Five Ways to: Build Confidence

There’s a lot to learn! Sometimes it feels overwhelming – especially to students with the least confidence; the weakest knowledge; the most tentative grasp of the ideas. Something I observe fairly often – and is worth reflecting on in your own lessons – is that the students with the most confidence dominate lessons. They get asked more questions; they get through more activities and tasks; they get more time to rehearse and develop answers. Overall, somewhat paradoxically, they are getting more practice than the students with the lowest confidence.

To a student with low confidence, lessons can sometimes feel like this:

  • there’s too much to learn at once, which I find overwhelming and demoralising.
  • there’s an assumption about my prior knowledge that is overly optimistic, so I feel like I’m behind the whole time,
  • there’s not enough time to practice, so I don’t get a chance to do anything well.
  • the tasks are too long with too many elements and I’m not sure about any of it.
  • the quizzing seems random – asking me stuff I barely know so mainly I’m guessing.

With this in mind, it’s worth thinking about lessons from the perspective of a student with low confidence to see what you can do to help them. Here are five ways….

Consolidate. Consolidate. Consolidate.

Take every possible opportunity to go over things again and again, giving students the chance to over-learn and consolidate.:

  • Summarise the key points (or phrases or definitions or examples) multiple times, and ask students to run through them individually and in pairs – so that every student can mentally and/or verbally restate them.
  • Ask the same question to more than one student. Go over it again; check that one good answer is understood by other students, explicitly repeating the key elements that represent that good answer.
  • Give lots of examples during explanations – never just one. Show how the same ideas, methods, terminology, concepts come up again and again.
  • Make sure question and problem sets are often largely consolidatory: repeating ideas and methods that have already been learned, to they feel unthreatening – just practice of the known and familiar; students know what to do, it’s just a case of actually doing it to consolidate.

Explicit Rehearsal

This links to the ideas explored in this post:

Make sure all students have time to rehearse the knowledge you introduce.

  • Did everyone say the new phrase?
  • Can everyone explain the method?
  • Can everyone explain the steps in the argument?
  • Can everyone explain the key metaphor that the poet is using?
  • Can everyone run through the sequence in the erosion process?

This isn’t about having it written in their books. It’s about being able to generate responses, rehearsing the words and arguments – even if prompted and heavily scaffolded. If you’ve explained something, can students explain it back to you? It’s a form of explicit rehearsal. The least confident students will be the least likely to volunteer – and yet they are the ones who need the rehearsal most. This is where inclusive questioning comes in to support them, including a key role for pair talk.

Repeated Short Feedback Loops

Often students are set a task that takes a long time to do and has many components so the process of getting feedback is complex and at a distance from the moment of doing each part. And then there’s no time to re-do all of it because there’s too much. As an alternative it can be very powerful to construct short tasks with the explicit aim of creating short feedback and improvement loops:

Do the task; evaluate and generate feedback; do it again better; evaluate and generate feedback; do it again better… and so on.

This process builds confidence as students see how they can improve and produce something of quality rather than a series of things that are mediocre. It’s more common to see this in practical pursuits like playing an instrument and PE – where the process of building physical strength and muscle memory is well understood. Other cognitive examples might include:

  • Small-scale life drawings – small enough to try many times.
  • The opening two sentences in an story, essay or speech
  • An explanation of a process in science or geography.
  • A three-sentence exchange in French

It’s just so common for things to be done just once – but can you find a way to build in these repetition loops that allow a short-run improvement process to happen?

Scaffold the details.

As with many ideas in teaching, everyone knows what scaffolding is in theory. But the practice can be patchy. Quite often, you can find students in the corners, floundering. My favourite examples of scaffolding, where I see confidence-building in action, are where specific structures are being taught and students are practising using them. This includes ideas for talk as explored here:

Often students who struggle to give detailed answers verbally or in writing are struggling because they are unsure about how to organise and express their ideas – even though they have a reasonable understanding of the concepts. Scaffolds can include frequently used subject-specific structures, introduced on at time, not just on a long list.

I saw some Year 5s using this recently to great effect: On one hand, an advantage of tourist visiting Snowdon is that….. On the other hand, a disadvantage is….. This was helping them prepare their balanced argument pieces.

I met some Year 8’s learning chemistry with good scaffolding around concrete examples of metal reactions. A few common metals and non-metals were highlighted and students had to generate lots and lots of compounds, rehearsing the naming protocols e.g. oxygen –> oxide. When asked for examples they had to say ‘Zinc reacts with Oxygen to produce Zinc Oxide’ – a good form of specific scaffolded rehearsal.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it. But it’s not always like that; students are just asked to get things down in the books without the confidence-building rehearsal.

Retrieval with Agency.

Design quizzing and other retrieval practice routines so that students can perform well to build their confidence, rather than merely reinforcing their sense of not knowing things.

Topic in advance: Tell students exactly what they need to know, supported by a study resource (booklet, knowledge organiser etc) and tell them that they’ll be quizzed on a specific date on just that knowledge. This gives them a chance to properly study and get ready and do well. If quizzing tends to be across many topics at random, students develop a learned helplessness. How do study for all of that? Give them the chance to succeed.. make it tight, specific and predictable. At least at first.

Questions in advance: If a student can’t do well on a quiz they’ve seen in advance, they won’t do well on one that is a total surprise. For students who struggle to form study habits and engage in mental rehearsal, showing them the exact questions they’ll be asked can help. It really lays it out for them: you will need to know the answers to these questions. Discuss all the answers. Then the quiz that comes later is very much a recall of known material. This isn’t trivial. e.g ‘What is mitosis?’ For some students, it’s a big deal just to give that answer even when they know that it’s coming. Try it.

Paired-Quizzing: Here students learn to use the knowledge resources to ask each other questions. When you are asking someone questions you are also consolidating your own knowledge; you are practising using the language and thinking of possible questions to pose. It’s empowering to ask and then give answers. I always find students enjoy it immensely. They take turns and both people in a pair benefit. Because it is low stakes, the pressure is off and they can do multiple cycles of swapping to build confidence.

Flash Cards: This is a superb form of self-quizzing that, done well, builds confidence. The trick is to make sure students are using them with some discipline: pose the question… think of the answer…. then turn over to check. Students can isolate the cards they find hardest to get right and can repeat the checking process over and over and over. It’s in their hands; they have agency. They see that they can learn things if they commit to it with enough intensity. Model it in class so that they can do it well independently.

Here’s a 10 minute Kitchen Pedagogy video explainer:

2 comments

  1. I find so many aspects in your explanations that are useful and partly confirm and put into words what I’m doing from instinct and experience. Of course, I learned how to teach, but what I was taught makes up only about half of what proves to be efficient in the classroom.
    Always motivated to reflect on the things you write and apply small changes to my practice.
    Greetings from Germany

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The post is an amazing read. I love how it explains that students with confidence dominate the lesson, but students with low confidence are the ones who need the extra help. A love the idea of giving the students a chance to over learn and consolidate, this means teaching the same thing over and over through the scaffolding instructions method. I also will start asking myself these questions when formatively evaluating the students and planning for the next day. 1. Did everyone say the new phrase? 2. Can everyone explain the method? 3. Can everyone explain the steps in the argument? 4. Can everyone explain the key metaphor that the poet is using? 5. Can everyone run through the sequence in the erosion process? Then us the information I gather to implement in the next days lesson. This should help students build confidence in the content, and help the class engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

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