How can I improve my students self-confidence in their class
by Li Peidong,
Draft, May 2004,
Chinas Experimental Centre for Educational Action
Research in Foreign Languages Teaching,
English Department, Guyuan Teachers College (75600
This paper is an account of what I have done in the very first circle
of my educational action research, which lasted about one year. I have
struggled and explored myself within this long duration with the question:
how can I help my students to improve their self-confidence in their
classwork? I reasoned this as the extrinsic cause influencing learners
conversational performance and communicative motivation. The article records
the process of how I came to my present AR questions with see-sawing inquiry
and evaluation of my imagined solutions, all of this with respect to humanistic
approaches and educational values based on my insights and learning about
the New English Curriculum. I used questionnaires, interviews and my own
observations to triangulate and draw conclusions.
I have got much help from Doctor Moira Laidlaw (a VSO teacher in my working
college) and some of my colleagues engaged in action research, and also
regular AR meetings and occasional AR seminars. Here, I want to show my
gratitude to them all!
I began to learn English at 15, which is far beyond the Critical Period
in terms of language aquisition, in a remote local school that was poorly-equipped,
with only textbook and chalk in the teachers' hands, not to speak of the
frequent utilization of tape recorders.
The deep-rooted ontological predisposition in both teachers and fellow
students here in China is that knowledge is propositional, and it is this
predisposition, which has shaped my epistemological grounding: that learning
emerges from teachers cramming and rote recitations without any
construction or meaningfulness from the context. The textbook is taken
as the sole teaching and learning material and must be carefully-chosen
on account of the form-oriented syllabus. In these syllabuses was conducted
as a clue to guide synthetic passages, synthetic because of the lack of
historical and contextual connections with other realities. Grammar was
taught by deduction and vocabulary was selected in the satisfaction of
text-compilation, regardless of its natural order and any frequency of
repetition. No listening and speaking were involved. Grammatical prescriptiveness
and translation were invited in classwork and testing as well.
Thus I resigned myself to this feeding and used to burn the midnight oil
night after night, darkness without end, digesting the strange delights
of pure grammar. All too often I found myself suffering guilt complexes
over my lack of revision, which forced me into a relatively good teachers'
college where I majored in English Education. I tried hard to change my
competence into performance to fit the college's requirements. From time
to time I failed, due probably to my lack of confidence and tendency to
extol accuracy over everything. This may in turn have won me fame yet
simultaneously spoiled my extrinsic motivation in speaking clearly and
fluently in the classroom where teachers employed ecletic approaches based
on Grammar-translation and Audio-lingual methodology. I finished my 3-year
college life and took up teaching in a local high school in which I recoursed
to grammar and translation with the flimsy excuse that the poor levels
of my students necessitated such an approach.
Five years later, I pushed myself into Shanghai International Studies
University, one of the best in language learning establishments in China,
to refine my education career. I realise now it was there that I built
up my self-confidence and enhanced my knowledge of the literature of methodology,
which has formed my present solid foundation of logical reasoning and
I have now been an English teacher for 15 years, and have worked extremely
hard towards forming my own ways of teaching and learning through combining
educational theories with my educational values, and trying to make a
practical and rigorous combination between theory and practice. This was
a belief-system that holds that theoretical knowledge comes first in terms
of collectivism and is characterized by top-down policies.
In addition, I used to ponder on my class afterwards by means of self-reflection
and sharing my feelings and seeking opinions with and from my students,
my friends and my colleagues as well. I used to take for granted that
generalizability came before particularizability which, I think, was a
customary enquiry employed by many Chinese talents due to the great influence
of Chinese culture and ways of thinking and knowing. In the process of
picking up bits of propositional knowledge we turn it into mechanical
duplications with only small modifications, in the belief in its authoritativeness
and power of truth (Zhang, 1999). Simultaneously, I tried hard to take
in something more through a wide reading and self-reflective analysis
to look for new perspectives of knowing. I had a firm belief that everything
was closely connected. With this enlightenment, I crammed my students
and ensured their safety with my full exposure of language competence.
All too often, I found myself disappointed with the poor scores, which
frequently worried me. I began to doubt myself and decided to conduct
a questionnaire containing one single question:
Dear students, would you show me your genuine feelings about my lesson
on a piece of paper without your names if you like?
