Why I Can’t Say “Good Job;” How to Build Students’ Personal Confidence in Learning

Teacher Editorial | By Emily Wong (BOLT student)

“Is this okay?”

steamIn teaching within the abstract nature of English Language Arts, I’d definitely been on the receiving end of students with nervous and stressed-out requests for validation and approval(whether that’s an initial phase of trepidation, or throughout a learning process). Even as I embrace my role as an online teacher, these queries may take on a different forms(in terms of emails, discussion posts, or phone calls), but at the core highlight the same main issue: students who lack confidence and surety in their learning.

Educators often encounter numerous examples of students who lose or have lost confidence in their abilities, whether that’s due to personal beliefs about learning, anxiety, reliance on external factors, or repeated failures in classroom tasks. Although students may seek out external and immediate feedback(i.e. “Is my idea good? What do you think?”) these requests is largely teacher-centric and doesn’t allow student agency and onus over confidence in learning and acquisition of self-efficacy strategies.

So how do we foster a sense of self-efficacy and confidence in nervous learners?

It may be easier in the moment to provide a brief response which can garner a positive reaction as the learner receives the feedback they seek; however, if the goal is to have a strengthened sense of personal confidence that can be applied over the lifetime of learning, it is not enough to turn to a quick solution(regardless of how little time we may have in a day!).

I suggest the following ideas to help students develop self-confidence and efficacy in their classroom(and hopefully lifelong!) learning:

Capture CLEAR THE FOG-when teaching an initial concept or learning process, make clear statements of what is expected of students. By having clear instructions and expectations, students are aware of what the end goal is, and the rationale behind the learning reinforces relevance. In my practice, I often framed my lesson for the day or week with an exemplar of the end outcome, and then highlighted the “point” or why we were learning the concept or process. As a teacher, I had to learn to embrace the entirety of the process, including behavioural, learning, and concrete expectations. Unless I could convey these in a clear and tangible manner to my students, I could not expect the students to be confident in the purpose or understanding of what was expected as a final product. As Schunk(2012) states, “lowering the fear of failure and raising hope for success enhance motivation, which can be done by conveying positive expectations for learning to students and by structuring tasks so students can successfully complete them with reasonable effort.”

Capture2 GET CHUNKY-after the initial introduction, have the flexibility to work with the class as a whole to break down the task. I would often explain the end goal and provide an exemplar(which was typically a student-created exemplar). As a class, we would review the rubric and discuss what descriptors or characteristics we could see in the exemplar, and explain why the exemplar met these descriptors. Then, in a brainstorming session(which can be done with a jigsaw format), I had students break down each step, from an initial planning stage(from materials, time constraints, potential obstacles, and solutions) to execution(length/depth of assessment, potential for error, individual needs) and revision(drafts, editing process, deadlines). These steps, suggestions, potential for obstacles, and solutions would then be shared in a Google document or other cloud-based forum for students to contribute and review on their own time as they tackled the task individually.

Capture3 SCAFFOLDING IS KEY-especially if it’s a skill or characteristic to be retained over time. For instance, in the classroom one key skill I revisited frequently is the idea of civil dialogue in Socratic discussions. Initially, I provided a video exemplar of a model seminar, followed by student suggestions as to how to run an effective discussion, then practicing this input with a teacher-facilitated small group seminar on a minor text. We then moved to self-directed small group seminars on a minor text, then a major text, finally ending with a student-directed/teacher-monitored whole class seminar on a major text. While this process can be time consuming, it reinforced several points: the purpose of civil dialogue, text focus and peer-supported exchange and analysis, as well as a lifelong skill of constructive verbal exchanges. While a few students may have had the initial skills to engage in civil dialogue, many students came to the class with little idea as to the method of development for this skill; as such, “the scaffold helps learners acquire skills that they would be unlikely to acquire without the assistance…[and] helps to minimize the extrinsic load so learners can focus their resources on the intrinsic demands of the learning”(Schunk, 2012).

Capture4 LET’S GET REAL-through specific self-reflection and metacognitive exercises, students can be taught to set realistic goals for learning. Part of building confidence in learning is the achievement of one’s goals; however, students who lack defined self-awareness may end up setting either a goal that is too difficult to achieve within a specified time frame, or underestimate themselves and set a goal too low which provides very little positive reinforcement. Ultimately when we have students set goals for their learning, we want them to choose “goals [that] have the highest saliency and will therefore lead to purposeful effort to accomplish the goal”(Keller, 2008). A student’s perception of the relationship between their own efforts and accomplishment is key to fostering confidence in learning, and can lead to additional risk-taking and goals in personal learning.

Capture5 “SAME-IES!”(i.e. identify individual differences, and group accordingly)- by grouping students according to their strengths or needs, students’ uneasiness regarding their learning pitfalls can be addressed once they are placed with others who may be struggling with a similar issue. According to Keller(2008) commonalities in homogeneity, and strength in identification with others’ skills that are comparable to one’s own can help students become more confident in their learning as often learners compare their own performance with that of their peers. By pooling mental resources, students with similar strengths or needs can collaborate with each other and take risks in contributing ideas and suggestions to resolve current issues. While grouping students may be more difficult to determine in an asynchronous distance learning environment, there is great potential if the classroom is run as a cohort, or even having forums with common issues as identified by students where everyone can contribute ideas or suggestions in a safe space.

