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The following article accompanies the TA@l'école webinar “Le soutien au développement de l’autodétermination dans un contexte de classe numérique – un levier pour engager les apprenants” [Supporting the Development of Self-Determination in a Digital Classroom Context as a Lever for Engaging Learners]. Click here to view the webinar recording.

By Marie-Ève Garand-Gauthier

The rapid and forced introduction of technology in the field of education in recent months has brought its share of challenges. Adapting to digital learning situations, mastering technological tools, and engaging learners have emerged as challenges for many educators. With regard to student engagement, supporting the development of self-determination appears to be a promising way to promote academic success and seems to have an impact beyond the school career of students with and without learning disabilities (LDs). This article aims to connect the components of self-determination theory and the teaching and instructional practices used in a digital classroom context for English Language Learners (ELL) secondary students with LDs. Strategies for implementing a digital classroom will be proposed to support teachers in this process. These strategies can also be transferred to a context where only a few students use digital tools in class.

Challenges of changing practices in the context of the pandemic

With the closing of schools in the spring of 2020, many educators have had to adapt their practices. Indeed, while some teaching practices may have been effective in the classroom, some proved to be difficult to replicate in an online teaching environment. An additional challenge is posed by the fact that the teaching mode can change rapidly with classrooms being hastily closed; groups may have to switch from face-to-face learning to online mode from one day to the next. Some students may also be in isolation at home, which could result in a bimodal teaching context, i.e., with learners in the classroom and learners online simultaneously.

In such a context, teachers may have to deal with additional challenges. These challenges include learning situations that are not adapted to online teaching―for instance, because they are not in digital format. Also, mastery of digital learning tools can vary a lot among educators. Thus, some have been able to adapt more easily than others in the transition to online learning. Finally, student engagement is a major challenge for teachers, who may have difficulty with young people remaining focused and attentive during online courses.

Engagement, self-determination and the digital classroom

If we look at the last challenge posed by the current health context, supporting the development of students’ self-determination could prove to be a worthwhile avenue to bolster their commitment to their learning (Yailagh et al., 2014). Indeed, ensuring that self-determination needs are met appears to be associated with student success, as well as with engagement in school activities, the pursuit of post-secondary studies, better planning for socio-professional integration, and participation in community life. In short, developing self-determination in learners apparently has positive impacts on their lives that go far beyond their school career.

The strategies and framework proposed here are intended to be versatile, in a face-to-face or distance learning context, for students with or without LDs. Also, digital technology is not presented as a solution to student engagement: rather, it is the way in which teachers leverage the possibilities of digital tools that will engage learners.

What is self-determination?

What do we mean when we talk about self-determination? The concept was first developed in the political arena, as the right of peoples to be self-governing. The concept then developed in the field of psychology, and several conceptual frameworks emerged, including that of Wehmeyer in the field of learning disabilities. According to this author, self-determination is characterized by “acting as the primary causal agent in one’s life and making choices and decisions regarding one’s quality of life, free from undue external influence or interference” (Wehmeyer, 2007, in Pelletier and Joussemet, 2019). These skills and attitudes include the ability to:

  • Solve problems
  • Make decisions
  • Self-assess
  • Value yourself
  • Set and achieve goals for yourself
  • Advocate for your rights

The development of these skills appears to be influenced by three factors:

  1. The person’s individual capacities
  2. Opportunities provided by the environment
  3. The type of support provided to the person

These factors themselves will also be influenced by the person's perceptions and beliefs, as well as by the environment in which he or she is seeking self-determination.


Wehmeyer (2003) identifies four characteristics of self-determined behaviour, which must be:

  1. Autonomous, i.e., the individual acts independently, according to his or her interests and capacities
  2. Self-regulated, i.e., the individual is able to analyze his or her own behaviour based on the components of a situation, the opportunities provided, and the anticipated consequences
  3. Characterized by a sense of control over the situation being experienced (psychological empowerment) because the person is able to anticipate the results of his or her actions and feels that he or she is able to accomplish a task in light of his or her abilities
  4. Self-realized, i.e., the individual has self-awareness and acts according to his or her strengths and needs

Factors influencing self-determination and teaching practices in the digital classroom

The following four components influencing the development of self-determination can be associated with teaching practices throughout the digital classroom.

