To teach better, boost student confidence


Students learn better when their professors are demanding and have high standards.

People learn even better when these professors are supportive, encouraging, and have confidence in their students.

If students think that a class is easy, or doesn’t expect much out of them, then it’s only natural to expect that they won’t work hard. It’s not too common for a student to put in much more work than is expected of them. So, high standards matter.

If you have high expectations, then how do you go about helping students meet these high expectations? A bad way is to make students afraid about the difficulty of the class. While fear might some students may step to the plate in the face of a daunting task, fear is more likely to harm performance.

Fear as a motivator may be a particular challenge for the more marginalized students in the class, as adroitly explained by Meg Duffy in her series on stereotype threat (part 1, part 2, part 3). If you are trying to incentivize performance by emphasizing that how hard it is to do well, you may be providing a disincentive. Maybe as a student you worked harder when you were told how difficult something is, but as a future professor, you were not the typical student.

How can you be challenging and also encouraging? Here’s an article that explains: “students were more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceived their teachers’ critical feedback as a genuine desire to help rather than as an expression of indifference or disdain.”

If you show up in the classroom with the attitude that, “It’s my job to teach, and my students’ job to learn,” then the students will perceive that you don’t care whether or not the students learn. It doesn’t show that you don’t care about the students, but it doesn’t show that you care about the students either. And showing that you care actually matters for performance.

By showing an investment in students, you’re more likely to inspire deep thought, critical thinking and intellectual investment. Ask some of your students who their favorite teachers have been in high school and college. What they’ll tell you is that they loved the subject and learned more because the professor was so invested and that they cared.

Let’s say your students perform just fine even though you don’t show that you care about their performance, or without providing any positive encouragement or support. Maybe your students could do even better if you altered your practices?

Teaching is a job, and I contend that you can not love teaching and still do a good job at it. I think it’s absurd that we should expect people teaching to love it. It’s a job. But on the other hand, if you don’t really love it, then this puts some kind of ceiling on how effective you can be. Because engaged professors, who communicate a genuine interest in the achievement of their students, are the ones that get their students to the next level.

If you disagree with me, that’s fine! But please don’t disagree by talking about what worked for you as a student. Because this isn’t about you, it’s about your students. Who are not you.

2 thoughts on “To teach better, boost student confidence

  1. Thanks for this, Terry. I’ve found that a useful strategy is to position myself as the students’ ally. I let them know that we will be covering some challenging topics that I expect everyone to master, and that I’m here to support them in their journey toward mastery. This philosophical repositioning– (the students + me) vs. hard material instead of (the students) vs. (me + hard material)– has made a big difference in the way I approach teaching.

  2. for what it’s worth, this was also me as a student. I’d work my ass off for profs or instructors who had high standards but also made the course welcoming. Profs who tried to motivate with fear or with criticism? I blew them off as much as I could without jeopardizing my own development, and they were actually an impediment to my willingness to learn.

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