The next morning I myself collected the Papers in class for the sake of
protecting their identities. I finished reading with my mixed emotions.
Here are some extracts:
Cao (name changed to protect identity, the same as following) said: Mr.Li,
you re a responsible and good teacher. you respect us. So in return
Ill respect you by writing my name .You give us a lot, but we have
no time to take in, and we feel a little to say when you asked us to present.
Another student wrote: We know a lot from your lesson, but we dont
know how to use. We need practice.
Other six students shared the same problem: My English knowledge
is so poor that I cant catch you in class, can you give me something
easier so that I can understand.
The students taught me a lesson. Teaching is a multi-dimensional work
which covers both teaching and learning. My ignorance about students
learning got my students and myself into an embarrassing situation, in
which I regarded my students as robots, not human beings. So, the question
was, how could I change students passive learning into active learning
is my burning question. This realization acted as the spur to my enquiry.
At that time I watched Moiras class and got access to Action Research
which, I felt, might take me out of my living contradictions (Whitehead,
1989), in which my realization of the significance of changing students'
competence into performance was washed away by my ignorance of how to
cram them full again. Also I was delighted that my plans were entirely
in line with my nations recommendations about the New Curriculum
(see Documents from Education Department of China, 2001), which stresses,
cognitive, critical and creative thinking, and takes much consideration
about students individual differences and affective factors, e.g.
motivation, confidence etc.
The problem was students silent responses to my stimulation. This
was mainly because of their customary adaptation to my traditional teacher-dominated
approaches (from my analogy). So I resolved to project my plans to build
up students self-confidence by attempting on new ways, and I began my
project with the research question: How can I improve my students
self-confidence in their class work?
This level of reasoning reveals my learning experiences and educational
insights: the deeper cause of the hindrance of their increasingly able
conversational performance might be their lack of self-confidence, even
though they were becoming more competent in the language. Vale and Feunteun
(1995) point out that the long-term aim of teaching English is to enable
learners to use English confidently. The New English Curriculum (NEC in
brief) has also stated that the important aim of teaching English is to
build up their confidence (Sun,2002).
Why was I concerned?
All too often when I invited my students responses, they remained
silent with heads bent, and the student I called upon answered questions
with a flushed face and trembling body.
One student wrote to me: I am frightened to answer questions. When
I listen to the others speaking, my mind is neat and calm, but when
it comes to my turn, my mind is blank and the very thing I want to do
is to hide in the floor if possible.
From time to time, I have found some students are very brave and talkative
when they stay in their dormitory or chat after class, or when they talk
with close friends. I still remembered when I asked student Ping to reply
to a reading question that, I thought might possibly be easy for her to
answer, she stood up with a pale face and shaking legs, murmuring to herself.
I strongly sensed her nervousness and tried, smilingly, Pin, can
you sit down for a moment and signal me any time when you want to try?
To my surprise and delight, she stood, tried, and projected her words,
I am sorry with striking her head with her book while taking
her seat. Two days later, I rang her up and asked if she could come and
talk with me. She came to my office. I made her tea, and asked her something
about her family and life here to relax, and made her talk. I made field
notes afterwards and this is the gist of what she said in translation:
LPD: Why did you strike your head with a book? You know, its painful,
Pin: I hate myself. Im useless. I know the question is not very
difficult but I cant say it, my brain doesnt work, and I also
hate this book (with a sense of anger).
Pin: (pause) Because I can understand the meaning of lines in this book,
but I cant use it.
LPD: In what way do you want to use it?
Pin: I want to use it orally to express my ideas. So I tried to memorize
LPD: When you chat with your country folks or close friends, do you rely
Pin: No. Never. Its an unconscious outburst. We talk frankly and
fluently without over thinking.
LPD: Do you feel stressed?
Pin: No, never, we have a lot to say we even forget the time, for we know
each other, understand each other. We feel relaxed. We are interested
in what we are talking about.
Another case concerned me as well .One student, who has a good mastery
of English announced the start of her lesson with class is over
in her teaching practice. Bad enough, but all the other students burst
into laughter as well. She greeted students with good morning,
but the class was in the afternoon.
I forget all Ive learned when I have no confidence,
she told me.
Therefore, self-confidence is crucial for my students since they are will-be
Why did my students lack self-confidence?
