How Can I Improve the Students' Self-Confidence in our Classroom Activities in order to enhance their learning?                                                                        

 Ling Yiwen, China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan, 756000, Ningxia Province, P.R. China. June 2004


Abstract: This action research enquiry shows how I have helped my students to become more confident in their learning of English. Not only do I show the processes of this development with the students, but also how I changed my thinking about teaching and learning altogether. I discover the importance of building a bridge between the content of a lesson and the methodologies used to communicate with my students. I enable them to develop their own methodologies in order to reinforce their linguistic and methodological learning as future teachers. I conclude that harnessing students’ creativity is the best way I have yet found to motivate my students, enhance their confidence, consolidate their learning and open their eyes to possible methodologies.


How can I improve the students' self-confidence in classroom activities in order to enhance their learning? I begin my Action Research again.


I describe my AR with the word "again" not because I have finished doing a cycle of my first research. To be honest, I gave up my first AR halfway through. My first AR was begun in September 2002 with the help of Dr. Moira Laidlaw. My understanding of AR at that time was just of a method, which could encourage me to improve my teaching method. I thought I had done some AR before; however, I hadn't taken any notes. My concern had been: "How could I help my students to make spontaneous conversation?" I thought I had made some progress on my AR from my diaries and personal reflections and observations, but in actual fact I didn't know how to provide the evidence to support that claim. At last, I realized I only had subjective accounts, and it was very difficult to provide evidence. Could I actually do something about this issue? Had I brought about some changes? Was I out of my depth? Was I clear about what I meant by a spontaneous conversation? I became puzzled. I gave it up and I did nothing about my AR during my further studying in Xi'an from March to July 2003.


My present context: I have been a teacher for almost thirteen years, and I have been deeply influenced by the teaching methodology, "The Grammar-Translation method". Its goal was expressed like this:


 "Foreign language study aims to learn a language in order to read its literature or in order to benefit from the mental discipline and intellectual development that result from foreign-language study. Grammar Translation is a way of studying a language that approaches the language first through detailed analysis of its grammar rules, followed by application of this knowledge to the task of translating sentences and texts into and out of the target language.” (Stern1983: 455)


Thus, during my early years of being a teacher, I spent most of my teaching time helping my students gain a good understanding of English and try to use it correctly. I did a lot of analysing its basic grammar rules, which was really boring both for the teacher and the students. That is to say, the students always accepted the knowledge in a passive way and they didn't show any initiative and creativity in language learning. Sometimes, this dull atmosphere would pervade the whole classroom, which often made me feel depressed and discouraged. I began to realize gradually that something had to be changed. Meanwhile, the reform of teaching methods was being widely launched across the nation because:


 "Changes in the kind of proficiency learners need, such as a move toward oral proficiency rather than reading comprehension as the goal of language study". (Kelly 1969)


 In my time, I have tried a variety of teaching methods, such as the Communicative Teaching Approach, the Situational Language Teaching method to break the students 'silence’ in classroom activities. Those methods did work and made me excited now and then. But I just did the work in a random and unstructured way not systematically, so I just got some fragmentary experience in my teaching.


I began with my AR again this term after the conference held in November 2003. I learned more about AR. What struck me most is that:


 "Action researchers have the social intent of improving the quality of life for themselves and others, and this is deeply value-laden." (McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead)


I also learned from the above book "You and Your Action Research Project", that AR is a way of working that helps us to identify the thing we believe in and then work systematically and collaboratively, one step at a time, to make them come true. Meanwhile, Stenhouse (1978, 1979) made a strong case for teachers becoming researchers because it was a means through which they could bring about improvements in their teaching. As a teacher, my own current concern has been:


‘How can I help my students to improve their self-confidence in classroom activities?’                         


Why am I concerned about it?

I am the head teacher of grade one class three and my students got the lowest scores in the entrance examination when our college decided to enroll more students. I teach them integrated skills class. I found they were always quiet and hung their heads in class, especially when I wanted to discuss some questions with them. This worried me a lot, and made me depressed. Then I realised, being grouped into special classes doesn't mean that we should give up on those students. On the contrary, it should help teachers organize those particular students’ study more effectively, so that they would make a great progress in their future language learning and become qualified graduates after a three-year study, but to group them into special classes made my students depressed and humiliated them. They thought they were the poorest students in our Department. That may be the reason why they always appeared quiet and hung their heads in class. What should I do to help them? Could I help them? I began to think about it.


