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No benefit to doubt: building confidence in education

If you are a parent to a school-aged child, chances are you invest significant time and effort in...

19.04.2021

If you are a parent to a school-aged child, chances are you invest significant time and effort in helping your child reach her full potential. After all, education plays an important role in setting ourselves up for success in life, and what parent doesn’t want their child to succeed?

Often, this is where people like me come in: As a private tutor, my job is to provide support, whether that means going over the material discussed in the classroom, targeted exam preparation or just delving deeper into a subject.

As a tutor, I have had the privilege of working with a lot of students – and talking to a lot of parents. Although the concerns of children and parents may differ in some regards, there is one common denominator: achievement. In the context of education, this typically translates into getting certain grades or gaining admission to a certain school or university.

But what determines achievement? This question is of course not new, and the answer likely includes a variety of factors at both the individual and the institutional level. Here, I want to focus on the individual: What can we do – as tutors, students, parents – to help ourselves or someone else achieve?

Do beliefs shape potential?

What was your best subject at school? I bet you have some fond memories of it – that exam you did particularly well on, the praise you got from your teacher, how your classmates came to you for help. Now think about your worst subject. Chances are your memories are very different: that time you got a bad grade, feelings of shame or embarrassment, negative comments from classmates, parents or teachers. How did you feel about your potential to excel in your best subject? How about your worst? Did you approach both with equal confidence? The answer is probably ‘no’.

But what is confidence? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, it is “the quality of being certain in your abilities”. But where does this belief in our abilities come from? How do we build it, and can it be recovered if lost?

Stress, memory and learning – a trinity of doom?

Research on the strengthening of memory over time may be able to offer an explanation as to why we remember our best and worst subjects so well. As humans, we are designed to seek reward and avoid threat or fear. Because of this, we are primed to preferentially remember things we associate with positive emotions, just as we tend to hold on to memories of negative events. With the former, the purpose is clear: we want more of that. With the latter, things are even clearer: We want as little of that as possible.

As humans, we are designed to seek reward and
avoid threat or fear.

Where does confidence come into this? While the extent to which it was positive or negative may be one aspect that determines whether we hold on to a particular memory, another important factor is whether the information is consistent with prior experience and beliefs. Research has shown that the beliefs we hold about our ability to achieve – our confidence or self-concept – can impact our academic achievement.

Thus, a vicious cycle is born: That bad grade, the negative feedback that sticks with us, might destroy our motivation to study, leading to further negative experiences we are more likely to remember. Over time, we develop an unhelpful self-concept of our ability to achieve. In other words, we lose our confidence.

Breaking the cycle

So how can we break this vicious cycle? One answer may be to borrow from exposure therapy, a type of behavioural treatment that is typically used in anxiety disorders.

As the name suggests, this involves being repeatedly confronted with the object of one’s fear, albeit in a safe context. Over time, this can help break the cycle of distress, avoidance and fear. One-on-one tutoring interventions following this framework have been shown to be effective in alleviating maths anxiety. Thus, exposure to the ‘feared’ subject in a safe and supportive environment may help reduce negative associations and represent a first step in rebuilding that all-important confidence.

Time is of the essence

Another important aspect is getting an idea of a student’s approach to studying. As a tutor, I have often found that students feel they are putting in the time and effort, but are not seeing the results they were hoping for, reinforcing negative beliefs about their ability to achieve.

In such cases, it can be helpful to ask students to provide a detailed account of their approach to studying. Do they regularly go over the material discussed in the classroom, or do they only study in preparation for exams? If they feel they have not understood a concept, do they ask for help? When preparing for exams, do they go straight to questions from past papers, or do they try to gain a thorough understanding of the subject first?

Avoiding a subject until it is time to prepare for an exam – often referred to as procrastination – has been shown to negatively affect achievement, and has also been linked to negative affect and low self-esteem.

One possible solution may be to draw up a detailed study plan that includes regular sessions with a tutor, parent or friend to discuss the material studied and any problems encountered.

Challenging negative beliefs

To reduce negative associations with a ‘feared’ subject, it may be helpful to keep a written record of any positive experiences – such as being able to answer a question or solve a problem. When feeling overwhelmed with negative thoughts, looking at this journal of positive memories may aid in alleviating anxiety.

It is also important to be aware of negative self-talk. Replacing ‘blanket’ negative statements, such as “I will never understand this”, with solution-oriented, neutral ones (‘I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but I can ask for help / go over my notes again’) can help challenge negative beliefs.

Without fear or limitations

In conclusion, the key to achievement may simply lie in learning to sit down and study, without fear, without stress, without self-judgement. When it comes down to it, maybe all we need to achieve is “the quality of being certain in our abilities” – in a word, confidence.

About the author: Luzia Trobinger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit and I has worked as a private tutor in the past.

If you enjoyed this article you might like to read “How to understand your child’s learning style.

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