My concern led me into critical thinking. Reasons for this can be gleaned
from the following, based on my observations, a survey and my analysis:
* Teacher-dominated methods stumbled students active learning and
cultivated a way of passive learning during which students used to act
primarily as note-takers.
* Ignorance of students individual differences and affective factors
(mainly, non-intellectual factors).
* The present knowledge-oriented evaluating systems result in much attention
on language competence rather than language performance.
* Over-controlled teaching and too much authority from teachers leave
no space for students imagination, creation and deeper learning, students
are afraid of making mistakes.
* Separation between book knowledge (theory) and practice.
* Non-authentic activities made students feel hard to associate with
* Lack of good and appropriate learning strategies.
* Other factors: weak foundation, mother tongue intervention, low motivation,
What could I do?
I resolved to change this situation with action research because I was
familiar with its procedure. First, I chose one class as my research subject
and told them my determination to, and ambitions about changing the present
situation. Second, I undertook some initial readings: McNiff (1996), (2002),
Stevick (1980), Suand Jin (2002), Wajnryb (1992). I kept records of insights,
and through the inspirations rendered through my understandings, together
with my experiences, I hypothesised my imaginary solutions to lie within
* Creating an unstressed, relaxed classroom atmosphere.
* recording my students progress over time
* treating students as human beings
* encouraging students into active interactions
* giving students more time to think
* making my class interesting
These views are closely related to the NEC, as Zhong Qiquan (2003) stated:
the NEC emphasises the values of humanism with respect to the combination
of knowledge, skills and development of the whole person, a holistic learning-approach
in other words. Students are expected to actively construct new things
connected and originating with their previous life experiences, so as
to promote their interests. Treating students as human beings can ensure
the equal participation among teacher and students that may encourage
multi-interactions and ensure the possibility of cooperative learning.
By sharing our 'living resources' in such a way with students, we might
decrease the extent of their anxiety and apprehension in this regard:
an unstressed and consultative atmosphere leaves students more time and
space to think for themselves, to invite their criticality, creativity
and help them to sustain the interest to carry out their inquiries. Moreover,
if teachers are sensitive about students progress and encourage them to
take risks in using the language before correcting errors, we will facilitate
an atmosphere in which we can build up their confidence to learn (Wang
What did I do?
I started my specific actions by careful designing of warming-up phrases
instead of directly getting down to business for the sake of saving time
in my methodology class. For instance:
1) I prepared several topics that were closely related to my lesson theme
and let students choose what they wanted to talk about, which was based
on students prior knowledge, interests and experiences. After that
I grouped students according to the topics they chose and asked them to
present in whatever ways they liked within a given time a. conversation,
role play, co-presentation, or a monologue.
2) I also tried to plan a single but general statement out of the contents
we would learn and gave students two more minutes to agree or disagree
and then divided the whole class into two teams in accordance with their
opinions and began to argue. These activities were aimed to increase interests
and active participation thus to warm up students smoothly onto the next
stage. As Sinclair and Coulthard said (1975), People learn best
when theyre relaxed, comfortable, unstressed, interested, and involved
in what is going on and motivated to continue. I think the teachers
job is to offer a conducive environment aiming to facilitate students
in terms of self-choice and student-to-student interaction that is less
threatening both because the one doing the correcting is not the person
who gives out the grades, and because the correction is less likely to
come in a judgmental tone of voice.
3).I informed my students about current events in order to activate their
emotional interest and move them towards critical thinking and dialectical
reasoning, which were over-lapped and enhanced by my touches of humor,
jokes, metaphors and borrowed figures of speech. But I have never used
burning satire and cold irony since I observed the terrible hurt entertained
by two student-teachers in the teaching practice when using it for discipline.
In all honesty, I could feel the enthusiasm and interests invested by
most students (nearly two thirds of the total): they smiled, and discussed,
happily arranging the seats. Xi wrote in his journal, Its
new and challenging. I am interested in and familiarize with my chosen
topic, so I have a lot to say.
