problem was too hard). The main self-efficacy beliefs are associated with personal confidence regarding the success of a learner's approach to learning. High performing learners take measures to ensure success, such as making the topic personally interesting and relevant. The skill component relates to the various strategies or techniques that are used to complete the learning task successfully, such as time management and/or note taking skills. High performing learners choose strategies that will help them to achieve their intended goals despite poor concentration or stress. These strategies include taking frequent notes and regular checking of their own performance.

The continuous and dynamic adjustment of both the will and the skill to ensure that the learning task is achieved requires metacognitive processes to be used by the learner. These processes are at the heart of SRL [4]. Before learning, learners need to actively plan and set themselves goals for learning (including both the will and the skill). High performing learners set goals that are specific and related to the process of learning, such as deciding to use the study technique of reading each paragraph in turn, compared with low performing students who set vague outcome goals, such as “to understand the article.” During learning, learners need to self-monitor through increasing their awareness of whether they are on track to achieve their intended goal. High performing learners constantly check their understanding of what they are learning. Checking allows constant adjustments to ensure that their use of will and skill is effective. After learning, learners need to reflect and consider whether their approach to learning, including the will and skill, needs to be modified for future attempts at learning tasks. High performing learners actively reflect on their approach to learning, thereby developing as lifelong learners. Research into the active process of the self-regulation of learning has consistently shown that high performing learners make extensive use of these essential meta-cognitive processes, particularly when compared with lower performing learners [5].

Understanding the process of learning through a SRL perspective has implications for providing effective educational interventions. These should help learners to develop their SRL approaches so that they can succeed before the large variety of learning challenges that they will face in their journey as lifelong learners. We are unaware of examples of interventions to develop Biochemistry and Molecular Life Sciences students SRL approaches, but the literature on other areas offers good suggestions. One example are “learning to learn courses” at the beginning of programs [6]. A similar approach can also improve learning with technology [7]. Improving SRL while the student is engaged in a learning task can be achieved by helping the student to become aware of their SRL approach. This can be achieved by the use of structured workbooks [8] and reflective prompts at key points in the learning process [9]. The essential role of the tutor cannot be underestimated [10].

There are exciting approaches to help struggling learners, such as the use of microanalysis [11]. The crucial aspect in microanalysis is that students are observed just before, while and right after they are trying to solve a conceptual problem, and not interviewed sometime later. Observed while dealing with a new authentic learning task, a student will reveal the key SRL processes that integrate the use of will and skill when asked targeted open-ended questions, such as “ how do you intend to understand what is written in this article?” or “do you think that you are on the right track to understanding what you are reading?” These insights can be used to provide individualized feedback on what processes are being used, or not used, for learning and also to develop an effective coaching plan to improve performance by engaging learners in deliberate practice of the learning processes that are being underutilized. Focusing on students SRL approaches, for example, using microanalysis, may theoretically be a good move to address students' conceptual difficulties in BMB. It is up to us, the BMB education community, to develop the required research to test the hypothesis.


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