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by Ian Matheson and Nancy L. Hutchinson

What is Self-Regulated Learning?

Self-regulated learning is a dynamic process involving planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s learning. This process is reputed to be predictive of academic performance (Butler, 1998; Butler & Winne, 1995). Research suggests that individuals with learning disabilities (LDs) are poor self-regulators when compared to their peers without LDs - this could be due to lacking skills, being unaware that one has the skills, being unaware of when and how to apply them, or lacking the confidence to apply them. Given the importance of self-regulated learning to academics, as well as the recent push by the Ministry of Education in Ontario to include self-regulated learning in policy documents (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011), it is important to consider what elements contribute to the success of self-regulated learning.

For an overview of self-regulation, click here to access the article An Introduction to Self-Regulation.

Four Phases of Self-Regulated Learning

Winne and Hadwin (1998) introduced a model for self-regulated learning that included four phases. In a successful example of self-regulated learning, individuals would progress through each of the following four stages:

  1. Task definition
  2. Goal setting and planning
  3. Enacting of strategies
  4. Adaptations based on evaluations of progress

What are Cognitive Conditions?

While possessing a bank of strategies is important for the planning and implementation phases, Winne and Hadwin (1998) outlined the importance of the way an individual thinks about the task, themselves, the context, and other related factors (cognitive conditions) which are important, especially in the task definition and evaluation phases.

Self-efficacy can be understood as a belief one has in their ability to succeed in specific situations (Bandura, 1994). Mindset can be understood as a mental framework that we have for making sense of the nature of our abilities, and understanding our successes and failures (Dweck, 2006). Both theoretical concepts fit well within the cognitive conditions of this model, and likely influence the success of self-regulated learning. As Schunk (1989) pointed out, self-efficacy likely influences performance as it can guide choice of task or strategy, the amount of effort an individual exerts, and whether or not they persist when faced with adversity. Researchers have begun to examine the way individuals with LDs think about themselves, their abilities, their potential for growth, and how each of these relates to achievement.

The Cognitive Conditions and LDs

Individuals with LDs have been found to present with different motivations for and use of self-regulated learning strategies (Ruban, McCoach, McGuire, & Reis, 2003). As mentioned earlier, cognitive conditions can influence the types of strategies that individuals use during self-regulated learning.

When compared with their peers without LDs, individuals with LDs have often reported lower self-efficacy (e.g., Klassen, 2010). A number of researchers have also found that individuals with LDs overestimate their abilities when they are reporting about self-efficacy (e.g., Klassen, 2007). While low self-efficacy can cause individuals to be less likely to put in effort during tasks, it can also be problematic when individuals miscalculate their confidence in their abilities, as they may be less aware of areas of need and less likely to consider that they need to improve specific skills.

Self-efficacy can be applied to a number of skills (self-efficacy for reading), as well as tasks (self-efficacy for doing well on an upcoming test). In a 2010 study by Klassen, self-regulatory efficacy (confidence in one’s ability to self-regulate) significantly contributed to the end of term English grade for individuals with and without LDs.

What is the Role of Mindset?

Mindset is made up of a number of theoretical constructs according to Dweck (2006), but she posits that it begins with implicit theories of intelligence. Dweck (2006) distinguishes between an incremental theory of intelligence, the belief that intelligence is a fluid construct that can increase and change, and an entity theory of intelligence, the belief that intelligence is fixed and cannot increase or grow. Beliefs about the nature of intelligence as fixed or malleable will likely influence the types of goals an individual sets for themselves, and to what they attribute their success and failure. Dweck also distinguishes more generally between a fixed and growth mindset, with a growth mindset being more conducive to academic success.