I was fascinated by my introduction to the variety of the topics that
students are interested in which aims to change form-based learning into
content-based activities in order to invite students critical thinking
and increase their talking time. This is fully in line with the NEC (Sun,
But when I moved around the classroom, I found I was embodying a living
contradiction yet again. I wrote in my journal,
I am sorry to see that a third of students are still inactive. They
occasionally raised their heads and half smiled, constantly glancing at
I came up to Yang Chuang (a relatively shy boy) and patted his shoulder
while presenting my question with a respectful tone of voice:
Are you interested in the topic?
He answered yes with bent head.
Do you want to try to say something? I asked.
He paused and shook his head. I took his pen and wrote would you
mind coming to my office during the break? on his notebook for fear
that he might feel uneasy if I said it aloud. I was delighted to see him
tiptoeing into my office later, and I extracted these words from our conversation,
I am afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at because my English
is so poor. When I asked if he could speak in Chinese. He replied
me firmly, I cant, for if so, I will be laughed at greater.
I ended the talk with my promise to give him any help any time, and he
left with grateful eyes.
In fact, I came closer to understanding with my students: He who laughs
last is the best. Anybody who can disagree with this should try and respect
others. Nobody would laugh at another or be laughed at themselves: they
are so sensitive! At that very moment of recognition I realized I might
change my research question into: How could I help to decrease my students
fear of being laughed at? I see it as a real psychological problem. The
sensitiveness and vulnerability caused them to clam up, so that they couldnt
speak highly of themselves. The similar answers I got from a free questionnaire
on the same issue confirmed my idea that one has to expose oneself to
open the door to soul as I understand from Tonys words
The teacher is crucial in this process, whose feedback can help
to shape the self-concept of the students and reinforce these ideas in
a negative or positive way.
I began with my own story: How could I become a top ten student, when
I couldnt even turn to the right pages at college? How could I reduce
my anxiety and develop into a self-confident person in two semesters
time? And also I finished my first period of class with another true story
of Ma (an ordinary graduate from my working college) who won a good job
because of his great self-confidence, and beat 26 other competitors who
had bachelors degrees. My students seemed to be moved by these words
from my heart. I wrote in my journal:
I could sense the emotional growth in their hearts, especially those
shy students, they constantly met my eyes with sparkling signs and greater
(N.B. Their emotion about these anecdotes is further indicated by a students
words in the following Evidence section.)
The construction and reconstruction of self-confidence is a snow-ball
process that needs gradual change and growth. I knew the confidence theoretically
gained by my students needed to be practically consolidated. These tender
but promising trees needed care and development, or they might
be burnt to death, insufficient or over-watering would both cause destruction.
Based on these insights and ideas like student-centered and task-based
approaches favoured by the NEC, I engaged my students busy in tasks learning
and made them feel the sense of achievement through the following:
1) I replanned and shaped the order of my presentation to suit my students
level of cognitive thinking and life experiences more precisely, thus
to activate their prior knowledge and increase their talking time, and
gradually to lead them into the key points from unknown to known, from
easy to difficult, and from simple to complex. For example, I started
teaching pronunciation by inviting students brainstorming
on the first Chinese word they uttered.
2) I no longer taught my students instead of eliciting them to think and
express themselves with the help of my prompts so as to develop their
insights by inviting their comments on some controversial statements and
allowing them to beg differ. As to the insights, here I very much want
to thank Doctor Moira Laidlaw, because it was from her notes on my teaching
and my failure in trying student-centered methods that I learned a lot.
Here I quote something significant she wrote after she watched my class,
It is insight which develops mind, and thus develops a country.
3) I thought it was dangerous intentionally to give shy students easier
tasks for their pride might be hurt. For this consideration, I gave the
whole class sufficient time to think and encouraged volunteers first and
then nominated some shy students as soon as I saw the potential clues
of willingness such as, raising heads, glancing around, irrepressible
smiles etc. Subsequently I facilitated the student by redirecting and
probing for further information, which enabled him /her to go into deeper
under my guidance.
4) I encouraged my students to take advantages of themselves! For instance,
I asked Cheng, who was poor at oral English but good at written English,
to read her essay before class; I invited Sun, who was poor at oral work
but good at drawing, to draw a picture on the blackboard. I saw they experienced
the excitement of doing that enhanced their confidence. Every person has
shining points! If I could find that and help draw out the words already
on their lips, they would learn and achieve.
