Boost learners’ confidence

Margarita Steinberg

Helping students with their confidence around learning, and helping them to learn about learning go hand-in-hand. Learners don’t automatically recognise their successes, and helping them notice and celebrate every bit of progress can help them keep going (Kolb, 1984).

This chapter is developed from the online workshop on supporting learners’ confidence which I delivered at the ALN Festival of Learning in April 2021. The session showcased, and let participants experience, some useful approaches to tackling topics around confidence with groups of learners in an online format. For a review of confidence-building methods, see Maclellan (2013).

What is the idea?

‘Challenges and Triumphs’ Timeline is an activity often used in coaching. It provides a format for highlighting both successes and challenges a learner experiences over the lifespan of an endeavour or a project. Referring to participants’ own personal experiences is highly persuasive in highlighting to them the successes they’re already achieved (but may not have recognised or acknowledged). This then equips them with a convincing reason to feel confident about their future successes in tackling current and anticipated difficulties. This chapter suggests ways of adapting the ‘Timeline’ activity for use in educational settings.

The Timeline activity can also act as a diagnostic, where students identify upcoming challenges they’re concerned about or feel ill-prepared for. The tutor can then choose to address common concerns in a group setting, or support students individually as appropriate.

The activity is organised as follows:

1. Introduction

Participants are introduced to the format of a timeline and the context (the project, the time-span etc.).

2. Production

Participants each work on their own Timeline initially, marking in ~3 significant challenges, and ~3 significant successes over the specified timespan.

This activity can also be used to map participants’ concerns about upcoming / future tasks, e.g. by using the instruction “Add in some challenges you anticipate”.

3. Reflection

Once participants have completed their individual timelines, they’re invited to reflect on their own and/or discuss with peers (can be done in a write/pair/share format). Reflecting on what strengths and strategies the learners had drawn on to overcome previous challenges can also help them deal with future challenges more effectively.

Why this idea?

Most universities not only want to produce skilled graduates in various fields but also help them learn how to learn so that they will be able to cope with future learning challenges of many kinds (Hoskins & Fredriksson, 2008). There are different ways to conceptualise “learning how to learn”. A useful one is to think in terms of improving learners’ self-regulated learning capability (Winne & Hadwin, 1998). The exercise described in this chapter is designed to help students better understand their learning by recalling past triumphs and challenges (Hadwin et al., 2019).

Supporting learners’ confidence to participate is important in online and face-to-face learning environments, and can be addressed directly. This activity can boost learners’ confidence to participate and to have positive expectancy around their learning. “Allowing adults to reflect on their learning experiences has positive effects on their coping capacity and learning outcomes” (Lapina, 2018).

If applied to your own teaching, this activity can provide feedback on how learners are experiencing your module/course, and potentially highlight where additional attention may be warranted.

How could others implement this idea?

The basic idea is both simple and highly adaptable. It can be applied to a range of different time periods, for example, planning for a project, the first five weeks of a module, the span of a higher education course to date, etc. The materials needed are simple: somewhere to draw a timeline and annotate it. The interactions are easy, they can be either face-to-face or remote.

In online sessions, probably the hardest aspect is around using break-out rooms format for the paired discussions. This is because a portion of students predictably go AWOL when a break-out session is announced. A solution that has worked well is to make participation in the break-out rooms optional, and to invite those who’d rather avoid it to either remain in the main area and interact with the tutor, or to take a comfort break and return for the plenary discussion.

In both face-to-face and online settings, participants sometimes put highly personal content onto their Timeline, which they may then find uncomfortable to discuss with a peer or in a plenary. So, the tutor needs to alert participants at the start to only record from their experience those aspects which they feel comfortable to share. Alternatively, participants could write freely, and opt to select which elements they will discuss, without showing their Timeline to anyone directly.

If you’re interested in prompting discussion of anticipated difficulties, the timeline can be adjusted to ‘leave a bit of space for the future’ when selecting where along the timeline to mark ‘Today’, and include the instruction “Add in some challenges you anticipate”.

Transferability to different contexts

The focus of the Timeline can be as broadly defined as ‘your experiences in education’ or as specific as ‘your progress with a specific assignment’. The activity can be applied at all levels in education, from primary school to HE, and in the context of any subject whatsoever, so it’s highly versatile. It can be applied to both past and future challenges and successes.

Links to tools and resources


Hadwin, A. F., Davis, S. K., Bakhtiar, A., & Winne, P. H. (2019). Academic challenges as opportunities to learn to self-regulate learning. In H. Askell-Williams & J. Orrell (Eds.), Problem Solving for Teaching and Learning: A Festschrift for Emeritus Professor Mike Lawson. Routledge.

Hoskins, B., & Fredriksson, U. (2008). Learning to Learn: What is it and can it be measured? Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning (CRELL).

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall.

Lapina A. (2018). Facilitating coping through reflective learning in adult education: A review of the reciprocal relationship between coping and learning. Adult Learning, 29(4), 131-140.

Maclellan, E. (2013). How might teachers enable learner self-confidence? A review study. Educational Review, 66(1), 59-74.

Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated learning. In D. J. Hacker & J. Dunlosky (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 277-304). Erlbaum.

About the Author

Margarita Steinberg is a Leadership and Relationship Coach, as well as a teacher. She has worked with University staff and students. Margarita’s interests are around wellbeing, collaboration and self-efficacy.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning by Margarita Steinberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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