The Case for Confidence

by Tom Schimmer

Sound assessment practices can increase students’ competence and achievement.

Confidence separates those who persist from those who give up. When students have confidence, when they believe they’ll eventually be able to achieve, they can learn almost anything. Without confidence, regardless of how on point a teacher’s instruction is, learning stops.

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Understandably, teachers tend to anchor their efforts to raise student achievement in good pedagogy and instruction. Educators often compartmentalize any focus on students’ dispositions or emotions into a separate program, kept at arms’ length from the teaching of curricular standards. This leaves students feeling as though their potential academic success has little to do with how they think or feel or how they approach learning. Our foremost job as teachers, however, is to develop, maintain, and enhance students’ confidence as learners. The rest is just the (albeit very important) details.

Assessment practices significantly affect whether students develop confidence or whether they decide that they can’t learn, no matter how they try. Over the years, I’ve recognized the centrality of confidence and have changed my assessment approach accordingly.

When I taught math at McNicoll Park Middle School in Penticton, British Columbia, I became increasingly frustrated with my limited ability to engage several specific students in my math classes. Searching for something to add to my repertoire to enhance engagement, I discovered research on formative assessment and sound grading practices, including relevant examples and tools. After implementing these research-based practices, I experienced positive results—but the most important outcome of adopting formative assessment was an unanticipated shift in my students’ attitudes, exemplified by a student I’ll call Chris.

Chris, an 8th grade boy, was popular and social, and he placed learning far down on his continuum of priorities. His attendance was spotty, his success in math was minimal, and his behavior was increasingly challenging.

One morning, students were engaging in a self-assessment process. I had begun unpacking my curricular standards into specific elements, indicators, and targets and sharing these with students. Students were reviewing these elements and checking off which ones they felt they’d mastered. As Chris went through his list, he turned to the student next to him and said, “I guess I do know some stuff in math.”

I was floored. I hadn’t anticipated that implementing research-validated assessment and grading practices would shift the attitudes of struggling students. Many students who’d been ready to give up exhibited the same reaction as Chris. And although Chris didn’t become a straight-A student, his level of engagement dramatically rose. He realized that he didn’t “suck at math.” And I realized that I was on to something—the overlap between effective assessment strategies and student confidence.