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Cultivating self-confidence in students

All of us in life face tasks that we are called upon to do, but how motivated we are to accomplish them varies. Figuring out what factors are linked to motivation and confidence is especially crucial in the arena of academics, because these are both important in promoting positive learning outcomes.

All of us in life face tasks that we are called upon to do, but how motivated we are to accomplish them varies. Figuring out what factors are linked to motivation and confidence is especially crucial in the arena of academics, because these are both important in promoting positive learning outcomes.

When we are more confident about our ability to do something, we are more likely to readily engage in that activity and we will work longer and harder at it than when we doubt our capability. This sense of self-confidence in our ability to accomplish tasks is a very important driver in building motivation.

So, where does self-confidence in our ability come from?

The biggest single factor is, of course, how well we do. We consider how well we performed similar or related tasks in the past. Success raises self-confidence and failure lowers it, but once confidence is developed, failure has less impact.

The second most important influence is observing people we know perform the same task. However, just seeing others undertaking the task and succeeding is less persuasive than our own performance.

Persuasion or feedback from others also influence our self-confidence. When we want to try something new, we often find friends and family cheering us on: “You can do it.” Such encouragement is initially important in helping someone to try or to start a new task, but alone is not enough to build confidence unless the person actually performs the task well.


For students, self-confidence is an important element in learning. At the start of a new course, students vary in their beliefs about their competence to obtain knowledge, develop or perform skills and master the subject.

Initially, self-confidence varies as a function of aptitude (for example, skills, gifts and attitudes) and most importantly, prior experience. Once the course starts, other factors come into operation, including one’s real ability. From these elements, students develop indications as to how well they are learning, which influences their self-confidence for further learning.

We can help students increase their self-confidence and, ultimately, their motivation for learning. Goal-setting is particularly important.

Students have expectations about how they are likely to do in a course. If the expectation or goal is too high then when success is slow or not as anticipated, confidence and interest wane. Goal-setting is an important cognitive process affecting self-confidence and motivation.

When students who set a goal for themselves or are given a goal by others such as a teacher, they experience an initial sense of confidence and achievement when they reach the goal. Success in attaining the initial goal reinforces their commitment to continue with the course.

As students work on the course, they immerse themselves in activities that will lead to goal attainment: Read, practise and extend their knowledge. This increased effort and persistence leads to further progress and increase in confidence.

Self-confidence is validated as students observe their progress, which signals to them that they are becoming skilful.

Thus, setting the right goals is the key to enhancing confidence. There are three simple rules. The first is that goals should be achievable within a short time frame. Goals that are too far out in time do not easily build self-confidence since it will take a long time to achieve them and students are likely to lose interest before then.

Second, goals should be specific — goals that are general do not help. Lofty, but vague injunctions such as “be like Michael Jordan” or the very common prodding parents will frequently offer to kids, “perform to the best of your ability” are not useful. These have no specifics and are therefore not measurable, which means that children do not know how or when to achieve them. Specific goals are measurable and it is evident when they are met.

The third rule relates to the difficulty level of goals. At the start of a new activity, goals should be geared towards lower levels of difficulty. Pursuing easier goals increases confidence when starting out, but setting more difficult goals as skills and ability develop helps increase learning.

Besides goals, immediate and direct feedback help build confidence and motivation. What is of interest is giving children specific performance objectives plus an indication of how well they are doing relative to peers, which indicate that the goal was attainable and led to higher achievements. This is better than just giving goals or providing feedback.

The two together seemed to be more effective. A particularly illustrative study had a person model either confident or pessimistic behaviour while attempting to unsuccessfully solve a puzzle, before the children tried to solve the puzzle. When the person showed high confidence and persistence, children’s motivation increased whereas the opposite behaviour lowered motivation. Seeing how others handle tasks can also be drivers that build confidence and motivation.

So, for children, appropriate goal-setting, immediate feedback and observations of others doing similar tasks combine to give them the necessary tools and confidence to accomplish ever more complex problem-solving. By incorporating appropriate goals and feedback into our educational systems, we can help drive a cycle of increasing self-confidence and therefore motivation.


Prof K Ranga Krishnan is dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

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