Capture6 REWRITE THE SCRIPT-often a student’s internal monologue and persistence in self- belief has a direct impact on a learner’s confidence and motivation to pursue learning goals. When learners go through repeated cycles of failing to meet their goals, or have the mantra that consistently relies on self-doubt and the impact of failure, these messages can often leave students in a perpetual state of living up to the message such as “Why try? I’ll only just fail” or “I can’t do it; I’ve never been able to.” This type of self-attributed failure is rooted in historical attitudes towards learning: “in the 19th century, learning was viewed as a formal discipline, and a student’s failure to learn was widely attributed to personal limitations in intelligence or diligence”(Zimmerman, 2002), and it is clear that to revise and rewrite these messages can be difficult as “[l]earners who think they cannot reach a goal hold low self-efficacy, do not commit to attempting the goal, and work halfheartedly” and by providing concrete feedback and observations through learning, the instructor can instill a revised focus and provide a different path for students to grasp skills that are being developed, rather than an overall absence of learning.

Capture7 STUDENT INPUT-regardless of the learning process, students bring with them a desire to relate their past experiences, perceptions, and background to the challenges and successes that learning offers in the classroom. By allowing opportunities for self-connection in approaching unfamiliar learning tasks, students were encouraged to link their real world experiences to a character’s struggles, context, or worldview. When introducing new tasks later in the semester, students had the opportunity to propose their own types of assessments and incorporate their interests into a final product. By welcoming the individual’s personal knowledge, students felt more at ease with the learning by coming from a place of familiarity and lived experiences. “self-regulation of learning involves more than detailed knowledge of a skill; it involves the self-awareness, self-motivation, and behavioral skill to implement that knowledge appropriately”(Zimmerman, 2002).

Capture8 OFFER CHOICE-if a student loves something, try and incorporate it into your assessments and teaching-by appealing to passions and interests students can get on board with the task and often push themselves to a depth of understanding rooted in their own personal expertise. “Students who believe they have control over their successes and failures should be more inclined to engage in academic tasks, expend effort, and persist than students who believe their behaviours have little impact on outcomes”(Schunk, 2012). For instance, in the class study of The Glass Castle, a 30-2 student(who had extensive experience in repairing and modifying high-performance racing vehicles) proposed an extended metaphor using the various vehicles mentioned in the novel, and using the vehicle parts and their functions analyzed each of the characters’ roles and key purposes in the novel. Previously apathetic or disengaged, the student’s spark was evident in his creation of an insightful analysis of the novel, accompanied by a visual component in which clear pride of work was obvious.

Capture9 EMBRACE THE STRUGGLE-we have all observed learners who do not achieve the desired outcome due to a variety of circumstances. However, by shifting the focus from what wasn’t achieved, to what factors caused the failure to occur, or revise and revisit goals for learning, students can begin to grasp key characteristics in their learning as well as identify the factors that they can control in order to achieve greater success in their next attempt: “[t]hese learners monitor their behavior in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning. Because of their superior motivation and adaptive learning methods, self-regulated students are not only more likely to succeed academically but to view their futures optimistically.”(Zimmerman, 2002)

Overall, by enlisting the learners through feedback and metacognition, demystifying the learning process and outcomes, and allowing for flexibility, we can encourage our nervous learners to clarify their needs and struggles in the classroom, and build upon a stronger foundation through a clearer understanding of self.

How about in your classroom practice? What pointers or techniques have you observed is effective to help students build self-confidence and efficacy?


Keller, J. (2008). An integrative theory of motivation, volition, and performance. Technology, Instruction, Cognition & Learning, 6(2), 79 – 104.

Schunk, D.H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Boston: Pearson.

[Untitled illustration of a nervous student]. Retrieved April 25, 2016 from https://www.google.ca/search?site=imghp&tbm=isch&q=nervous+student&tbs=sur:fmc&gws_rd=cr&ei=vMse V9iGIeqqjgTrjaSoCQ#imgrc=rSNvF7dB9a6B2M%3A

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice,41(2), 64–70.


About the Contributor


Emily Wong has been teaching English Language Arts to high school students for 10 years. She graduated from University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Education degree, specializing in English Language Arts and a minor in Social Studies. Her past experiences include working with students in credit recovery, adult learners in an upgrading school setting, sheltered English Language Learners(ELL) achieving diploma exam outcomes, and at-risk/high-risk students. She currently teaches English 10-1 and 10-2 at the Alberta Distance Learning Centre, a fully online, asynchronous classroom service delivery organization, and is a winner of the ASCD Innovative Practice Award and a semi-finalist for the Alberta Excellence in Teaching Awards.

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