The Power of Self-Confidence:

A new study shows that self-belief can raise students’ GCSE grades.

Research published in the Oxford Review of Education shows that having a high academic self confidence can increase GCSE results by up to 6 grades. What’s more is that these grade inflations are not limited to those with high prior attainments – it would seem that anyone can benefit to some degree or other.

There are many characteristics of young people that have been linked to academic performance in the past. For example, gender, ethnicity, primary school test results, family social class & income, parental education level, special needs status and type of school attended have all been linked to students’ GCSE performance at some point. So to make a claim that self confidence can raise a child’s achievement by this much would need to take all of these other factors into account.

This is exactly what was done by Dr Kristine Hansen & Dr Morag Henderson at University College London. They looked at data from UCL’s Next Steps project, which follows the lives of 16000 people born in the UK between 1989-1990. Using this comprehensive set of data, the two researchers have shown that even when they control for the other factors and compare students with similar backgrounds, it is a student’s belief in their own abilities that produces such significant improvements in later GCSE exam results.

So, what is the Next Steps project? Its a UK longitudinal study following the lives of 16000 young people who were aged 14 in 2004. Each participant was surveyed every year to gather data about how their lives had changed over time. After 2010, participants were surveyed at 5 year intervals, the last being when they were 25 years old in 2016.

As part of the Next Steps data collection, participants were rated on a 5 point scale to assess their level of confidence in their school work. Of the most able students, those who rated themselves as most confident at age 14 later went on to gain 6 whole grades in their GCSE results compared to those students who had the least confidence at school. Six whole grades! So they may have received 6 B grades instead of 6 C grades, for example. Or 6 grade 5s rather than 6 grade 4s in today’s GCSE grading system.

Similar gains could be seen from the least able students in the year group, with the most confident students gaining an additional 4 grades compared to their less confident peers.

Photo by Louis Bauer on Pexels.com

The researchers were hesitant to suggest why academic self belief leads to improved exam performance, hinting that it could be something to do with approaching the exams in a more relaxed manner, or that these students have already planned their immediate futures and so may be more motivated to study. Personally, I wonder whether confidence leads to increased resilience, and so a greater willingness to keep going despite the exam questions being difficult. Essentially, confident students are more likely to try their very best. The number of students I see on a regular basis who give up trying as soon as something becomes even slightly difficult is astonishing.

Can we do anything to help?

We do have to be careful with these results, though. Just because a link can be seen between two variables it does not necessarily imply that one directly causes the other. However, I’m sure there are not too many of us who would argue that having confidence in your own ability leads to an increase in performance. Just ask any sports trainer or athlete.

With this caution in mind, is there anything we can do to develop a higher level of self confidence in young people? Well, yes according to institutions such as Parents or Kids Health. There are plenty of ways we can help children develop a sense of self belief. Many of which we can and should start from a very young age. These include:

  • Giving young people choices and allowing them to see the consequences of their actions. By allowing children to take a little responsibility they can feel empowered and more prepared for the progressively difficult choices we have to make later in life.
  • Helping children to learn new skills rather than doing everything for them. By showing them and then supporting them as they learn new things for themselves allows them to become more independent early on in life, leading to greater resilience. Try giving your child some responsibility for a particular household chore.
  • Using praise regularly – but only when it’s deserved. Over use of praise will reduce its impact. Congratulating a child for doing something they can easily do will only sound and feel worthless. Praising effort rather than results works well because a child can be meaningfully praised even if they don’t succeed, or encouraged to go further even if they do.
  • Acting as a role model for self confidence and belief. When children see adults putting effort into tasks with a cheery, positive attitude they learn to do the same.
  • Focusing on their strengths. We are all different, with many strengths and weaknesses. None of us like it when our weaknesses are pointed out, but we all feel better about ourselves when discussing our strengths.
  • Finally, spending time with your child. Talk to them. Discuss their day and yours. Find out what’s on their mind and allow them to vent any frustrations. Time is your most precious commodity and gift. If you can’t give it to your children who is it being given to?

So as parents, teachers or friends of young people, we can all play our part to allow them to believe in their own abilities, to become confident young adults who take responsibility and try their best.

Take care & be confident.

The Doc.

Kirstine Hansen & Morag Henderson (2019) Does academic self-concept drive academic achievement?,Oxford Review of Education, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2019.1594748

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