Deborah Butler

Empowering thinking can support every student to have their ‘light bulb’ moment. According to Dr. Butler, teaching strategies that support the interpretation of expectations and the development of purpose can help every student shine.  

“Students bring different histories to our classrooms. […] We can’t just expect learners to “know” what is expected of them in particular classrooms or schools” – Dr. Butler    

Dr. Butler’s early experiences working with post-secondary students who were not thriving in school inspired her to dig deeper into self-regulated learning with her research. She found that these capable students had a difficult time mobilizing their pre-existing strengths to achieve their goals, often because they lacked clarity on the purpose behind their work. In fact, the lessons that Dr. Butler learned about students’ common areas of difficulty motivated her research throughout her career- which has since included learners from K-12 as well as post-secondary settings. Defining the demands of tasks, and the strategies that are useful to achieve them, can be areas of shared difficulty among students who aren’t experiencing success in school. Hence, Dr. Butler’s research aims to support students by empowering their thinking, leading them to develop a sense of agency over their learning that balances the goals of both students and teachers. 

Empowering Learning and Learners: What Does Self-Regulated Learning Have to Do With It? 

Dr. Butler’s research has brought forward strategies that teachers can use to support their students’ self-regulated learning on a day-to-day basis. Foundationally, it’s important for students to have the opportunity to lead their learning and feel included in an environment that is designed to foster a safe emotional climate. Her work has also identified how the strategic action cycle of developing purpose, planning, enacting strategies, monitoring, and adjusting can be translated into kid-friendly terms along with other concepts related to self-regulated learning. For example, thinking can be an abstract concept and students benefit when purposes and processes are made visible in the classroom. Students may have different cultural understandings about learning and their roles as learners; as such, Dr. Butler encourages teachers to explicitly discuss their expectations and goals for learning when introducing tasks. Involving students in the co-construction of criteria and giving them engaging opportunities to discuss and interpret the expectations of a task can go a long way in empowering them to take control over their learning. Furthermore, teachers can use strategic questioning to guide their students to think about the demands of a task on their own or with others. Ultimately, teachers have the power to support students in developing a purpose and clear direction that can form the basis for their productive self-direction of learning while also reducing their anxiety about tasks. 

“Once we figured out what our job was, we were able to break it down into tasks or steps. We made a visual representation and now, when we are at the carpet, we can discuss where we are in relation to our job” – Nicole Desy, Teacher Partner 

“The children […] are starting to take ownership over what they are supposed to be doing (rather than relying on having the information repeated over and over again)”- Amy Semple, Teacher Partner 

Dr. Butler’s research has been inspired by her teacher partnerships, and the varied and creative ways that teachers have supported self-regulated learning in their own classrooms. In her work, teachers and researchers partner to co-construct knowledge about teaching and learning much like teachers can co-construct goals and expectations with their students. Together with Dr. Butler and each other, teachers have developed tools that integrate the development of self-regulated learning with their daily classroom activities. By focusing on empowering thinking, teachers can light the match that ignites the development of self-regulated learning in their students.  


Deborah Butler, PhD
Professor, University of British Columbia, Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education

General Research Interests:

  • Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning
  • Collaborative, Inquiry-Based Approaches to Professional Learning
  • Inclusive Education
  • Case Study Methodology
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Intentional Learning Across Contexts In and Out of Schools
  • Teacher On-Going Professional Education
  • Health Professions Education