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Medical Education 2012: 46: 71–79

Objectives  In the health professions we expect practitioners and trainees to engage in self-regulation of their learning and practice. For example, doctors are responsible for diagnosing their own learning needs and pursuing professional development opportunities; medical residents are expected to identify what they do not know when caring for patients and to seek help from supervisors when they need it, and medical school curricula are increasingly called upon to support self-regulation as a central learning outcome. Given the importance of self-regulation in both health professions education and ongoing professional practice, our aim was to generate a snapshot of the state of the science in medical education research in this area.

Methods  To achieve this goal, we gathered literature focused on self-regulation or self-directed learning undertaken from multiple perspectives. Then, with support from a multi-component theoretical framework, we created an overarching map of the themes addressed thus far and emerging findings. We built from that integrative overview to consider contributions, connections and gaps in research on self-regulation to date.

Results and conclusions  Based on this reflective analysis, we conclude that the medical education community’s understanding about self-regulation will continue to advance as we: (i) consider how learning is undertaken within the complex social contexts of clinical training and practice; (ii) think of self-regulation within an integrative perspective that allows us to combine disparate strands of research and to consider self-regulation across the training continuum in medicine, from learning to practice; (iii) attend to the grain size of analysis both thoughtfully and intentionally, and (iv) most essentially, extend our efforts to understand the need for and best practices in support of self-regulation.