5) I told my students to talk with anyone in any way they liked, but only
if they stayed in the classroom when communicative tasks occurred. My
journal shows how it worked: They talked, discussed and argued with
smiles, self-content and relaxation; they grouped leisurely and comfortably
by sitting ,standing and leaning against the wall. It would surely be
more like a party if drinks available. I hated myself to interrupt those
authentic conversations. But I found it took time, and might be economically
How could I know that my students self-confidence has been improved?
1) Six weeks after my research, I observed that about two thirds of the
total students could raise their heads and meet my eyes when I questioned
them, which had been rare in the past. The reason that I left it that
long was that on the one hand the cultivation of confidence itself takes
time, and on the other hand, time may refine some pseudo-evidence - for
example, like winning the teachers favour which would harm
validity and reliability.
2) Yang Chuang, a relatively shy student I mentioned above, came to my
office and asked me to give him some valuable advice on how to learn English
efficiently four days after our first conversation. I was delighted with
his courage in visiting me alone and even more delighted by his constant
repetition of words like valuable and efficiently
which proved his internal eagerness to change the situation.
3) I found when I presented my personal ideas after discussion, most students
nodded their heads, and a few talked with their classmates and wrote down
something. A convincing case was Lius disapproval of my opinion
and the reasons I stated during the break before New Years Eve.
I thought it was the best gift I had had, because it displayed some hints
of critical thinking. I recorded the details in my journal. After I had
drawn my conclusion with the closing words: Do you agree with me? Student
Liu stood up and said 'No, I don't think so because......" He stated
his reasons clearly, though they were somewhat illogical. The other students
and I were shocked by his reaction and in a few seconds I clapped my hands
hard and the others followed.
4) Yang Chuang wrote in his journal after I told my story and Mas,
It is a heart-to-heart exchange. I admire Mr. Lis knowledge,
and his college life and Mas story is a good example to me. I learned
the importance of confidence from them. After a week, he raised his hand
voluntarily for the first time in my class.
5) My colleague Wang watched my lesson and commented :
a) The lesson was carefully planned, and moved on smoothly with exact
prompts and students active participation.
b) Almost all the students smilingly and excitingly engaged in the class
c) A student near me talked with his deskmate and asked me for judgment
. This proved his confidence!
6) 25th April. I introduced the National New Curriculum (promulgated by
the Chinese Educational Department in 2001). After my introduction, I
invited my students to comment. Xie said , It is nonsense! Because
it is very difficult to carry out owning to poor facilities and lack of
good teachers here. I thought he was honest, and clearly confident
enough to say so. Another student Mao said, I welcome these new
approaches for I like thinking and dislike cramming, from which I have
suffered a lot. He also depicted how he avoided being crammed by
reading other things privately. I should acknowledge that I see the light
of self-confidence and also the hope of my country.
7) From the questionnaire I did at the end of the last semester I constructed
statistics on the key question: Are you confident enough to take part
in classroom activities? Twenty out of twenty-seven samples answered Yes,
four out of the total answered It depends on
three answered, No. I believe from the above, that I am justified
in claiming that:
. My students self-confidence has improved.
. My actions have changed my teaching and learning situation.
I firmly believe that I learn a lot from case studies for I experience
them more closely and immediately than general theories of knowledge emanating
from research done by outsiders. I can feel the educational development
through the process of reflective thinking on my own practice and this
evidence-based research. I am now confident about my own power, a potential
to change the educational situations.
I have to resign myself to the fact that action research - whose nature
of reflecting and acting, the integration of teacher as researchers, the
idea that practice comes before theory, and the rigorous research structures
in terms of trangulation and validation are really helpful to finding
out classroom problems and their practical solutions through the exploration
in this rather zig-zag process.
The actions I have taken into my enquiry have greatly changed my class
in terms of self-confidence, that was palpably improved through the specific
methods I used, which can be concluded as the following: Firstly, to create
an interesting, relaxed, and comfortable learning atmosphere is of much
importance, and this can be gained by careful topic-choosing, variable
activities, teachers touches of humor and seating arrangements.
Secondly, the newly-born self-confidence needs appropriate care and can
be sustained through active learning and much attention on individual
differences and affective factors. The research has raised in me new questions,
such as How can I improve students self-confidence in public occasions?
Or How can I improve students self-confidence in asking questions?
These questions will become the beginning of my new enquiries.
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