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Meeting the Challenges of Maintaining Confidence as a Learner


Students enrolled in post-secondary school settings are busily exploring in depth, areas of academic and vocational interest. In order to develop skills and competence in their studies, they undertake various educational programs, concentrating on courses in certain fields. In the long run, students are expecting, hopefully, to finish a selected program, to attain a particular degree, and to move along in planning for more study and/or career development. Signing on for post-secondary education inevitably tests a student’s inner resources, including a capacity for sustained effort and motivation. Periodically, there are times of temporary academic setbacks that challenge even the hardest working student’s confidence as a capable learner.

For many students, the post-secondary school’s educational environment is likely to be extremely different from anything they have experienced previously. The academic courses may be more diverse, and vary in focus; even the choice of courses can sometimes feel overwhelming. In terms of content, the coursework often requires independent study, and multi-tasking, e.g. reading, organizing and understanding assignments and producing written and oral reports, exams and papers. Even the same course can vary in terms of how it is presented, and depends on the individual faculty’s own interests and choice of emphasis and preferred method of examination.

Students entering post-secondary education are traditionally provided guidance in planning their academic program. For example, they may consult with faculty and staff advisors in various departments. They may talk informally with peers. Ultimately, students must maneuver quite independently, in following through on choosing schedules, courses, and in maintaining their studies. They must learn to manage an increased quantity of reading and writing requirements, as well as new levels of complexity of the content being studied.

Students with specific learning disabilities, who pursue post-secondary education, take on these same academic challenges. Adjusting to new learning environments, new teaching staff, new and more complex learning material, requires large reservoirs of patience, energy, motivation and emotional resilience. Students need to rely on their basic sense of learning competency overall, in order to negotiate those times when they are having learning difficulties. They need confidence to know when to seek assistance, and accommodations that are tailored to their learning needs.

Students with learning disabilities enter post-secondary education in a variety of circumstances. Often, students with learning disabilities will have already identified themselves to the educational institution as having learning difficulties (with the appropriate paper work and supporting test records). Others may enter their program, having decided not to immediately identify themselves as having learning disabilities. Still others may not know of their learning difficulties until they are already well along in their studies. Ultimately, all students have in common the times they face when learning falters, times when they need to determine what their options may be, and where best to seek assistance.

Each student in post-secondary schooling, who has a previously diagnosed disability, has a unique history relating to the nature of his learning problems, including 1) when he learned about them; 2) how well he knows his learning strengths and weaknesses; 3) how well he deals with learning setbacks e.g. doing poorly on a test, having difficulty finishing an assignment on time; completing a reading assignment sufficiently well to move on. He will also have a very particular attitude toward getting help from others that will influence how easily he will be able to seek guidance, and support services, including asking for changes in test requirements and test conditions.

Depending on their choice of school, students will have to navigate the academic system in seeking out appropriate administrative help e.g. support services. Though post-secondary educational institutions are legally bound to provide certain flexible arrangements and services to students with documented disabilities, the extent of their programs and services will vary considerably. It can be a challenge by itself for students with learning disabilities to find the help they need; and to seek out sympathetic and enlightened faculty and staff. This range in the institution’s readiness to meet students’ learning needs, means that students with learning disabilities must often take the initiative and be willing to seek out and get the help they need.

Maintaining a positive outlook as a confident learner

Keeping a steady sense of oneself, as a competent learner is a complex, ongoing psychological task for students at all ages. It involves integrating one’s previous experiences in learning situations, one’s assessment of the current situation, and one’s ability to accurately identify the elements of the task that make the learning relatively easy or difficult. In the long term, knowing how to remain optimistic and focused can be considered important learning goals in and of themselves. When post-secondary educational goals are pursued, a student is naturally raising his level of expectations about what he can accomplish academically.

Facing the daily experiences of temporary academic disappointment and missed expectations is part of every student’s experience. All students inevitably confront contradictory experiences in learning i.e. being both very able to learn and at other times, unable to learn efficiently. This can result in a puzzling array of relative successes and occasional disappointments in specific tasks.

Students with specific learning disabilities have by definition, areas in which they do not perform up to their and others’ expectations. When students who have such learning disabilities reach the level of postsecondary education, their vulnerability to feelings of inadequacy is likely to resurface because of the new level of academic demands. These students can be at risk for global feelings of academic inadequacy, a logical finding that has been well documented in research studies.

Experiences of academic disappointment represent moments along the way, when lapses in learning efficiently are felt keenly. However brief, they are bona fide experiences of temporary learning difficulty, and are often linked to a sense of failure. They can vary in many ways e.g. they may be relatively minor or more important (a poor test grade; a failed course). Such experiences can vary in how they are personally experienced; they may be out of awareness, or sharply noticed. They may involve new or very familiar feelings of helplessness and/or inadequacy. Let’s look at some examples: the little lapses in word finding, the forgetting of simple information “on the spot” e.g. in a classroom discussion, a misjudgment of how much time is needed to finish a class quiz; the inability to respond to a question by the professor because of the way it’s worded.