Actually, "The question often clarifies itself as we go through the project" (McNiff, Lomax and Jack Whitehead 1996). Gradually, I found my students not only refused to take part in classroom activities, but also lacked initiative in their studies. They would always get better marks in their dictations if I told them in advance I would be giving them a dictation the following day. Otherwise, they would get lower marks. (I have detailed records about that). The same situation often happened in their homework; therefore, improving the students' self-confidence become more important when we know that a person who lacks self-confidence will lack initiative to develop his diferent kinds of abilities (Huang Xi Ting 1997). As you know, The students' silence and non-participation in classroom activities are partly due to the lack of general and professional knowledge, which also result in lacking of self-confidence in their study. My students often told me that they refused to participate classroom activities because they are afraid of making mistakes and because they didn't know how to do it. Sometimes when I asked some students who were murmuring the answers to speak it loudly, they would often hang their heads again. They also avoided eye-contact with me in class. Consequently I had to spend a lot of time persuading and encouraging my students and sometimes I couldn't finish my teaching plan. I would try my best to change the situation, and realized I should focus on improving my students' self-confidence.


Let me introduce Yang Xiaoyan and Yang Qing here because they are my focuses in the research. There are several reasons for my choice. The first time they called attention to themselves was the day I asked my students to read a dialogue. I was doing that in order to make my students take part in classroom activities voluntarily and get out of the habit of keeping silent. I offered them some easy classroom activities, such as reading dialogues, and other texts, to write down some opinions and to read them aloud clearly. All the students began to put up their hands voountarily under my encouragement except for Yang Qing and Yang Xiaoyan. Then, I began to keep a special eye on them. Yang Qing had been a volunteer in classroom activities twice during that time, and Yang Xiayan had never been a volunteer however easy the activities were. I got to know later that Yang Qing is from a poor remote village and he is rather introverted and generally keeps quiet even in his daily life. He never speaks loudly. This corresponded with his behaviour in class. It was difficult for me to hear him when he tried to answer a question as he always hung his head and sat at the back of the classroom. How could I help him improve his self-confidence so that he would become a good teacher in the future?


Conversely, Yang Xiaoyan is active in her daily life. She comes from a rich family and she is the youngest child in her family. She is good at singing and dancing, but her English was so poor that she had lost her self -confidence completely. It made her too shy to say anything in class. She always hung her head when I asked for answers. How could I help her improve self-confidence in learning English through her other abilities?


What have I done to improve the situation?

I learnt that not only intelligence-factors but also emotional ones play an important role in learning and they will develop gradually and interact with each other. Hence, it would become important to improve the students' basic spoken English so that they could participate classroom activities with confidence. What I have done in my Intergrated skills class was to make full use of the "Listening and Speaking Activities" of each unit. The parts include greetings, farewells, introducing others or oneself, and asking and giving information.. It includes lots of different basic sentences which can be used in a variety of situations. Each time, we finished learning the parts, I would ask one of my students to give us a morning speech the next day by making a full preparation before class, which necessarily involved functions from the first part. For example, the student should say like this:


"Today I will introduce some sentences which can be used to ask permission…and so on.’


The students were also allowed to introduce something else of their own choice. I would give some supplementary explanations if the student couldn't explain it completely. This method not was not only able to help students review these parts and have a good command of them, but could also help them improve their self-confidence because such methods:


"strengthen commitment and commitment often reveals confidence. (Dr Moira Laidlaw 2004)


At the very beginning, my students were very nervous when they stood in front of their classmates. They just stood there and read the prepared material. It made the other students feel bored and they gradually started to become inattentive. I felt a little disappointed. Was the method suitable for my students? Should I give it up? No, I began to think about the reason for the situation. I realised that:


"action research does not refer to a methodology that leads to harmonious thought and action but to a problematic practice of coming to know through struggle”. (McNiff, 2002).


