The coming weeks are a crucial time for learning. We want students whose learning has lagged over the past months to catch up. The end of the year will soon be here and expectations for learning growth for many students have not been met. Special efforts are underway to accelerate learning and ensure that students gain the skills and learn the content they will need when school opens again in the fall. For many, this summer will be a time for classes and study rather than leisure and relaxation.
Yet, aiming our focus on instruction and content coverage alone will not be a recipe for success. Regardless of how diligently we teach, students must be ready to learn. They are a key piece of the success puzzle. Certainly, many students who have been learning remotely are ready to return to in-person learning and engage in whatever learning lies ahead.
At the same time, a large group of students have found learning during this past year to be more difficult than in previous ones. They struggled to focus and had difficulty sustaining learning efforts, especially when they felt stuck. Too often they did not have the learning support that used to sustain them when they struggled. Their grades have fallen and, in some cases, they face the possibility of failing.
As adults, we can see that the learning conditions they’ve faced have likely contributed heavily, if not fully, to the situations in which these students find themselves. For students, the situation is not necessarily as clear. As a result, many have come to doubt their learning potential and skills. What used to come fairly easily no longer does.
What has been lost is their confidence. With loss of confidence comes greater reluctance to take learning risks. Why try if failure is the likely outcome? Learning persistence also dissipates with loss of confidence. Why continue to struggle if I do not believe I will succeed? It can be less painful to be chided for not trying than to be exposed as not capable. What these students face is as much a crisis in confidence as a crisis in learning.
What can we do to help students rebuild their confidence and move past this crucial learning barrier? Here are seven strategies to tap:
- Demonstrate confidence in our students. If we are convinced that our students will succeed and we consistently communicate our belief in them and their capacity to be successful, our confidence will “rub off.” It is much easier to take risks when important people around us are confident that we will succeed.
- Focus on small successes. Confidence grows with successful experiences. Learning activities at which students can succeed can get them started. We can also design these activities to tell us what students know and may be ready to learn next.
- Set goals with students. Conversations about goals can offer great opportunities to share our confidence and challenge students to reach higher. If students feel as though they are part of the goalsetting process, they are also more likely to take ownership and make greater efforts to succeed. As goals are met, we can reinforce with students their capability and potential.
- Coach students to recall and recount their successes. Confidence grows as we feel successful. Self-talk plays a key role in how successful students feel. By coaching students to remember and relive their successes, they can counter negative, confidence-undermining narratives. Of course, they occasionally need us to point out and remind them of their successes and areas of strength.
- Discourage students from comparing themselves and their performance with others. Comparisons to others who may be moving faster or doing better can undermine confidence even though another student may be in a very different situation. What matters most is for the student to concentrate on his or her own learning and progress. It is also the only element students can control.
- Remind students that effort and occasional struggle are an important part of learning. In fact, learning that comes easy is often forgotten just as easily. When students have to concentrate and make multiple attempts, we can remind them that they are experiencing a natural part of the learning process.
- Enlist students in keeping track of their progress. When students submit assignments, turn in tests, and complete assessments solely for our attention and recording, it can be easy for them not to be aware of their progress. Yet, documenting and tracking progress can be highly motivating and confidence-building. We can design monitoring tools and strategies that position students to monitor their progress, in addition to our records. This information also can be helpful when progress begins to slow, and students need additional coaching and nudging to get back on track.
Of course, confidence is a personal experience. Its presence or absence can be due to multiple causes. Consequently, a confidence-building strategy for one student may not be effective for another. We need to tap our knowledge of our students and our relationships with them, select the right time, and choose the best strategy. The right combination can have a powerful impact.