4 Ways Self-Belief Can Transform Learning

Today’s best and brightest students can only be described as such because they believe in their own abilities; if they didn’t, they’d have fallen behind their peers long ago. In the same breath, struggling students rarely have as much confidence as their higher-achieving peers, which results in a vicious cycle of self-limitation. As educators, we should make it our mission to help students understand the influence of attitude on learning—starting with some good old-fashioned scientific research.

In a University of Iowa study, college students were divided into high confidence and low confidence groups by being told that they were taking a test designed to measure intelligence of Ivy League versus high school students. Test scores for the groups were compared, and peer evaluations of participants’ performance and academic confidence were examined. The researchers expected group assignment to affect participants’ academic confidence and academic performance, and they were right.

Students assigned to the low confidence group performed worse than students assigned to the high confidence group.

In another study, researchers examined first year engineering students’ learning of mathematics in a university college during 2005–2007. The aim was to better understand students’ confidence and determined whether it affected performance. Surveys were administered, with questions asking about previous mathematics qualifications, student confidence, attitude, liking of the subject, and motivation. The responses were analysed and compared with marks achieved by the students on their first year engineering mathematics examinations. Student confidence influenced performance by as much as 12 per cent.

“Students’ difficulties in basic academic skills are often directly related to their beliefs that they cannot read, write, handle numbers, or think well—that they cannot learn—even when such things are not objectively true,” write Pajares and Schunk of Emory and Purdue Universities respectively. “That is to say, many students have difficulty in school not because they are incapable of performing successfully but because they are incapable of believing that they can perform successfully—they have learned to see themselves as incapable of handling academic work or to see the work as irrelevant to their life.”

Thom Markham—psychologist, school redesign consultant and author of The Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators—says this attitude of self-belief isn’t all that different from what is commonly known as the “placebo effect.”

“In medicine, the placebo effect is well known, but still mysterious,” Markham explains. “Through some unknown connection between mind and body, placebos produce changes in brain states, immune systems, blood pressure and hormone levels. Although most of us think of a placebo as a sugar pill, in fact it’s any intervention in which beliefs produce measurable changes in physiology, and thus performance.”

As an example, Markham describes how, when adults enter a flight simulator and take on the role of Air Force pilots flying a plane, their eyesight improves 40 percent more than adults who just “pretend” to fly a plane in a broken simulator. “Something in the belief system shifts the body,” he says.

You can see this phenomenon in action in various learning settings across the world. When distance-learning students in west Texas used an avatar from Second Life to attend virtual meetings, their academic performance increased. Markham explains: “Their new personas gave them permission to change their behavior. They turned into noticeably different and more attentive students than in person.”

More and more research is being conducted on how the placebo effect influences students, alongside studies on mindfulness and positive psychology.

“Results from research into the growth mindset tell us that placebos have finally hit the classroom,” Markham says. “When students are informed that it’s possible to improve their IQ, they respond by improving their IQ. A simple message of possibility opens the door to an improvement in brain function.”

In their own research, Pajares and Schunk have found that self-efficacy beliefs influence students’ behavior in a number of ways:

1. Choices

“Students engage in tasks about which they feel confident and avoid those in which they do not. At lower levels of schooling, this can be a moot issue, for students often have very little choice over the activities in which they must engage. As they get older, however, they have greater control over course and activity selection, and their confidence influences these decisions.”

2. Effort

“Self-efficacy beliefs also help determine how much effort students will
expend on an activity and how long they will persevere—the higher the sense of efficacy, the
greater the effort expenditure and persistence. This function of self-efficacy beliefs helps create a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, for the perseverance associated with high self-efficacy leads to increased performance, which, in turn, raises sense of efficacy, whereas the giving-in associated with low self-efficacy limits the potential for raising confidence.”

3. Emotion

“Self-efficacy beliefs also affect behavior by influencing students’ emotional reactions. Students with low self-efficacy can come to believe that things are tougher than they really are, a belief that fosters anxiety, stress, and a narrow vision of how best to solve a problem. High self-efficacy, on the other hand, creates feelings of serenity in approaching difficult tasks, increases optimism, lowers anxiety, raises self-esteem, and fosters resilience.”

4. Perceived difficulty

“Confident students approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They have greater intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities, set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them, and heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. Moreover, they more quickly recover their confidence after failures or setbacks, and they attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. For confident students, failure is a healthy reminder that they need to work harder. Conversely, students with low self-efficacy may believe that things are tougher than they really are, a belief that fosters stress, depression, and a narrow vision of how best to solve a problem. When students lack confidence in their capabilities, they are likely to attribute their failure to low ability which they perceive as inborn, permanent, and not acquirable. For them, failure is just another reminder that they are incapable. Students who doubt their academic ability envision low grades often before they even begin an examination.”

