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How can I improve my students’ self-confidence in their class work?

by Li Peidong,

Draft, May 2004,

China’s 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!

My context

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 analytical ability.

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 I’ll 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 don’t know how to use. We need practice.”

Other six students shared the same problem: “My English knowledge is so poor that I can’t 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 Moira’s 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 nation’s 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, it’s painful, don’t you?
Pin: I hate myself. I’m useless. I know the question is not very difficult but I can’t say it, my brain doesn’t work, and I also hate this book (with a sense of anger).
LPD: why?
Pin: (pause) Because I can understand the meaning of lines in this book, but I can’t 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 it.
LPD: When you chat with your country folks or close friends, do you rely on recitations?
Pin: No. Never. It’s 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 I’ve learned when I have no confidence”, she told me.

Therefore, self-confidence is crucial for my students since they are will-be teachers

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 practical use.

* Lack of good and appropriate learning strategies.

* Other factors: weak foundation, mother tongue intervention, low motivation, personality.

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 the following:

* 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 Qiang,2003)

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 they’re 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, “It’s 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, 1999).
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 the books.”
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 can’t, 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 couldn’t 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 Tony’s words ( Tony,1993):
“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 couldn’t 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 expectations.”
(N.B. Their emotion about these anecdotes is further indicated by a student’s 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 used!”

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 teacher’s 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 Liu’s 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 Ma’s, “It is a heart-to-heart exchange. I admire Mr. Li’s knowledge, and his college life and Ma’s 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 activities.
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…’ The other 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.


Griffths, M.(1998), Educational Research for Social Justice. Open Univerity Press, Buckingham.
McNiff, J., with Whitehead, J., (2002), Action Research: Principles and Practice, Routledge, London and New York
McNiff, J., Lomax, P., Whitehead, J., (1996), You and Your Research Project, Hyde Publications, Dorset, U.K.
Sinclair, J., and Coulthard, M., (1975), Towards an Analysis of Discourse, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Stevick,E.W., (1980), Teaching Languages: A way and Ways, Newbury House, Rowley, Mass.
Tony, L., (1993), Practical Psychology for Language Teachers,
Vale, D. and Feunteun, A (1995), Teaching Children English. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Whitehead, J., (1989),Creating a Living Educational Theory from Question of the Kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’, Cambridge Journal of Education,Vol.19, No.1.
Wajnryb, R., (1992), Classroom Observation Tasks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge



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