How does confidence affect academic performance?

Confidence can undermine academic performance and contribute to the dropout cycle. Check out these evidence-backed ways to boost confidence…

Clock 3 min read Calendar Published: 14 Sep 2023
Author Abby Driver
How does confidence affect academic performance?


“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right," so proclaimed American industrialist and business magnate Henry Ford.

And it turns out, he had a good point. Countless research has since highlighted the critical role confidence and self concept plays in relation to success

The reason so many people fail to reach their potential isn't because of a lack of knowledge or talent, but a fundamental lack of belief in themselves. Another misconception many people have been laboring under is that confidence is a fixed trait: you either have it or you don’t. But this is not true.

In this article we’ll dispel these myths and take a look at the role confidence plays specifically in relation to academic performance, how it’s linked to the dropout cycle, and finish up with some evidence-backed ways to boost it…


Why confidence is so important academically

One meta-analysis analyzed 32 studies examining the relationship between a student’s self-concept and their academic achievement. The review found that a high self-concept is related to high academic performance and vice-versa. As one study summed it up "self-confidence acts as a predictor of academic performance. [The] better the self-confidence, the better the academic performance."

So well established is the link between confidence and academic performance, the aforementioned meta-analysis included the recommendation that intervention programs should combine both skill development and self enhancement.

But why is confidence so important when it comes to success in school and college? Confidence is likely to help students perform better academically because confident students have:

  • An inherent belief they have, or can acquire, the right skills to meet their goals
  • A sense of control over their lives and outcomes; they expect to be able to do what they set out to do
  • Realistic expectations of themselves 
  • An understanding of their talents and how to best utilize them to meet their targets
  • No shame in asking for help when required


How confidence is linked to the dropout cycle 

Graduation rates have stagnated around 65%, which is bad news for colleges and students alike. One of the main driving forces behind low graduation rates is the dropout cycle, which we have summed up as: 

  • Poor study skills impact performance negatively
  • Negative performance causes stress
  • Stress contributes to burnout
  • Burnout makes performance improvement even harder to attain
  • …and the cycle repeats itself

But improved confidence could help disrupt this cycle. Instead of allowing a negative performance to result in stress and burnout, a confident student could look at the situation objectively, refuse to engage in negative self-talk and come up with a strategy for improvement (e.g. learning how to study better, asking for support etc.).

The problem is, many of the students that get sucked into the dropout cycle in the first place are not confident. It is here that the opportunity for colleges lies. Interventions should be two pronged with two aims: providing academic skill support and confidence building. 


Confidence comes and goes 

Such an approach would be useful for all students, because even the more confident among us wobble from time to time. It is normal and natural for confidence to ebb and flow. 

Of course getting a good grade or praise would boost it and criticism would knock it. So it is pertinent for all students to develop a strong sense of confidence that doesn't exclusively rely on external factors (such as grades and praise) to prop it up. But how exactly do you manage that? 


Evidence-backed ways to improve confidence

The good news is, there are plenty of ways to increase confidence. As one study put it: “confidence is not inherited, it is learned”.

A 2021 research article entitled ‘Self-Esteem and Academic Engagement Among Adolescents’ outlined three steps individuals and institutions could take to promote confidence among students: 


1. Encourage positive self evaluations

In order to boost self concept, students should be encouraged to make positive self-cognition evaluations. Staff can support this by setting reasonable learning goals and guiding students to reasonable attributions of success and failure when they encounter setbacks. 

There is some good evidence for positive self evaluations. One 2021 study looked at the role core self evaluation had on job search outcomes for college students and found, similar to previous research, that better self-perceptions and evaluations result in better future career plans and better outcomes overall. 


2. Invest in peer support groups 

Foster a positive learning environment, in which students feel properly supported and encouraged. One way to achieve this is through establishing peer support groups, where students are provided with peer encouragement which builds a sense of community and trust. 

Research has found peer support groups can be helpful in supporting deeper learning, reducing symptoms of depression, and preventing stress and burnout. 


3. Look for red flags and act quick 

Low levels of academic engagement and poor attendance can all highlight a student who is struggling. But research has also linked less commonly measured attributes, like stress overload, with poor grades and dropping out. Yet red flags like stress and burnout are rarely included in the predictive algorithm programs commonly used by colleges to identify students at risk of dropping out. 

Therefore programs used should be robust and colleges might like to consider supplementing with additional information. This could include student surveys which ask them to rate stress or confidence levels, along with a clear process for lecturers and pastoral staff to highlight concerns about individual students. 

This comprehensive approach could lead to quicker identifying at-risk students and intervening earlier with academic support and confidence building strategies, before they fall further into the dropout cycle.


In conclusion…

Confidence plays an influential role when it comes to academic performance, acting as a major predictor of success. Poor confidence levels can tarnish a student's experience of higher education and contribute to the ongoing dropout cycle problem many colleges are facing. 

But confidence can be improved. Despite this, many people think of confidence as a fixed trait or something you're either born with or not. This highlights an exciting opportunity to interrupt the dropout cycle and boost graduation rates, along with student satisfaction levels.

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