Practical strategies to boost self-belief

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Helping your students to develop the right kind of self-belief is vital to successful outcomes argues child psychologist Karen Sullivan. She offers some practical strategies for the classroom.

In my last column, we looked at the importance of self-belief and the way it directs students’ approaches to their learning and subsequent achievement (http://bit.ly/1muRcPv). I quoted Self and Self-Belief in Psychology and Education: An Historical Perspective by Frank Pajares and Dale H Schunk, who highlight that students’ “academic behaviours and achievement are directly influenced by the beliefs they hold about themselves and about their academic potentialities”.

All teachers will be aware that students have something akin to mind blocks about certain subjects, which ultimately boils down to their self-beliefs. In the vast majority of cases, they are not intellectually or physically incapable, but simply incapable of believing that they can perform successfully – or, as the authors suggest, “see the work as irrelevant to their lives”.

There are many non-scientific ways to assess self-belief. The aim is simply to establish the areas where students lack it, and perhaps some insight into why. You could, for example, provide a task and ask students (on a scale of 1 to 5) how “certain” they are that they can complete it. It could be something like changing incorrect punctuation in a paper, making a calculation, or listing historical events in chronological order. 

What we need to understand is how confident students are in their ability to undertake the work at hand. Ask them why they believe this. Finally ask them what, in the past, may have lead to this belief. 

Another idea is to provide a series of questions that become increasingly difficult. Ask them to stop when they can’t go any further and then ask the same questions. Why did they stop there? Getting to grips with the reasons why students lack self-belief can help to guide strategy for improving it. And strategies there are in abundance.

One of the key ways to encourage self-belief is to empower students. Let them succeed in subjects where self-belief is low by providing opportunities for success. This obviously requires more work for teachers, but the end result is worth the effort. Establish specific, short-term goals that are challenging but achievable. 

For example, in a maths paper, if a student does not believe he/she can go further, talk them through a similar problem and its solution, and then ask them to try again. Or when one student achieves success, encourage other students at a similar level to witness their success. Rather than pitting students against students, or charting results, which will undermine self-belief, we can provide positive evidence that a task can be completed. With every little success, self-belief is raised.

It’s important to keep feedback credible (avoid over-praising) and to motivate rather than patronise. Bear in mind the reasons why they don’t think they can succeed when providing feedback and support. If you can target at least some of the specific causes, students are more likely to relate and absorb.

Schunk and Pajares suggest that students should always be given a specific learning strategy and encouraged to verbalise it, noting their progress as they proceed and verbalising the next steps. In fact, specific strategies to use when self-doubt is experienced can be essential: “I can do this because I know what to do.”

One of the most important things we can do is to encourage students to believe that mistakes are not bad and that failure is not the result of “being stupid”, but perhaps failing to follow instructions, doing things too quickly, or simply not employing the strategies taught. When you have a metaphorical foot in the door, you’ll find that even reluctant students are more eager to engage in tasks that they believe they can master – and they’ll push themselves further when self-belief begins to increase.


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