Examining how 21st Century training will evolve to match the needs of 21st Century acquisition professionals.


Self-regulated learning is not a talent that some people are born with, but a skill that can be attained by anyone willing to invest in themselves. That is what success calls for: a conscious investment in self.

So, what is a self-regulated learner; how does someone become one; and, really, why should you care? To the last question, because we believe anyone who develops certain characteristics can become a successful professional. Notice that we said “develops,” not “inherently possesses.” These characteristics include an ability to consciously regulate or control emotions, thoughts, and, ultimately, behavior—the characteristics that make a self-regulated learner. 

Self-regulated learners take personal responsibility for their education, become active participants in their learning, and therefore tend to leave each learning opportunity with a deep, reflective understanding. They take responsibility through behaviors such as reading ahead in preparation for class the next day, organizing notes for better review, and asking questions when the material is not completely understood. These behaviors also infiltrate their work as they prepare for upcoming meetings and tasks well in advance of deadlines, organize their schedules to take advantage of every available moment, and ask probing questions to ensure their team moves in the right direction.

Consistently applying these behaviors creates positive outcomes and enhances personal confidence. Success results in motivating individuals to do and learn more. Additionally, these self-regulated learning behaviors become more natural with frequent application.

Research into self-regulated learning found that self-regulated learners possess three interrelated characteristics:

  • Self-efficacy (confidence),
  • Exploratory behavior (curiosity), and
  • Metacognition (or deep thinking).

Self-efficacy is at the core of self-regulation. The degree of confidence a learner has in achieving the desired outcome will determine the amount of time and resources he or she allocates to the task. Self-regulated learners tend to have higher levels of academic confidence and put more energy and time into learning new concepts and expanding their sense of academic curiosity.

Whatever the reason, a motivation to learn will be present. Many Defense Acquisition University (DAU) students have an obvious motivation: certification. Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) Level III was an operant and consciously important milestone for self-regulated learners within the contracting field. Whether or not that definitive Level III certification in contracting was necessary for their position, many self-regulated contracting professionals strove to attain it. These learners were certainly motivated by the ambition for higher positions, as well as the modest opportunity to develop skills for higher performance that a DAWIA Level III education provided.

Whether due to an increase in self-esteem or self-actualization, we should not lose sight of what a self-motivator a progressive certification was for contracting professionals early in their careers. The ability to say “I’m Level III certified” was an important designation for up-and-coming contracting professionals.

Progressive experience requirements, coupled with the three levels of training, have historically allowed for learning to occur over incremental stages. This was important because learning requires a degree of repetition. Nonetheless, we believe that these increments have been too tightly coupled and should have spanned a longer period within the acquisition professional’s career. This academic compaction may have muted workforce development. Also, this compressed learning schedule was probably a catalyst in learners becoming less engaged with the material and more concerned with the Level III designation.

Yet times change, and with change comes opportunity to improve.


With Change Comes Opportunities

Sometime around October 1, 2021, the acquisition community will pivot. Per the September 2, 2020, memo from the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, titled “Back-to-Basics [BtB] for the Defense Acquisition Workforce,” the acquisition community will make a directional turn from the broad-spectrum approach to workforce development to one that is streamlined and targeted. This BtB framework changes the way DAWIA certification and workforce development is managed.

If you are assigned to one of the six Functional Areas (Program Management, Engineering, Test and Evaluation, Contracting, Life Cycle Logistics, or Business Financial Management/Cost Estimating), your certification requirements will likely change. The specific training courses and experience requirements could also change. You may also be required to take a final comprehensive exam or submit a resume to complete your certification. In all cases, there will be a reduction in the number of training hours required for career certification. This will exchange the lengthy certification training offered too early in one’s career for timelier, more job-relevant training, thereby creating a 21st Century, job-relevant learning environment that will enhance motivational learning by tailoring it to learners’ specific needs. It will do so by expanding microlearning assets such as credentials.

Credentials enhance employees’ ability to achieve deep learning that is specifically tailored to a certain role or task. It allows acquisition professionals to choose the specific training they need, learn at time of need, and hone skills that are relevant to their specific job needs. Within this construct, you and your supervisor can assess your local training opportunities, align your credential program to job performance and career development goals, and begin training at the time of need. This new process stimulates self-efficacy, exploratory behaviors, and metacognition, because tailored credentials more closely tie learning to specific job performance outcomes, resulting in enriched learning and superior performance outcomes.

You and your supervisor will discuss these training opportunities and align them with your individual development plan and long-term career goals. This should also include exploratory learning into less direct but interrelated topics that parallel your chosen career path. Exploration is a core characteristic of the self-regulated learner and one that, if consistently applied, provides rewards. Curiosity spurs this exploration and leads to a holistic understanding of both the acquisition field and your position within it. By understanding where you fit, you develop a deeper appreciation for your role and contribution.