Perceptions and beliefs

The perceptions and beliefs of the students and the teacher are connected to the four factors that can influence the emergence of relative self-determination.


Offering students choices in their learning activities or reducing their dependency on teachers can allow learners to develop a sense of empowerment regarding their learning. This practice, which is associated with the ability to make decisions, can be enhanced through the digital classroom. Indeed, certain features of the digital classroom can enable students to be less dependent on teachers. For example, instructions for carrying out a task or explanations about a particular concept can be recorded, thus allowing students to listen over again whenever they want, after noticing that they have not fully understood.


Hattie's research suggests that providing regular feedback is one of the most important factors affecting academic success (Hattie & Anderman, 2020). Digital features can help teachers to be more efficient in this regard. First, there are activities with autocorrection, enabling learners to receive quick, automatic feedback. The collaborative mode of certain software programs or platforms also allows the teacher to monitor students’ work in real time. The teacher can thus provide learners with written or oral feedback. Finally, some platforms allow for peer feedback.


Hattie (2020) also reports that a trusting relationship with their teachers evidently affects the academic success of learners. Some of the teachers surveyed [1] in the course of writing this article mentioned that they had developed more of a bond with their learners in a digital classroom context. Virtual one-on-one or subgroup meetings allow for greater intimacy. According to the teachers interviewed, some students dare to ask more questions, possibly because they are less fearful of being judged by their peers. In line with the functional theory of self-determination, feedback could be associated with the ability to value oneself.


An effective strategy identified by the teachers surveyed is to get students to identify their own work goals for a given time period, such as for one hour. This strategy can be associated with the ability to set and achieve goals. In the digital classroom, the teacher may be able to better supervise and support students in acquiring this skill, for example, by using notes in collaborative mode. On the other hand, the teacher could choose pair students and provide class or individual work goals. In the latter case, students can see the progress made by their partner while completing their own learning activities.

In short, students’ perceptions and beliefs about their own capacity for self-determination, as well as those educators, will themselves influence the development of student capacity, the type of support that students could receive, and the opportunities for self-determination provided by the environment. The digital classroom environment is not sufficient to support the development of student self-determination. However, it can enable educators to become more efficient and to diversify the way they teach these skills.

The individual capacities of students

In Wehmeyer's theory, the factors influencing the development of self-determined behaviour include the person’s individual abilities. The student’s abilities will be influenced by inherent factors such as IQ, but also by the learning situations that the student will experience, as well as the student’s personal development. These factors will in turn be influenced by the student's perceptions and beliefs about the task and about his or her own abilities. In a school environment, the teacher can offer students learning situations aimed at developing a variety of subject matter skills. These may also contain components for developing skills and attitudes associated with self-determined behaviour, such as decision-making or problem-solving. Moreover, according to Hattie, the teaching of problem-solving strategies is one of the factors that positively influence school success.

In this respect, the digital classroom context makes it possible to provide a variety of learning situations, thus allowing for didactic and pedagogical approaches to be diversified. Digital technology can also help the teacher to implement differentiated instruction. An example is a class where each student has a learning portfolio for the three core subjects, i.e., French, Mathematics and English, based on the learning to be achieved. Thus, no two students in the class have the same learning pathway. While this may seem like a bold example, some digital platforms nevertheless allow for individualized work for groups or particular students, e.g., students who are progressing more quickly or who need to do consolidation work for certain specific concepts.

Opportunities provided for students

The second factor influencing the development of self-determined behaviour pertains to the opportunities for self-determination that are made available to individuals. In discussing opportunities for self-determination, we are referring first to the student environment. Do the family, the school and the community allow students to make choices for themselves? The perceptions and beliefs of the people who make up the environment, and the organization of the environment will allow the person to become self-determining. A person’s life experiences will also influence his or her ability to become self-determining. For example, if the person has had very few opportunities and little support for setting and achieving goals in life, there is less likelihood of seeing self-determined behaviour emerge as the person will not have had the chance to develop this skill.