An individual with a fixed mindset is more concerned about how they look in front of their peers and others than about how much they are learning or gaining from an experience. Given the fixed theory of intelligence, an individual with a fixed mindset would also likely believe that their efforts will not make a difference in improving their abilities, and therefore would be more likely to believe that abilities are fixed – you either have them or you do not. An individual with a growth mindset would believe that one’s ability comes from the effort they put into its development, and would attribute their failure at a task as a sign that they need to continue to work at it, or perhaps adjust their approach or strategy (Dweck, 2006). Along with lower (and inaccurate) self-efficacy when compared to their peers without LDs, individuals with LDs also comparatively present with a fixed mindset (Baird, Scott, Dearing, & Hammill, 2009; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).

The research about individuals with LDs and cognitive conditions (including self-efficacy and mindset) highlights the need for interventions and strategies focused on helping these individuals develop more effective patterns of thinking about themselves and their abilities.

Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD)

Harris and Graham (1996) proposed a model for cognitive strategy instruction known as SRSD that has garnered strong empirical support (Harris, Santangelo, & Graham, 2010). This model addresses the cognitive, motivational, and academic characteristics of students, and can be used effectively with students with LDs in all types of classrooms. The SRSD model can be applied to general learning strategies that support students with LDs (e.g., studying or memorizing) as well as content-specific strategies that support learning and performance (e.g., mathematics).

Six Steps of SRSD

Six steps are involved in the SRSD model (Reid, Lienemann, & Hagaman, 2013):

  1. Identify: Definine the skills that an individual needs to perform a strategy and assess whether the individual has the required skills. A lack of the required skills places a heavy load on working memory and can make it difficult for an individual to acquire a new skill.
  2. Discuss: Discuss the value of the strategy with the student. Explanation what the strategy can be used for, why the student needs to learn a new strategy (usually current achievement is low), and how the strategy is used to help.
  3. Model: Explicitly teach how and when the strategy is used, and think-aloud as you are using it to show the student exactly how it is used.
  4. Memorize: The student must practice and commit the steps for using the strategy (as well as when the strategy can be effectively used) to memory.
  5. Support: The student uses the strategy with support from the educator. It is important for the educator to monitor the student's use of the new strategy to ensure that it is being used effectively, before releasing responsibility entirely to the student.
  6. Independence: The student has effectively retained the strategy and can use it effectively without support.

For a more detailed explanation of this strategy, click here to access the article Combining Writing and Self-Regulation Strategies: The SRSD Approach.

Improving Self-Efficacy

Perhaps the clearest way to boost self-efficacy for individuals with LDs is to teach them skills that they are lacking, and help them improve the ones that they are not as strong using. While these methods have strong reputations for improving self-efficacy (e.g., Graham & Harris, 1989), direct attention to the development of effective strategies does not appear to be the only way to do this, according to the literature (Bandura, 1997).

The Four Sources of Self-Efficacy

Bandura (1997) outlined four sources of self-efficacy, based on years of work both developing and attempting to understand this construct.

1) Mastery Experiences

This source is considered the most powerful of the four. The experiences that students have had in the past will undoubtedly inform the way they think about future experiences that are similar in nature (or exactly the same).

Students with LDs who have struggled with writing in the past will likely have a low self-efficacy for writing in future writing tasks. In order to help individuals build self-efficacy, they need to be given experiences of mastery. This can include designing tasks that are slightly below their current abilities in order to give them the feeling of success, and then building on that success with increasingly challenging tasks as they continue to work on their skills.

2) Observation of Successful Others

Upon seeing the behaviour and performance of other individuals, we can make judgments about our own abilities. A student with LDs may see a writing task that a peer has prepared, and perhaps more importantly the feedback that peer received, and make judgements about their own writing and how it would be graded.

Given that observation of others is a powerful source of self-efficacy, it is important to give students with LDs opportunities to observe successful self-regulated learning of their peers. Vicariously, students with LDs can learn about which behaviours and strategies lead to success and are praised by educators, and which behaviours and strategies do not seem to lead to the same success. This can allow them to better understand what successful self-regulation looks like and thus give them a better chance at implementing successful strategies.

3) Social Persuasion

Our judgements about our own abilities also come from others’ judgments of our abilities. Educators provide feedback to students constantly and in many different ways – written feedback and verbal feedback are two examples.

