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What is the difference? Self-regulated learning and executive functions

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Self-regulated learning, self-directed learning, self-discovery learning, independent learning, meta-cognition, executive functions, self-management and organization, ... Who can still follow?

The link is quite obvious: self-regulated learning skills and executive functions. Quite logical, as a matter of fact. Both executive functions and self-regulated learning skills are referred to with the same term 'self-regulation'. Are they the same then? Not really. Both concepts are related, but originated in different research disciplines. How exactly do executive functions and self-regulated learning relate to each other? If teachers focus on executive functions, do they automatically support the self-regulated learning skills of their students?

The answer is: yes and no. But first, what do we mean by both terms?

Self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learning refers to a wide variety of strategies that you can use to direct your thoughts, behavior, feelings and motivation towards achieving a specific goal. You can use strategies that guide learning before, during, and after you learn something. Examples of these strategies are goal setting, planning, self-observation, self-efficacy, attribution processes, seeking help, and self-evaluation. But hey, that's what this entire website is about :-).

Executive functions

Controlling behavior, thoughts and emotions (which we indeed just described as self-regulated learning) happens through thought processes called 'executive functions'.

So what exactly are those thought processes? Depending on the text you consult, different thought processes are described. I'll go over the most common ones.

  1. Working memory: storing and applying information, being able to reflect

  2. Cognitive flexibility: being able to adapt flexibly to changes, applying in new contexts, switching between activities, being able to relate to others

  3. Inhibition (or impulse control): not responding to temptations, suppressing impulses, controlling emotions

In addition to these three thought processes, some authors also add 'planning and organizing', 'emotion regulation' or 'empathy'. Sometimes as separate thought processes, sometimes as part of one of the three processes above.

If you compare one of the more extensive models of executive functions with models of self-regulated learning, you will soon notice that there is an overlap between executive functions and self-regulated learning. In the remainder of this article, we assume the basic model of executive functions: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition.

And so again the question: if you support executive functions, do you also support the self-regulated learning skills of your students?

The answer is... yes

Executive functions support the development and use of self-regulated learning skills.

An example. If you are good at suppressing your impulses (inhibition) and you can adapt quickly to changes (cognitive flexibility), you will also find it easier to let go of self-regulated learning strategies that don't work, and instead use strategies that will help you to better achieve your (learning) goal. So it certainly influences your meta-cognition, one of the four components of self-regulated learning.

So yes, if you support students' working memory, cognitive flexibility and impulse control, you also support self-regulated learning. Albeit only partly: through the reinforcement of meta-cognition, one of the four components of self-regulated learning.

Only… self-regulated learning differs from other frameworks, because it involves (meta)cognition, behavior, emotion, and motivation. It is also because of this integrated approach that self-regulated learning skills appear to have such an impact on learning performance time and time again.

So the answer is also…no

Executive functions thus lay a good foundation for self-regulated learning. But there's more.

If you want to teach students to learn, make them perform better, and also want to strengthen their learning motivation, you have to support their self-regulatory skills in addition to executive functions.


First, with a one-sided focus on executive functions, you run the risk of losing sight of motivation and emotions. While executive functions can help you rethink your approach, they help you less specifically to continue learning even when things get boring or frustrating. You then need more than executive functions and (meta-)cognitive strategies: then your motivation and emotions come into focus. This concerns, for example, self-regulated learning skills such as self-efficacy, goal orientations and attribution processes. By supporting the three executive functions mentioned earlier, you don't automatically nor completely support the development of self-regulated learning skills.

Second, self-regulated learning stresses the importance of the cyclical nature of learning. This principle is therefore incorporated into most of the self-regulated learning models. The way you explain your achievements to yourself, or how you react to your learning outcome, strongly influences how you will learn next time. If someone attributes the reason for poor performance to their intelligence (attribution) and as a result becomes passive and starts to avoid tasks in order not to experience new failures (defensive reaction), this will most likely result in a lower self-confidence in the next assignment. lower goal setting, less effort, and so on. The cyclical nature of self-regulated learning helps you to see one specific self-regulatory skill in relation to the entire learning process. Thus, one way to boost the above student's self-confidence is to address the way in which he has explained his previous learning achievements to himself and then reacted to it. This element of cyclical processes is a complementary focus given by self-regulated learning models.

Third, an important factor in the development of students' self-regulated learning skills is explicit strategy instruction. Therefore, supporting executive functions alone will not suffice when supporting self-regulated learning skills more specifically.


You could argue that self-regulated learning is a more comprehensive concept than executive functions, and that it is specifically applicable to and studied in the learning context. Executive functions can be seen as more generic processes and lay a strong foundation for self-regulated learning, mainly through their influence on students' meta-cognitive skills. Since self-regulated learning takes into account multiple components (i.e. emotions and motivation as well), and since its cyclical nature exposes the interactions between the different self-regulatory skills, it is definitely recommended to pay specific attention to the self-regulated learning skills of students. Even when you are already a strong supporter of executive functions.

Some final words

In this article I zoomed in on the differences between executive functions and self-regulated learning. However, I don't want to encourage seeing both concepts as competing models, each fighting to get teachers' attention. Rather, my intention is to provide some clarity about terms that are often used as synonyms. I think that when we define them more clearly, understand their origin, and know how they relate, we can combine the best insights from both frameworks.

There are so many models, frameworks and programs dropped in schools. It helps seeing the links and seeing how you can use the different models and turn them into one integrated story that works for you. Are you familiar with the framework of executive functions? Then definitely go from there!

See where self-regulated learning (or executive functions) can be an added value for you. Everyone starts from their own prior knowledge and mental models, don't they? ;-) Moreover, there is a good chance that when you are familiar with executive functions you use a more extended model than the one with the three thought processes (impulse control, cognitive flexibility and working memory). Therefore chances are the model you are familiar with also includes emotion regulation and planning and organizing. When that's the case, the frameworks of self-regulated learning and executive functions differ less from each other.

The fact that executive functions and self-regulated learning go hand in hand also offers opportunities! For example, a common language and approach can be developed between, for example, student counseling (usually focus on executive functions) and didactics (mainly focus on self-regulated learning skills). Moreover, in the literature on executive functions you will find more points of departure for supporting the self-regulation of students with, for example, dyslexia, autism or ADHD, than in the literature on self-regulated learning.

It is absolutely useful (and in some cases really recommended) to also consider students' executive functions when supporting self-regulatory skills in your students.


Do you notice that a student has difficulty regulating his behavior in order to achieve his learning goals? Despite a targeted approach to get him to use specific self-regulation strategies? Then you should indeed have a look at his executive functions, like his impulse control. In that case it is very likely you will have noticed challenges outside of school as well. Be sure to take into account age. It is quite normal for young children to have difficulty controlling their impulses or to quickly adapt their behavior to changing circumstances.

And that brings me right to the last note. Since executive functions form the basis for the development of self-regulated learning skills, it is certainly advisable to pay attention to the executive functions of (very) young children. You will therefore quickly see references to executive functions, especially in pre-primary and primary education. After all, they are the stepping stone to self-regulated learning.

Want to know more?

Tools of the mind


  • Materials designed by researchers Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova

  • Focus on the development of executive functions by means of play

  • Based on Vygotsky

Academic literature

A video on executive functions

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