While these daily, ongoing private episodes need to be acknowledged and reckoned with, they do not necessarily have to negatively impact a student’s confidence overall. A student who knows how to absorb and interpret an academic disappointment, can learn to anticipate and better prepare for the inevitable ups and downs of academic life. The student can grow in his ability to understand and articulate feelings, and explain his learning predicament more accurately, to himself, and to others.

How the student “recovers” from temporary setbacks is critically important in how well he can establish a steady inner sense of himself as a capable learner overall. In order to absorb negative emotional experiences such as doubt or helplessness, the student must learn to recognize 1) why he is struggling in a given task and 2) what it really means that he needs to do, or attend to, in order to feel and do better.

Developing a sense of positive self regard as a learner

Let’s turn to several findings in educational and psychological literature in order to better understand 1) some of the factors that go into a person’s self understanding as a learner, and 2) how that understanding can be applied. We can then consider some specific suggestions for how to absorb the disappointments and feelings of failure that can accompany temporary setbacks in learning.

1. The research literature has sharpened its focus on examining what factors are associated with positive achievement for adults with learning disabilities. Studies show that successful young adults in post- secondary programs tend to have actively sought and received one on one support services when needed. One of the key factors associated with success for these students, has to do with their ability to recognize that they need outside, direct assistance, and then take the initiative to obtain the help that they need.

These studies demonstrate the value of the student’s ability to move forward psychologically, and to take concrete steps to change the way he is approaching the learning task. The studies also reinforce the value of specialized support services. Such help may take the form of counseling, teaching of study skills, analytic thinking skills, writing skills, etc. Depending on the educational setting, help may in the form of an office or program specially designed, or a course, or staff member equipped to provide assistance.

2. As is well demonstrated, students with learning disabilities tend to be at a disadvantage in terms of maintaining high self esteem as a learner, since they typically have specific areas of learning weakness, e.g. in reading fluency and/or reading comprehension, or perhaps cognitive skills involving organization and retention of certain kinds of information. It is not surprising, then to have evidence that children and adults with learning disabilities tend to be more prone to global feelings of academic inadequacy.

Studies show that children early on know and have opinions about themselves as learners; their sense of competency is rooted in each childhood and school experiences. These self judgments about academic ability, continue as students grow older, and can impact on how accurately a student appraises his cognitive abilities. A keen disappointment in academic performance can yield immediate feelings that are perceived as a kind of inner injury that then needs to mend. Learning to expect these feelings, and putting them in context, can be extremely helpful in putting them in perspective.


A student who has trouble organizing his thoughts and putting them on paper is experiencing great difficulty tackling an assigned paper. He expresses a wish that his writing difficulties are due to an emotional block, saying that he prefers that explanation to thinking of himself as having a learning disability. This student needs patient reminding of his false belief of feeling stupid overall. More accurately, he may be a person with many different and good ideas that he cannot easily organize and sequence on paper. He can be reminded too, that his emotions do play a part in how he manages writing, and feeling blocked may be a signal that he needs to change his writing strategies (e.g. take a break, talk his ideas out with another person, check out possible technological assistance available on just this kind of problem).

In another example, a student who processes auditory information inefficiently may be unable to respond to a professor’s demand for an impromptu answer to a question in class. The student may then react with feelings of shame or humiliation. It can help to know that feelings of shame are typical, common responses to the experience of failure, especially in relation to an authority figure like a teacher. Getting past the initial feelings can take time, and patience; plus a willingness to understand the specifics of what happened and how to handle such situations in the future (including perhaps talking to the professor).

3. The psychological research on “learned helplessness” encompasses a large body of work showing fundamentally, how chronic experiences of “failure” in learning situations, combined with an inability to control one’s experience of stress, can lead to patterns of behavior which can be described as a learned helplessness. These and other related findings have been aptly used to describe some of the reactions that persons with learning disabilities display, when their chronic experiences of learning frustrations take their toll.

Common to all students then, including students with learning disabilities, is the potential for engaging in self defeating, defensive behaviors. Students must learn to become better attuned to their own individual frustration patterns, and can be on the look out for times when they may feel overwhelmed. Each person’s tolerance for frustration is different and only the person himself can reliably make that judgment.

Obviously these feelings and behaviors can vary depending on the amount of stress the person has experiences in learning situations, and how the person interprets his learning frustrations. It can help to know that typically, a student’s conditioned responses to disappointments in academic performance, can often include some feelings of helplessness and even anger. It can also help to identify when those feelings tend to occur. Knowing that a pattern of learned helplessness is a common reaction, in difficult learning situations one cannot control, can help take the stigma out of the experience.

Learning per se, needs to take place in a way that gives the learner an experience of accumulated improvement and mastery over time. Too much emotional reactivity, including feelings of frustration, experienced early on the learning situation, can lead to self doubt and trigger anxiety and other feelings which further can further erode the student’s learning confidence. Students with and without learning disabilities are subject to these basic rules about learning attitudes, and learning efficiency.