I became aware that my student had been controlled by teacher-centered methods for many years. They couldn't understand what they were supposed to do in the activities when it came to expressing themselves. I told my students that I believed I could learn a lot from their speeches, such as new knowledge, new teaching methods, how to treat people and so on. I listened very carefully to their presentations, which would show  them that: 


"education refers to the experience of the interaction between people which leads to further learning." (McNiff, 2002).


As it says in New Curriculum: Teaching is not merely a process of teacher's monologue, but is a process of breeding knowledge with students together. It becomes an interesting process when they can understand it.


One day, after a presentation by Wang Qing, I said with a smile:


" I'm sorry, teacher, I can't hear you.” At that moment, some students became more attentive and encouraging. Yang Qing tried to repeat the sentences again. The encouraging atmosphere spread over the activities gradually and the students started finishing their speeches with what appeared to be greater confidence. Yang Xiaoyan completed her speech independently, although she didn't dare have any eye-contact with her classmates.


Gradually, mention of some of my teaching methods appeared in the students' morning speech, such as my use of pictures, when I drew pictures on the blackboard . I remember clearly one day when Mao Ningxia gave her morning speech. She said to the students with confidence:


"Please listen to me carefully, otherwise I'll let you stand at the back of our class.”


And then it suddenly dawned on me. Why didn't I discuss some new teaching ideas with the students. Why didn’t I ‘treat a student as a whole person’? (Zhong QiquanChui Yonghuo, 2003) I told my students my new idea, that I should treat them as a whole person, not only as language learners. I believe the process of learning is a process of combining a person's knowledge, experience, self-esteem, confidence, initiative, self-motivation and willpower intrinsically. If a teacher or an organizer can’t integrate all this appropriately, a word or even an expression of the eyes might lower a student’s self-esteem, confidence, initiative or self-motivation. It would then be more difficult to raise them again. We teachers shouldn't punish students physically or psychologically. My students begun to understand me.


After that, some conversation-performances appropriate to each unit were offered by my students. I learnt that developing self-confidence belongs to the realm of self-consciousness in Psychology, which involves self-knowledge, personal-experience and self-regulation (Huang Xi Ting 1997). Moreover, I think it becomes easier to develop students' personal experience and self-confidence by being relaxed and free in performance and presentation. Rigidity renders the students easily nervous and lacking in confidence.


I became truly interested in my students' performances about those conversations and they often introduced some extra plots, and used different way to illustrate their performance. For example, if they gave us a performance about inviting somebody to dinner, there would be a beggar there, creatively adding to the original format. Actually their performances were often interesting and lifelike. I really appreciated my students' creativity. In this way, more and more students became immersed in their new freedom, a kind of relaxation with confidence. As we all know, the New Curriculum emphasizes that a curriculum should be bases on the students' learning interests, life experience and cognitive levels, and that it can promote more educational processes of participation, communication and, enable specific learning targets to be followed. It can help the students develop their integrated language skills. It make the process of language learning to be a process of developing students' positive emotional attitudes, autonomic thinking and ability to take risks.


I was also bearing this in mind:


"Action researchers regard learning and experience as processes which enable individuals to make choice about who they are and how they are together. However, people's choices often conflict, so they have to be negotiated and accommodated." (McNiff, 2002, p8).


In other words, learning is a process of growing co-operation, and a process of a learner's interpersonal relationships. This means we should respect the individual's choices and freedom. It seems to me that the important thing for a teacher is to learn how to help the students to learn.


I was looking forward to seeing the progress of Yang Xiaoyan. She still appeared shy and nervous. She always hung her head when I made eye contact with her. I often encouraged her with my eyes in class. Nothing happened, but I felt she was understanding. I told her I would ask her to recite the text the next day, but she failed to do it. Later, Yang Xiaoyan said to me that she knew how to recite the text, but she forgot it completely when she was asked to recite it in front of the classmates. This failure made her cry. Then I told her that I believed she could do it. And she finally began to do something about it.