Concerning the environment, the digital classroom enables students to be self-determined in a relatively safe space. There, students can gradually leave their comfort zone and take risks. For example, several of the teachers who were interviewed observed that some students dared to ask questions more during one-on-one virtual meetings, possibly because they were less fearful of being judged by their peers.

The type of support provided to students

With regard to the support provided, we will focus on some examples given by teachers or peers. However, support can also come from people outside of the classroom (family, friends, mentors, the community, etc.).


Many types of support can be offered to students by the people in their environment. In the school context, some things that come to mind are reminders of instructions from teachers or help with carrying out certain tasks. Valuing student abilities, a caring approach and positive reinforcement are examples of support that can be provided to students in any classroom context and could foster the emergence of self-determined behaviours.


In a digital classroom context, the examples of support mentioned above are equally applicable. The digital classroom is different in that the educator does not need to be present to the same degree. Support can therefore be received by students independently.

For example, feedback can be given automatically during interactive online activities. In more complex learning situations, feedback can be given by the teacher in more efficient and faster ways (e.g., audio or video feedback). Secondly, reading and writing assistance tools offer significant support, especially for ELL students, or students who have oral or written language impairments or LDs. Text-to-speech software can help ELL students to know how to pronounce certain words, without necessarily relying on the teacher to show them. It also enables students to read their texts over again, and thus to self-correct (another skill associated with self-determination). Finally, digital technology allows students to access information on their own. The students does not have to rely on the teacher to answer these questions. Clearly, the ability to search for information is a learned skill, which the teacher and/or peers can support students in developing.


In summary, while the challenges arising from a complex context have forced those involved in education to adapt quickly, support for the development of self-determination seems to be a promising avenue for fostering engagement in all students. It is possible to implement certain strategies for developing individual capacities through the components of learning situations, as well as the support and the opportunities provided for students in a face-to-face or distance teaching environment, via the digital classroom. In this regard, the characteristics of the digital environment can enable teachers to be more efficient, in particular for providing feedback and implementing differentiated instruction. However, it should be kept in mind that the three factors influencing the emergence of self-determined behaviour are the perceptions and beliefs of the actors involved and the individual seeking self-determination. The foundations of support for the development of self-determination appear therefore to be found in everyday interactions that transcend digital technology.

1 The sample for this study was comprised of eight adult general education teachers working with allophone or Francophone students, with or without learning disabilities, as well as teachers in literacy classes, Francization classes, Secondary Cycle Two classes (equivalent to grades 9 to 12), and social integration classes (adult students with an intellectual disability, with or without an autism spectrum disorder).


Hattie, J., & Anderman, E. M. (2020). Visible Learning Guide to Student Achievement. Routledge.

Pelletier, J. E., & Joussemet, M. (2019). Le soutien à l’autodétermination des personnes ayant une déficience intellectuelle / Autonomy support for people with an intellectual disability. Revue de Psychoéducation43(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.7202/1061199ar

Wehmeyer, M. L., Yeager, D., Bolding, N., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (2003). The Effects of Self-Regulation Strategies on Goal Attainment for Students with Developmental Disabilities in General Education Classrooms. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities15(1), 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021408405270

Yailagh, M. S., Abbasi, M., Behrozi, N., & Alipour, S. (2014). Comparisons of Self-Determination among Students with Learning Disabilities and without Learning Disabilities. American Journal of Applied Psychology3(2), 27. https://doi.org/10.11648/j.ajap.20140302.11

Marie-Ève Garand-Gauthier holds a Bachelor's Degree in Secondary-Level Social Sciences Education from Université Laval and a Specialized Graduate Diploma [DESS] in School and Social Adjustment from Université de Sherbrooke. She is currently pursuing studies to obtain a Specialized Graduate Diploma [DESS] in Leadership and Educational Institution Management at Université de Montréal. Having worked with students with learning difficulties and disabilities as a teacher and as the Assistant Director of an adult education centre, she is interested in supporting the development of learner self-determination and the integration of digital technology in the classroom.