If an educator communicates their belief in a student to be successful, that student will be more likely to believe in their ability to be successful. Consequently, sending a student a message that they will not improve, and that they are not any good to begin with, will likely lead to lower self-efficacy and self-esteem. Educators can help improve the self-efficacy of students with LDs by communicating to them the value of skills such as successful self-regulation, as well as their belief in the student with LDs’ ability to be successful.

4) Physiological and Affective States

In attempting to self-regulate, students can experience periods of frustration and fatigue. These states may be interpreted as an inability to self-regulate during learning, rather than as natural states that can occur when skills are being developed.

Educators can assist students with LDs by helping them examine and understand the feelings and states that they experience while developing skills, and by helping them to come up with effective ways to deal with these feelings. For example, an educator may see that a student with LDs is having difficulty with a memorization strategy for an upcoming test. The educator could talk to the student about how they are feeling, explain that this is a feeling that comes with growth and hard work, and help the student understand the frustration as a sign of progress and change rather than as a sign of incompetence.

Additional Tips for Improving Self-Efficacy

According to Bandura (1997), it would help in the development of students’ self-efficacy if educators placed emphasis on students’ successful self-regulated learning practices, and highlighted examples of the competence of peers in self-regulated learning. Additionally, it would help if educators offered encouragement to students about their ability to adopt self-regulated learning skills as well as the value of doing so, and helped students manage physiological and affective states and reactions to situations related to learning. These strategies can be used with individuals with LD at any age, as the sources of self-efficacy can apply to all ages.

Research also suggests that students who received support with setting goals that were achievable and within reach (although still challenging) experienced increases in self-efficacy (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). Additionally, students with LDs who received cognitive strategy instruction, the practice of teaching strategies that can be used during self-regulated learning and problem solving, (also reported increases in self-efficacy. A combination of teaching strategies and attending to Bandura’s (1997) sources of self-efficacy as an educator would undoubtedly be helpful in developing the self-efficacy of students with LDs.

For more information on cognitive strategy instruction, click here to access the article Working Memory and Cognitive Load.

Improving Mindset

Dweck (2006) outlined a number of ways that educators can help their students develop a growth oriented mindset.

Growth-Oriented Feedback

It is important for educators to be strategic in the feedback they deliver to students. Consider the following statement an educator might give to a student:

“Not a single question wrong – you’re so smart!”

While this statement may seem harmless, or even motivating to the student, consider what the student might think if they don’t get every question correct another time. Suddenly, they are not so smart because they did get questions wrong. Consider how the same student might react to the following statement:

“You’ve done very well on this test – you must have worked hard!”

The student does not get the same praise of being “so smart,” however over time they will begin to relate hard work to success (and a lack of hard work to a lack of success).

Educators can help students with LDs develop a growth oriented mindset by sending messages in their feedback that are consistent with this mindset – messages that praise hard work over perfection and talent.

When students start to believe that working hard and studying will help improve their performance and self-regulated learning, they will be more likely to seek challenges that give them more opportunity to practice. Seeing their success as a direct result of their hard work will make students more willing to practice and develop their skills with the belief that they will improve by putting the time in. Additionally, lack of success will be attributed to a lack of effort or an insufficient amount of time spent practicing. This is an effective alternative to rationalizing that some skills, such as effective self-regulated learning, are unattainable and therefore there is not any point to putting in the work in an attempt to get better.

Model Growth Mindset

Finally, educators are in a unique position to provide learning experiences and give support to their students when it is needed. Students also look to their teacher as a model of character, and therefore it is important that educators model a growth mindset to their students. This can include sharing anecdotes of skills they are practicing to develop, attributing their successes (and failures) to effort rather than ability, and focusing on learning from new experiences in lieu of worrying about how silly they may look trying a new skill for the first time in front of others.