So is there something we can do, as educators, to inspire self-efficacy among our own students? Markham thinks so.

“To get at this kind of depth in teaching is not difficult, except for the awkward fact that education has yet to escape the ’empty vessel’ metaphor. We continue to insist that filling up students with information constitutes good learning. That’s why moving to a more inquiry-based, personalised and student-driven system—the face of the future—feels slow and fitful. But every teacher can begin to import this new thinking into the classroom by conveying the primary message that relationships matter in ways that far exceed our prior beliefs.”

Pajares and Schunk agree: “It may even be reasonably argued that teachers should pay as much attention to students’ self-beliefs as to actual competence, for it is the belief that may more accurately predict students’ motivation and future academic choices. Assessing students’ self-beliefs can provide schools with important insights about their pupils’ academic motivation, behavior, and future choices. For example, unrealistically low self-efficacy, not lack of capability or skill, can be responsible for maladaptive academic behaviors, avoidance of courses and careers, and diminishing school interest and achievement. Students who lack confidence in skills they possess are less likely to engage in tasks in which those skills are required, and they will more quickly give up in the face of difficulty.”

It all starts with those powerful, positive beliefs that, when openly transmitted to others, result in “positive thinking, brighter attitudes, a greater sense of well-being and other indicators of a more alert, resilient, and balanced individual.”

Here are a few ways to spark those beliefs:

1. Use your words.

“Neuronal networks are being built or discarded in the course of one conversation,” Markham says. “The neurons themselves each contain 2-3 feet of DNA that control gene expression, meaning that culture and conversation ultimately have permanent effects on the brain. And the deeper work on consciousness by leading scientists points to ever-changing quantum activity at the subcellular level generated by beliefs and thoughts.”

That’s the power of positive words.

2. Use body language strategically.

Beliefs and attitudes are transmitted through body language and facial expressions just as much as words. If you’re telling a student you believe in them but not looking them in the eye, for instance, it can be enough to drain the sentiment of all meaning. Make sure you are aware of your own body language when you’re interacting with students, and use it to your advantage to inspire positive thinking whenever possible.

3. Show that you care—and mean it.

“Positive, sincere beliefs matter. This is territory virtually unexplored in education, but the latest research is clear: The body and brain respond favorably to care, sincerity and unconditional acceptance, which are relayed through the heart and vagal system to the brain. So it’s not enough to smile (fake smiles don’t work, anyway) and say the right words unless you believe them wholeheartedly. Inquiry and innovation rely on a high-functioning brain activated by care and acceptance.”

Educational researcher Erik Erikson put it this way: “Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but what I call their accruing ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their culture.”

4. Help students become more resilient.

“Resiliency is commonly viewed as an antidote to stress or an intervention for at-risk students. But in a chaotic, 21st century world, resiliency becomes a broader term that encompasses balance, persistence, and awareness. And the research is clear: These aspects of character are evoked in students through a strong mentor relationship with an adult who cares, listens, and offers nonjudgmental coaching and feedback.”

5. Help students build their learner identity.

“Currently, we intend to deliver the Big Four 21st century skills (collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity) much like we teach the photosynthesis cycle or the causes of the Civil War. They’re outcomes of an instructional process. This is magical thinking. These skills are deeply rooted in attitude, confidence, empathy, openness, and curiosity — the province of character. How do we move upstream, get as close to the source as possible and elicit these qualities?”

Help students build character as learners and they’ll build character as individuals as well.

“The aim of education must transcend the development of academic competence,” Pajares and Schunk write. “Schools have the added responsibility of preparing self-assured and fully-functioning individuals capable of pursuing their hopes and their ambitions. Nel Noddings observed that the ultimate aim of schools should be to nurture the ‘ethical self,’ that is ‘to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.’ Schools can aid their students in these pursuits by helping them to develop the habit of excellence in scholarship while at the same time nurturing the self-beliefs necessary to maintain that excellence throughout their adult lives.”


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

One Response

  1. Pat Lopez-good says:

    Thank you for this good information. Our group is working on confident and resilient learners. Our PBL question: “How are we going to build or support confident and resilient learners? “I will share this information with the group.

    I need to digest the information more. Thank you.

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