Self-Regulation in College

About the Author: Amara Bradetich is a graduate student in the School of Public Health and Human Services at Oregon State University. Studying in the Human Development and Family Science area, her research focuses on how maternal stress during pregnancy affects child self-regulation and sensory processing in early childhood. This post is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format. 

Taking a deep breath before an exam, focusing while writing a paper, and staying home to study instead of hanging out with friends are all examples of regulatory skills being put to use by college students. Unknown to most undergraduates, the ability to inhibit their impulses, calm their emotions, and sustain attention on a single task are vital to their academic success. These self-regulation skills, also known as executive functions, begin developing in childhood and influence the learning and development of all people (McClelland et al., 2014). This was the focus of Travis and Bunde’s (2020) article. They explored the relationship between self-efficacy, satisfaction of basic needs, and stress on college students’ GPAs, persistence, and satisfaction with school.

What did they do? Travis and Bunde (2020) surveyed 383 undergraduate students from each university department at a public university in South Carolina. The participants rated their stress level, self-confidence in their academic ability, satisfaction of basic needs, intentions to transfer, and satisfaction with education and experience at that college at two points during the fall semester. The university supplied the authors with the students’ GPAs and hours withdrawn at the end of the semester.

What did they find? The authors found support for their hypotheses, namely that the elements of self-regulation studied affect the students’ academic success in college. The big takeaways: 1) Students who reported higher self-efficacy, lower stress ratings, and higher need satisfaction had higher GPA scores, more satisfaction with school, decreased intention to transfer, and fewer hours withdrawn. 2) When students felt their needs were being met, they had greater intent to persist beyond the effects of high stress or low academic self-efficacy.

What does it mean for us? This research highlights the role of self-regulation skills in student outcomes and perceptions in college. This indicates not only the connection between self-regulation support and academic success, but the vitality of including self-regulation in educational policy and school design/research. Specifically, this study suggests that the identification and removal of certain stressors may improve academic performance and socioemotional outcomes. The findings also indicate the need to be mindful of basic human needs when creating and implementing achievable academic challenges.

Professors need to be aware of students’ experiences, stress levels, basic needs, and regulatory abilities in order to better support their learning and achievement in class. Although this may seem like a tall task, starting by simply asking students how they are doing at the beginning of each class, reaching out to students who do not attend class or turn work in late, or teaching students about good study habits are ways to open the door to supporting students’ success through regulatory skills.


McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Duncan, R., Bowles, R. P., Acock, A. C., Miao, A., & Pratt, M. (2014). Predictors of early growth in academic achievement: The head-toes-knees-shoulders task. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 599.

Travis, J., & Bunde, J. (2020). Self-regulation into college: The influence of self-efficacy, need satisfaction, and stress on GPA, persistence, and satisfaction. Current Psychology.

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