Additionally, your exploration comes with a social aspect. A deeper understanding of acquisition expands your ability to talk meaningfully with other acquisition professionals, giving you reciprocal access to each other’s experiences and expertise. These kinds of engagements not only develop better acquisition professionals, but they also allow for social learning among the acquisition corps.


Frictionless Learning

With the primary goals of eliminating non-job-relevant training, the BtB initiative will establish a more accessible culture of training and create a frictionless learning environment for the defense acquisition workforce while also instilling a sense of academic curiosity into the acquisition corps.

In the past, the typical learner engagement occurred in a physical classroom setting and was instructor-centered. However, learner engagement is also present in other venues, such as online synchronous learning environments, where the instruction is more learner-centered because instructors adjust their teaching style to be more of a guide and less of a “sage on the stage.”

Another reason why synchronous learning is becoming popular in adult education is its ability to closely mimic traditional classroom learning and engagement through immediate feedback from the instructor and other learners. Properly executed, synchronous learning encourages learner engagement that is similar in result to in-residence learning. Some research findings have concluded that learner performance is essentially the same when comparing traditional classroom environments to virtually instructed real-time settings. While levels of learner engagement might appear higher in the traditional classroom, somewhat lower levels of engagement within synchronous environments have been shown to have no negative impact on learning performance. Recall the discussion earlier about the social aspect to learning and academic exploration. Engagement between the learner and educator, and amongst peer learners, is a vital element to the learning process and permits a broader level of academic exploration amongst learners.

So why are we discussing online synchronous learning and frictionless learning in an article about self-regulated learning? Because synchronous online training environments are intrinsically suited for self-regulated learners. Synchronous online learning increases the learner’s control and responsibility and provides greater opportunity for reflective thought.

As organizations look to fill organizational skills gaps through employee development, they recognize that there is more to learning than a change in behavior. There is the transference of knowledge that comes from the interrelation of three elements:

  • Cognitive (internal process),
  • Emotional (feelings), and
  • Social (connection to others).

Cognitive and emotional elements are distinctly individual in effect; therefore, the learning venue, whether physical or virtual, probably has limited influence on these elements. It is the social element—the active engagement with other learners, what we previously described as “learner engagement”—that is typically seen as being negatively prejudiced by virtual environments. Although this environment is connected virtually instead of physically, research shows that a social connection still emerges in a virtual environment and can be enhanced by synchronous online design and delivery methods.


Frictionless Design and Delivery Methods

As design and delivery methods evolve, so will the learner’s expectations. The adult learner, especially one who is self-regulated, seeks immediacy and accessibility in his or her adult education experience that matching the experience of everyday, connected life. Higher education systems that match or exceed learner expectations can be a disruptive force across the adult educational landscape. DAU is taking necessary steps in the transformation of its content and delivery to align itself to meet learner expectations. DAU is placing more emphasis in their instructional design methods to ensure proper alignment of tools and methods within the adult learning environment. These changes will reduce friction in delivery (including its asynchronous online learning formats, also known as self-study) by creating opportunities to increase learner engagement. This is imperative to the learning experience, as asynchronous online learning lacks real-time learner engagement between the educator and other learners, potentially resulting in lesser learning outcomes. Although the final verdict on these changes and enhancements is not yet in, initial reports are favorable and there appears to be a higher return on each training dollar spent. Such consistent value creates broad support for blending synchronous and asynchronous online training.



In the past, self-regulated learners might have been demotivated by predetermined position requirements and might have had to look outside of the outmoded DAWIA structure for specific task-related learning assets. The BtB streamlined certification requirements and DAU’s expanded credentials program offer the self-regulated learner more options to learn at the time of need through microlearning in a near-frictionless environment.

DAU is evolving to support your learning needs as you transform and grow throughout your career. DAU’s frictionless learner environment fosters self-regulated learning by focusing on skills development and just-in-time training for professionals, at their desk, when they need it. DAU is using current proven practices from learning science and technology to tailor training to the needs of each acquisition workforce member, thereby creating a better and more personal learning experience.    

Invest in yourself by developing those positive traits of a self-regulated learner and taking advantage of DAU’s current and upcoming 21st Century learning systems. Transformation happens fast; visit the USD(A&S), Office of Human Capital Initiatives’ website, https://www.hci.mil/btb.html, and talk with your organizational leadership to keep pace with these changes. CM


Joni Dowling, PhD      

  • Learning Director in Contracting, Defense Acquisition University, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
  • joni.dowling@dau.edu


William A. Schleckser, DMgt

  • Professor of Contract Management, Defense Acquisition University South, Huntsville, Alabama.
  • william.schleckser@dau.edu