Easy As & Self-Directed Learning

Hard Easy Computer Keys Showing The Choice Of Difficult Or Simple Way

The start of a new term produces lots of questions about workload, assessments, grading policy, and attendance, as students seek to determine how much effort a course will require. One can’t blame them for trying to predict which courses will be run well, and whether the hard work will be worth it, or an exercise in futility. Last week I experienced a first. At the end of the initial class, one of my students approached to speak one on one. The question- Is this class is an easy A?

What does that question imply about the student’s understanding of college and learning?

I suspect many students would like to ask that question, but don’t for a number of reasons. First, it suggests the student doesn’t want to work very hard. Second, it focuses on grades, not learning. Last, it suggests the student is shopping around for the “best deal,” reducing the educational process to a transaction.

I don’t think I handled the question very well. After I recovered from my jaw hitting the floor, I said it depends, and followed with questions of my own- What does “easy” mean? Are you willing to work hard? I’m fairly convinced both of us were unsatisfied by the answers we received.

Opportunities to promote self-directed learning

Upon closer reflection, I don’t think the student’s question necessarily reflects an unwillingness to work as much as it suggests a lack of ownership and control of the learning process. It reveals ignorance about what should be happening in college classrooms: learning about content and self.  If, in this student’s experience, learning has been confined to a focus on content and grades then the question isn’t so shocking.

To expand students’ concept and definition of learning, we need to provide more than opportunities to master content. We need to get them thinking about how they learn and provide chances for them to grow as learners. In sum, we need to develop self-directed learners. Thus, I dug out one of my favorite articles on this subject, Kitsantas and Zimmerman’s (2009) “College students’ homework and academic achievement: The mediating role of self-regulatory beliefs.”

The authors provide a Self-Efficacy for Learning Form (SELF). The survey asks questions about self-regulation in learning across a number of academic areas like taking notes, testing, and studying. Here’s a sample of topics and questions from the article:


  • If you miss class how will you get the notes you missed?
  • Is the person who will share their notes with you, able to explain their notes clearly? As clearly as the teacher?

 Note-taking during lectures

  • What strategies do you use to stay focused if a lecture becomes boring?
  • When a course covers a lot of material, what strategies do you use to condense your notes to the essentials?
  • When you are trying to learn something, do you regularly try to connect it to other things you already understand?

Collaborative study

  • When you study with someone else, are you an effective study partner?
  • What does a good study partner do?
  • What are some characteristics of a not-so-good study partner?


  • If you are in a bad mood, or feeling restless, can you motivate yourself to finish your work? How?
  • If you fall behind, or if assignments are taking longer than you anticipated, how do you respond?

 Dealing with difficulties/poor results

  • If you didn’t do well on an exam because the questions caught you off guard, what will you do differently to better predict questions for next time?
  • What strategies do you use to help you retain and recall technical information and details?
  • When you have done poorly on a test, have you been able to go back to your notes to find the relevant information?

The questions can be used to stimulate classroom discussions about self-regulated learning beliefs. This is my intention. In some cases, students may feel more comfortable reflecting individually in writing, or sharing in small groups if the class is large. The goal is to help students recognize their behaviors and effort play a significant role in determining whether an A is easy or elusive. This is a crucial first step in shifting students’ focus from grades to learning.


Kitsantas, A. & Zimmerman, B. J. 2009. College students’ homework and academic achievement: The mediating role of self-regulatory beliefs. Metacognition and Learning, 4(2): 97-110.



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on January 17, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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