Create opportunities for your students to prove what they can do!
Nothing breeds confidence like success. Anytime our students accomplish something they feel proud of, they begin to counteract those little voices inside their heads, the ones that whisper “I can’t.” After all, they’ve just given themselves concrete proof that they can!
It doesn’t matter whether those victories are big or little, nor whether they happen inside or outside the classroom. (I get at least a few messages every year from students who are excited because they were able to use their Spanish in the real world!)
Success feels good. We feel good when we experience it. And the more opportunities for success we can build into our classes, the more we give our students the chance to feel the rush of confidence that accompanies a win.
Of course, we do want to be careful about how we frame success in our classrooms. I wrote in an earlier post in this series about the importance of normalizing failure as a strategy for boosting student confidence. If students feel that their value is tied to their success, then looking for ways to incorporate opportunities for success into our classes will be counterproductive. Success should be a goal, not a yardstick.
It’s also important that we focus on cultivating meaningful opportunities for success. Participation trophies don’t really bring on the warm fuzzies, unless the participation itself represents a real win. I proudly display my finisher medals from the few half marathons I’ve run, even if I’m always at the back of the pack. (And honestly, if they’d given participation awards for the time I made calls for my school’s annual phon-a-thon, I would have taken that too. I had to overcome some major phone phobia to pull that off.) My son’s certificates for completing each book in his Suzuki violin program? We keep them. The certificate he got for simply attending soccer camp? Straight to the recycling.
A final general consideration about success, before we move into the specific strategies, is to remember that success will look different for every student. Someone who earns a C+ that she really has to work for might be more successful than someone who gets a B+ with minimal effort. We want to avoid creating the impression that a student is only successful if he lives up to someone else’s standards.
Success should be a goal, not a yardstick.
With all that in mind, let’s talk about some specific ways we can set our students up for success in our classes!
The STrategies: Six WAYS TO help your students be successful in the classroom
How better to prove that you are capable of doing something than by doing it? By using the following strategies, we can help our students do just that!
1. Scaffold Assignments
I’m not a great runner. When I do lace up my shoes, I often need to play mental tricks on myself to get me through the run. I’ll find a mailbox or an interesting tree on the road ahead and tell myself I only have to make it that far, and repeat the process until I’m back home again.
Our students might feel the same way about completing an assignment as I do when heading out for a run. By scaffolding assignments, breaking them down into smaller chunks that build upon each other, we can boost our students’ confidence that they are able to complete the work we’ve set out for them.
An added bonus of scaffolding assignments is that it gives us the chance to catch any potential problems early on. Can you imagine how miffed we’d be if Waze let us get halfway to Timbuktu before alerting us that we had strayed off-course and recalculating our route? It’s much easier to correct course before going too far down the wrong path.
2. Practice before Performance
You probably already try to make sure your lesson plans prepare students for any major assessments in terms of content. (It would be pretty weird to teach the present tense and then give a test on the preterite!)
But it’s also important to give students the opportunity to practice the format of any assessment we give them. If they’ve had the chance to try out not only what they will need to do, but also how they will need to do it, all in a low-stakes environment, then they’re likely to feel more confident in their ability to perform well on a test, essay, presentation, project, or other graded form of assessment.
Practicing and scaffolding pair nicely with one another. For example, you can scaffold by having students practice portions of longer assignments before having them put it all together. If your final assessment will be a research essay, you might have them practice writing good thesis statements first, then assess them on just this skill. That way, when they have to write the whole essay, they’ll have more confidence in their ability to write a successful thesis statement.
3. Capitalize on their strengths
Figure out what your students are good at, and find a way to use that in class. See if you can mix up your pairs and small groups so that each student has the opportunity to be the stronger student in a pairing at one point or another.
If a student struggles with the content you teach, but is artistically talented, try asking them to illustrate a concept. Even your class clowns have something vital to contribute! Instead of squashing their goofiness, harness it and put it to work to your advantage!
4. Have students do hard things
It might feel like launching softballs at our students is a natural way to build their confidence, and as we saw in the first tip in this post, beginning with easier tasks can be an excellent strategy for gradually helping them complete more challenging work.
However, it’s important to recognize that supporting our students through strategies like scaffolding does NOT mean we shouldn’t challenge them. If we set the bar too low, that can actually work against our goal of boosting confidence in the classroom.
Our students look to us to determine what they are capable of, and if we only give them easy tasks, the message we’re sending is “Not much.” But if we ask them to do something hard, openly acknowledge the challenge, and then provide the support necessary for them to accomplish the task we’ve set out for them, they’ll come away saying, “Wow, I did that!”
What better way to boost confidence than to give our students tangible evidence of what they are capable of?
5. Include a "Show what you know" page on tests
Bad grades can be a real confidence killer. Furthermore, we all know that grades don’t always accurately reflect our students’ understanding, since no test can ever be exhaustive.
One of my favorite testing strategies is to add an extra page to the end where I ask my students to show me what they know about the material beyond what was explicitly covered. This lets me give them credit for their knowledge, potentially lessening the impact of a poor grade.
Besides, it always feels good to realize you know more than you need to! This is a quick and easy way to boost student confidence, as it gives them the chance to show off all of the knowledge they have crammed into their brains before the test.
6. Give choices
Perhaps you’ve heard this quote (often misattributed to Einstein, though the actual source is unknown):
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
For any activity or assignment, think about what your objective is, and consider whether there might be multiple paths to achieving that objective. In other words, do you absolutely have to make a fish climb a tree to accomplish your goals? Or are you simply looking for evidence of the ability to move gracefully?
Any time you can build choice into your assignments without sacrificing your objectives, you communicate to your students that you want them to be able to put their best foot forward, and you empower them to decide what that looks like. Students will naturally be more confident in the work they are submitting when they’ve had a say in determining how to best represent their abilities.
How can you give students more choice? Here are a few strategies:
• Create a choice board with homework options and let them decide which to complete.
• On a test, provide them with extra questions and have them choose a certain number to answer.
• Let them decide the format of creative projects. Maybe one student wants to make a poster, another would rather design a website, and a third wants to write an original song. Fantastic!
• If you are assessing a skill, let them choose the content. For example, if your students are writing a persuasive essay, let them choose a topic that matters to them. (Though it is wise to set parameters or require them to get their topics preapproved. I learned this the hard way.)
• Consider giving students the option to complete a project in small groups or to work individually. If you do this, make sure the expectations are clear for how work should be divided and the relative scope of a project completed by a group versus an individual.
Recommended Resource: For a deeper dive into incorporating choice into the classroom, check out A.J. Juliani’s Learning By Choice: 10 Ways Choice and Differentiation Create An Engaged Learning Experience for Every Student, or visit Juliani’s blog, where he has written several posts on the topic.
So there you have it: 6 concrete strategies you can use to build confidence by creating opportunities for success!
Have any great ideas to add? Let me know in the comments!
Next up: How to boost confidence through setting clear expectations. I share three great strategies for helping your students understand what you expect!
Don't Miss the rest of this series!
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Miss the first posts in the series? Go back to read my overview on boosting student confidence, including the self-reflection we should all start with. Then read the next two posts full of specific tips and advice!