• Aaron Daffern

Four Ways to Increase Competence Beliefs in Students


Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Belief in oneself is the starting point of student motivation. Those who doubt themselves usually find ways to make their doubts a reality. Below are four ways to boost competence beliefs to increase student motivation.


Go All-In on Mindsets

Many resources exist, both in print and online, on how to implement mindsets into your classroom. The first step, however, is to evaluate your own mindset.  It’s difficult to encourage a growth mindset if you yourself have a fixed mindset.  


Once you have embraced a growth mindset in yourself, the next step will be to examine the structure of your classroom. Having a growth mindset does little if the instructional, comparative, and grading practices reinforce the idea that some students are smart and some are not. Your philosophy must match your pedagogy.


Teachers have fixed mindset instructional practices when they permanently group their students into high and low groups. Regardless of whether they’re called the bluebirds or the low group, the struggling students know their status. If they remain stuck in a static group, you reinforce their lack of ability. This is not to say teachers should not use instructional groups, however. Flexible groups that change based on readiness and interest as well as ability can help struggling learners while not labeling them as such.


If teachers post test scores in the classroom, it becomes a simple matter to discern who is smart and who is not. More than just visual, though, much comparison comes from verbal interactions with teachers. If students (or classes) are constantly being put up against another student or group and found wanting, their self-beliefs will become fixed.


Finally, grading practices can inadvertently influence the mindset in a student. Whether it be homework, classwork, or quizzes, work done throughout a unit (excluding final assessment) that cannot be changed as learning develops creates a fixed mindset in students. If students truly can add to their knowledge with hard work and dedication, it should reflect in their grades.


Watch Your Words

Mistakes are a part of learning and feedback should be a natural part of the learning process. The type of feedback teachers give students, however, can either help or hurt their motivation. Feedback that is unclear does not help students understand why their attempt at learning was unsuccessful. Clear feedback is helpful in diagnosing errors but can still leave some students confused as to how to improve.


Specific feedback focused on the product rather than the person gives students an opportunity to build their competence. Teachers can keep students from feeling that they are being judged if they stick to how the learning attempt fell short of the mark. The very best feedback gives direction for the next step. Some students don’t need help understanding what they did wrong, they need help understanding how to fix it.


Another verbal area that needs to be monitored is praise for success. Misplaced praise or fixed mindset praise can do more harm than good. Of the former, students do not need false praise to feel better about themselves. They don’t need any more participation ribbons for failed attempts. Undeserved praise not only falls on deaf ears but also brings into question the intelligence and integrity of the teacher offering it.


Also, teachers need to remember to praise the process, not the person. Praise focused on effort, hard work, and successful use of strategies reinforces a growth mindset. It communicates to students that with enough work they can make themselves smarter. Praise focused on ability or intelligence may seem sincere but instead pushes children to more of a fixed mindset. Students become protective of their reputation as a smart student and begin to shy away from tasks that could put their self-perceptions at risk.


Gradual Release

Task difficulty is a delicate balancing act. Pushing students too hard can throw them into the intellectual deep-end without a life preserver. Learning comes to a halt as students struggle to stay afloat. On the other hand, staying in the shallow end is not strenuous enough to bring out new learning.  Finding the midpoint between the two, or the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), is essential.


The ZPD can be achieved by first scaffolding different levels of support for students. Struggling learners need more assistance from teachers than advanced learners do. Creating a continuum of support allows students to operate in their ZPD, finding the area in which success is possible but only with some direction from the teacher. As the learning increases, students move farther along the continuum and need less and less support.


For example, a 2nd grade student is working on understanding the subtraction concept of regrouping. A student at one end of the continuum will work with base-10 blocks to physically represent regrouping within 2-digit subtraction. Students needing less support can instead work on drawing pictorial representations of base-10 blocks to demonstrate regrouping. At the other end of the continuum, a student works just with the standard algorithm for 2-digit subtraction using only numbers.


Utilizing a continuum of support builds competence beliefs by gradually releasing students to self-sufficiency. They build on each success by becoming more and more independent. Students see a clear path to success and know that support exists when they encounter struggles.


Metacognitive Goal Setting

Teachers typically teach students how to use content-dependent strategies. Whether it be a four-step problem solving strategy in math or learning how to pre-plan before writing a composition, students are inundated with strategies for certain subject. Yet do teachers teach them to think about their thinking? 


Before attempting a task, students can develop a plan for approaching the learning activity. Will they read for deep comprehension or skim for answers? Will they use a particular problem-solving strategy to solve a math problem or will they draw a pictorial representation?


During a task, students should monitor their understanding. Do they know the signs of a break in their understanding? Do they use strategies like rereading or summarizing to ensure understanding? Students can set goals to evaluate their comprehension so as to “fix” their approach before finishing the activity.


Finally, metacognitive goals for after a task deal with whether or not students feel they learned something. They can evaluate if they believe they accomplished what they set out to do. If they did not, what caused them to struggle? How could they have achieved better results? Teaching metacognitive strategies will boost student competence beliefs by giving them control of something they might think is uncontrollable: their thinking. 

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