It follows that students with learning disabilities need to define their expectancies in realistic terms. They need to review and make ongoing assessments of how they are faring, so that they can modify their goals if and when their learning experiences become too negative. This means that students need help in taking a step back, in effect, to look at the big picture of how well they are managing in their new and challenging learning assignments. They need to develop a pattern of reviewing their own performance on a small and regular basis, in order to maintain realistic and doable goals.


If a student experiences failure (e.g. an important exam or paper), in spite of his best learning efforts, this experience can easily trigger avoidance behaviors which can lead to debilitating feelings of disappointment. A student who stops going to class because he is having trouble following the lectures, may be behaving in a way to avoid feelings of failure. If the student is psychologically tuned to his self-defeating behavior, he can do something about it; e.g. deliberately decide to seek help, e.g. get class notes, talk to the professor, and seek out a counselor. These actions do not “dismiss” the level of frustration he may feel, but they help to counteract an overgeneralization of passivity and can help him regain a sense of constructive control.

4. From the literature on how people respond to and explain their personal successes and failures, we can learn what factors tend to correlate with a person’s positive or optimistic outlook about his endeavors.

In research studies about how people make attributions for events that happen to them, optimistic individuals tend to choose explanations of their achievements in terms of circumstances that can be changed for the better, and are therefore not fixed or permanent. The more optimistic individual in effect, frames his explanations not in terms of fixed limitations or disabilities, but in terms of factors both internal and external that he can modify, at least to some extent.

There is some evidence to suggest that students with learning disabilities tend to make errors in correctly attributing the cause of their academic successes and failures. They may be more likely to attribute success to factors outside themselves such as luck, while more likely to blame themselves for failure. This indicates that students with learning disabilities are vulnerable to misjudging their academic capabilities and then get discouraged about their future performance.

If a student can interpret his learning successes and failures in a way that specifies what about the situation contributed to his performance, he is less likely to think in global terms that are over generalized and inaccurate.


Even the simple wording of a person’s explanation for what happened can influence the person’s view of his overall competence. A student who gets a poor grade on an exam may react by assessing his performance in an accurate way that takes into account the events surrounding his test e.g. “I needed more time to prepare for this exam than I could realistically get, given that I had three other tests the same week.” Another student, tending to over generalize, feels more hopeless if he decides to explain his performance by thinking in global terms, e.g. “I should have studied more, I never seem to study enough.”

Instead, a student who analyzes his improved performance on a task, e.g. a homework assignment he is called upon to discuss in class, can learn to explain his success productively. He may realize that the particular content of the assignment was something he was especially interested in, or that he had found the articles he read, to be easier to comprehend because of the writer’s style. He can then refer to these situational factors to help him understand other learning tasks as well, and strategize how to maximize his learning pleasures.

5. Research suggests that people who are optimistic about their achievement abilities, tend to be goal directed, and think about the future in terms of eventual successful outcomes. They are likely to maintain a positive outlook, in part, because they can envision a more positive future where they will be more successful, than they may be currently.

A student who is undergoing disappointment in a learning situation, e.g. whether it be in the learning of a course content, or in a particular assignment, may experience a lessening of that disappointment if he can reorient his thoughts toward what lies ahead. He can remind himself of previous times where he experienced academic improvement and success. He can decide to concentrate on short term learning goals, and set specific tasks on a daily basis. Breaking down tasks, within tasks, can be a means of planning for a succession of completed activities, and can make for small, but intense, moments of pride and relief.


A student facing a lengthy list of reading assignments, may decide to come up with concentrating on ways to discern the authors’ points of view, and major points, rather than reading for exhaustive details. He may decide to concentrate on key chapters, and/or summary abstracts, for example, as a way to identify the author’s major ideas. Oftentimes, changing learning strategies on a small basis can produce reinforcing positive feelings of success —feelings that are in themselves motivating. Successfully completing one task provides immediate reinforcement and encouragement to tackle the next.

Summary comments

In order to develop a reliable sense of competence in approaching the academic demands of post-secondary education, students with learning disabilities need to find various ways to keep on track, emotionally, when their learning experiences prove to be difficult. The sometimes wide gaps between such a student’s ability levels can produce regular ups and downs in the learning process, and in rated performance such as test grades.

Students need to map out and identify early on, the kinds of support services available at their institution, as well as to identify sympathetic and trained faculty and staff members who are respectful and knowledgeable about student’s learning differences and their individual needs.

Students can expect that when they encounter difficult learning tasks, their emotional reactions, though temporarily intense, do not have to yield to potentially self-destructive avoidance behaviors. They need to be on guard for their own internal explanations which globalize erroneously, their feelings of inadequacy, (and which likely reflect early experiences of frustration or failure.) To develop a more reliable sense of competency, students need to create an inner language of self encouragement, and positive inquiry about the specifics of each learning task.

By Augusta Gross, Ph.D. July 2002
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