While feedback will be different for individuals at different ages, the strategies for improving mindset can be applied to students of any age. Dweck’s (2006) work on mindset provides important strategies and interventions that educators can work into their teaching in order to help develop more positive cognitive conditions in their students with LDs.


Many of the strategies and interventions covered in this topic can be implemented in the classroom with little effort, and with students of all ages. Educators can improve the cognitive conditions of their students with LDs by making changes to the type of language they use in their feedback, the way they act around their students, and the types of learning experiences they provide. Positive cognitive conditions, including a stronger sense of self-efficacy and a growth oriented mindset, will contribute to more successful self-regulated learning in students with LDs. Winne and Hadwin’s (1998) model provides a strong theoretical lens for examining how to help students with LDs become more successful at self-regulated learning.

This topic provides educators with a collection of strategies and interventions that can complement direct instruction about strategies that students with LDs can use while they are setting goals, planning, and evaluating their progress while engaging in self-regulated learning. Direct strategy instruction can be seen as an explicit method of helping students to improve their self-regulated learning practices, and addressing their cognitive conditions can be seen as an implicit method of improving self-regulated learning. A combination of explicit and implicit efforts to improve the self-regulated learning of students with LDs will give educators the best chance at success in this endeavour.

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Combining Writing and Self-Regulation Strategies: The SRSD Approach.

Click here to access the recording of the webinar Growth Mindset: Putting Positive Thinking into Practice.

Click here to access the article Working Memory and Cognitive Load.

Click here to access the article An Introduction to Self-Regulation.

Click here to access the answer to the question How do I Develop an Effective IEP to support Math Learning for a Student with a Learning Disability?


Baird, G. L., Scott, W. D., Dearing, E., & Hamill , S. K. (2009). Cognitive self-regulation in youth with and without learning disabilities: Academic self-efficacy, theories of intelligence, learning vs. performance goal preferences, and effort attributions. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28, 1-908.

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of human behavior, 4, 71-81. New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. DOI: 0009-3920/2007/7801-0014

Butler, D. L. (1998). The Strategic Content Learning approach to promoting self-regulated learning: A summary of three studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 682-697.

Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65, 245-281.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (1989). Components analysis of cognitive strategy instruction: Effects on learning disabled students’ compositions and self-efficacy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 353-361.

Klassen, R. M. (2007). Using predictions to learn about the self-efficacy of earlyadolescents with and without learning disabilities. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32 , 173–187.

Klassen, R. N. (2010). Confidence to manage learning: The self-efficacy for self-regulated learning of adolescents with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 33, 19-30.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2011). Ontario Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12: Policy and   program Requirements. 2011. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Ruban, L. M., McCoach, D. B., McGuire, J. M., & Reis, S. M. (2003). The differential impact of academic self-regulatory methods on academic achievement among university students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 270-286.

Schunk, D. H. (1989). Self-efficacy and achievement behaviors. Educational Psychology Review, 1, 173-208.

Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated learning. In B. J. Zimmerman& D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance. New York, NY: Routledge.


Searches were conducted of the literature for content appropriate for this topic that were published in scientific journals and other academic sources. The search included online database searches (ERIC, PsycINFO, Queen’s Summons, and Google Scholar). The gathered materials were checked for relevance by analysing data in this hierarchical order: (a) titles; (b) abstracts; (c) method; and (d) entire text.

Relevant journals’ archives were also hand-searched between issues from 2010 and the most recent issues. These journals included Learning Disability Quarterly, Journal of Learning Disabilities, and Learning Disabilities Research & Practice.

horizontal line tealIan Matheson is entering his second year in the PhD program in Education at Queen's University with a focus in Learning and Cognition. Ian has spent the last two years working as an occasional teacher with the Limestone District School Board where he is certified with the OCT as an elementary school teacher. He is currently involved with the Continuing Teacher Education Centre at Queen's University where he is an instructor for an Additional Qualifications course.

Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Her research has focused on teaching students with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as doctoral seminars on social cognition and master’s courses on topics including learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.