George Lucas Educational Foundation
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For many students, the process of learning new material can feel like swimming in an ocean with fish moving in many different directions. Additionally, the information itself can feel like fish swimming in the minds of students -- overwhelming them, causing anxiety, uncertainty and even fear. They can feel as if what they're trying to learn has no order, especially when context is lacking.

Layering assessment on top of it all can create a maelstrom of stress.

How can we help students feel in control, confident and willing to approach learning new material? How can we help them feel poised for success on assessments and confident with new material?

1. Say It Out Loud

When students encounter material for the first time, it is helpful if they can talk it out with a peer or teacher. This might be in the form of dealing with a vocabulary word, a scientific concept, a math problem, or a verb tense in a world language. The verbal processing that takes place in conversation with a trusted peer or teacher settles the learner, provides an opportunity to try out the language associated with the new topic, and arms him or her with confidence. Through trial, error and immediate feedback, the student now feels more confident setting out on his or her own to tackle the topic.

2. Brain Dump

After learning new material for a set period of time, have students do a brain dump on a blank piece of paper. This serves the purpose of helping the student realize that learning and knowledge acquisition have been happening. It helps to raise student confidence and is also a useful approach for the teacher to receive feedback and see where gaps exist. Consider using this valuable approach with students as soon as they receive an assessment, before attempting to answer any questions. For some students, holding the information inside their head can cause anxiety and confusion. Taking a deep breath, dumping the information on a blank page, and seeing what it looks like prepares the student for success on the assessment. This brain dump then serves as a study guide.

3. Not All in a Straight Line

For many students, learning is not linear. On an assessment, one of the keys to remember is that the first question might not be the best place to start. Sometimes, a student will look at the first question on an assessment and panic, thinking he or she knows nothing. That can derail the rest of the assessment. Instead, students should take a holistic approach, spend some time scanning the entire assessment, and look for a positive entry point where they feel most confident. Similarly, as teachers consider the entry point for learning new material, recognizing that each child may have a different entry point is important, so being multi-modal is critical.

4. Be Visual or Musical

The artist and the musician live inside each student, and tapping into that creative side can unleash the student to learn and acquire knowledge. I can still recall the scene from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days when the musically talented character, Potsie, is trying to study for his biology test. The information is overwhelming him, and he doesn't know where to begin -- until he realizes that putting the vocabulary in the form of a song will help him master the material. Potsie soars from that point on as a student, and the viewer feels his newfound confidence. His teacher can't believe that he actually learned the material, so Potsie proves him wrong by performing the song, "Pump Your Blood."

As educators, we cannot underestimate the sense of being at a loss that some students feel at the outset of a new unit, and even more on assessments that require them to demonstrate mastery.

What strategies have you come up with that help instill confidence in students learning new material and showing mastery on assessments?

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Stephen Richardson's picture

Love the music idea! Science teachers need to YouTube or Google Mr. Parr science songs. His songs fit standards from grades 45-312.
Also, YouTube educational songs about ________
(In the blank just put whatever you are learning about). You can find songs find about almost anything in history or in science.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

We had a conversation with Joe Graham (@edheadjoe) about this topic on Twitter and thought it would be interesting for folks here.

Joe W. Graham: I appreciate the post, especially tips 1 and 2. Unfortunately, some educators are not intentional in letting kids process.

Edutopia: Have any tips to help educators become more intentional?

1. Collaborate with colleagues who share the content or the learners.
2. Frequently ask yourself and colleagues why as you plan.
3. Use the processing experienced during planning to construct questions or dilemmas that allow students to process.
4. Allow the students to get messy with the concepts associated with the learning, practicing metacognition.
5. Give them opps to share in small setting and then with whole class.
6. Use student responses to provide meaningful feedback.
7. Use student responses to create more opps for students to engage in collaboration, metacognition, and reflection.

Alyssa Smith's picture
Alyssa Smith
Substitute teacher from NY and grad student

Great ideas to boost student confidence. I especially like 1 and 2. I like the idea of students talking with each other about a new topic. Students can relate the new information to their own lives and share with each other or help one another in a way I might not have thought of. Bringing the discussions back to a whole group discussion, will give students the chance to share their ideas with everyone.
The brain dump is also a great way for students to be able to practice a new math concept or vocabulary words. I like this idea for many subjects and cannot wait to use this strategy in my own classroom. In my undergrad classes, we were sometimes allowed to use this method before an assessment. We were allowed to put as much information as we could on an index card to use as a information guide throughout the test. I like this idea for younger students to use after learning a new concept. This is a great way for them to play with the new information. I can then walk around the room looking for areas that need to be retaught either in whole group or small groups.
The musical idea is great too. I use schooltube a lot to find videos for my students. They love the videos and they are very educational and appropriate for younger students!!
Thanks for the great ideas for boosting confidence in students!

LJL's picture
High School Math Teacher

#3 is so important ! Students do think they must complete a test from #1 on.... They do not realize they can jump around on the test. I always remind them to skip around. Sometimes other questions lead to answers in previous questions.

Also, I find that #2 is very important as well. Students can see what they know, what they sort of understand, and what they should go back and review. As a teacher, I am able to see if students need more practice with particular concepts.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

LJL, it's such a silly thing, but back when I was a student, if I felt pressured or stuck on a test, I would start at the end and work my way backward. Somehow I felt better--like I was nearly done with the test and just going back to fill in some answers. It was a way for me to short-circuit my reaction and just go.

JLCresbaugh's picture

These strategies for building students confidence is great! I am a middle school teacher and finding ways to motivate my students to learn new information is a constant battle. My students give up too easily when they find activities to be difficult. However, I have noticed that when my students work with their peers they are able to summarize and analyze information more accurately. Specifically, teaching science lends itself to working collaboratively with classmates and listening to others while completing lab activities. This allows my students to be more confident and in control of their learning.

The two strategies that I am looking forward to trying after reading this blog would be the brain dump and not in a straight line. I never thought of having my students write down what they know of a topic on a blank paper before answering corresponding questions. Most of the time, my students do not know where to start when answering short-answer questions. This will help them step back and breathe before taking what they know and providing an accurate response. I am giving my students an assessment tomorrow and I am going to share with my classes that they do not need to start with question #1 but they can move throughout the test to where they feel the most confident. I am going to pay close attention to how successfully these strategies work.

Lastly, I wanted to thank Stephen for sharing the musical science videos by Mr. Parr. I immediately went to YouTube and found some awesome videos! I am even showing one tomorrow to my classes! I now feel that I can boost my students confidence on science topics.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Self-confident students are able to pay more interest to the teacher in the classroom as they develop an inherent will to succeed and outdo others. They pay more attention and do not hesitate to ask questions. Asking questions in the classroom requires certain courage to stand up and interrupt the teacher to ask a question, and it requires self-confidence to do that.

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