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How confidence boosts motivation

When students take their grades home and they have not done well, this can hurt their self-esteem. Helping them to keep up their confidence and motivation can become a challenge. I have written recently on how to build confidence in children, making the point that by incorporating appropriate goals and feedback into our education systems, we can help promote and strengthen self-confidence among students.

Primary One students at St Hilda's Primary School participating in class on the first day of school, Jan 2, 2013. TODAY file photo

Primary One students at St Hilda's Primary School participating in class on the first day of school, Jan 2, 2013. TODAY file photo

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When students take their grades home and they have not done well, this can hurt their self-esteem. Helping them to keep up their confidence and motivation can become a challenge. I have written recently on how to build confidence in children, making the point that by incorporating appropriate goals and feedback into our education systems, we can help promote and strengthen self-confidence among students.

Self-confidence, or the belief in one’s own ability to reach a specific outcome, can boost motivation. Confidence is reinforced as students observe progress towards their goals, which is an expression of their increasing skill, and this sets into motion a virtuous cycle where confidence leads to greater participation and more learning.

So how can we set our children on a path where they remain confident and motivated learners?

EXPERIENCE SHAPES CONFIDENCE

How we feel about our ability to complete a task affects our motivation to perform that task. People who have a low sense of confidence in their ability to achieve an assignment avoid it; those who believe they are proficient participate readily. Sometimes, this confidence is underestimated and, at other times, we overestimate our abilities.

When we feel confident about our ability, or potential ability, we are more likely to participate and work harder at the problem. How do we appraise our abilities? Some may by nature be optimists who overestimate our ability. Others, because of low self-esteem or depression, underestimate our ability and withdraw from participation.

However, in most instances, our confidence is affected by our past experience, by observing how others do and by persuasion from others.

An individual’s past performance provides the best guide for building confidence and being motivated. We have all experienced, when going out with friends, being persuaded into trying something new. If we take part and do reasonably well, our interest rises and we become more engaged and motivated to take part. Similarly, when students notice they are making headway in learning, their confidence gets a boost. This in turn leads them to take on tasks and improve skills.

Realistic goal setting is an important part of the process. Goals that are near-term, measurable and achievable with effort drive the cycle of increasing self-confidence and therefore motivation. Thus, parents, schools and learners have to build goals that meet these objectives as a way to enhance learning.

Besides appropriate goals, immediate and direct feedback help build confidence and motivation. You see this in sports coaching, though not so commonly in education, where formative quizzes can provide immediate feedback and show progress. Individual feedback, in addition to how we see others handling the task, also builds confidence and motivation.

When you give children specific performance goals and relative material about how their friends did, which shows the goal was realistic, this leads to better outcomes. Thus, the way we communicate goals is very important; there is no point telling a child to “do your best” — better to give a simple, measurable and achievable goal such as “solve three problems”.

IMPORTANCE OF FEEDBACK

There are three ways to give feedback. The first is how they performed; the second is how hard they worked (effort feedback); and, finally, how they are (personal feedback). Feedback that is personal can work when it is positive, but can be particularly detrimental when it is negative — “you are lazy” does not help. Effort feedback for initial achievements when students have to work hard boosts confidence.

Appropriate rewards based on performance can both build confidence and increase motivation. In a simple study of mathematics instruction, children could earn reward points for each problem solved or receive rewards for participating. The study found that rewards for solving problems heightened motivation, confidence and performance, but rewards for participation had no benefits.

Given the pervasiveness of rewards in education, using rewards that are linked to performance and not just participation can boost interest and motivation.

A particularly illustrative study had a person show either confident or pessimistic behaviour while attempting to solve a puzzle in front of a group of children. When the person showed high confidence and persistence, the children’s motivation increased, whereas the opposite behaviour lowered motivation.

At the start of a new class, programme or activity, learners vary in their beliefs about their competence to gain knowledge, accomplish tasks and master the content. Initial confidence is a function of both innate abilities and prior experience.

But good teaching skills such as goal setting, rewards and teacher feedback can help further students’ interest. The cues the students receive signal how well they are learning, which builds or reduces confidence, in turn enhancing motivation and interest.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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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