November.26th.2003, Yang Xiaoyan became one of the volunteers in giving us a performance, though she begun to stammer again when I moved up to them, I felt a little excited and I moved backward quickly. I let Yang Xiaoyan guide our English short play because she is good at dancing. I wanted her to know that her classmates and I valued her, and she did give a lot of good advice to the others. She became more confident in getting along with me. I believed this would help become more confident in her study. On March, 18th, 2004, when I had finished teaching, Yang Xiaoyan walked up to me and said:


"Miss Ling, do you have time? I want to invite you to dinner,” with obvious confidence. I was willing to accept her invitation. It would be a good chance for us to communicate with each other. She told me a lot about herself that day and I told her I really appreciated her progress. The only thing I told her she needed to do at that time was to participate the classroom activities. She said she would give it a try. To my great comfort, Yang Qing became attentive and she often looked at me and smiled in class. One day when I explained the phrase "lose heart" (become discouraged), it reminded me of the word "lose one's heart to sb" (fall in love with sb). I explained those two words to the students and then I said we could ask in this way: "Do you lose your heart to sb?". At that very moment, Yang Qing said naughtily: "Yes". I said:" really?" He hung his head and laughed. In fact, he began to participate more and more activities. I remember clearly on March,18, 2004, when one of his classmates finished his morning speech, I asked the students to point out the mistakes, Yang Qing said: "There is two Number 3 there". The other students began to laugh. I said that was a mistake.


 I began to launch into another, more difficult, activity as my students had improved a little. I divided my students into seven groups and each group was responsible for explaining a paragraph from the text. I wanted them to become experts in explaining of text by making a full preparation before class, and the other students were allowed to ask any questions they liked after their explanations. This activity stresses co-operation, and an integrated approach to learning. Zhong Qiquan and Chui Yonghuo write that such integrated practice is relatively new, and it is “a self biographic situation.” That can be taken to mean that the experience of being a teacher, a instructor, a student or any person in society can be used to encourage students to re-create their experiences in, this case, the foreign language.


I remember one day when a group finished their explanations, Bai Li who was one of the group asked: "Do you have any question?" Nobody answered her. She repeated it again a little angrily and impatiently. Later, I discussed it with them because I think  the students have the right not to answer a teacher What a teacher should do is to guide them in a proper way, to inspire the student's interest to answer it . Sometimes my students wanted me to answer instead. When they couldn't answer others’  questions in class. I would often say: "There is no Miss Ling here". I wanted them to know how to solve a problem independently. The way of dealing with the situation was encouraged by Dr. Moira Laidlaw. She said in her comments on my class:


“It's also so wonderful that you simply won't answer for them and force them to find their own solutions. This is such advanced method of teaching. I have seen many teachers all over the world (America, Singapore, New Zealand, England, Germany) and sometimes they too are afraid to let students not know. They think they must fill every gap with their own expertise. No! Students must learn to fill the gap by their own hard work, responsibility and good attitude. You are also showing confidence in their ability to find their own solutions. Quite often, if the teacher always answers the question, then the students won't develop the ability to search for themselves. Although it may appear at first that your method decreases confidence (because the students expect the teacher to provide the answers and become worried when you won't) your confidence in their ability to find out the truth really makes them study hard and therefore they succeed most of the time. They gradually learn that they can find solution for themselves and this increases their confidence to do it later on. You are showing the students a new way here, in which content and learning processes are completely fused. It is a sophisticated pedagogy you are developing here.”


Sometimes, I would act as a naughty boy and throw the chalks in different directions if they spent a long time writing something on the blackboard, because that is the very behaviour enacted by naughty students in their future classes. I want to train my students capacity as future teachers. Because I want my students to know that:


"a person 's capacity to do a job can be judged in terms of whether they improved the quality of somebody else's educational experience and whether they can support  their claim that they  did so. The evidence will be assessed in terms of identified success criteria, and these are related to the practitioner's educational values and purposes .Did they help others to think and act for themselves? Did they inspire others to take responsibility for their own work?:" (McNiff, 2002).


I really want to do something about it. As Dr. Moira Laidlaw’s comment on my class states


"this is your methodology translating into their methodology. I always think the best learning experience are those, which function on many levels,  not only content , but also process. In this lesson you are giving the future teachers of China a head start with their methodology and enabling them to experience their strengths and weaknesses, as well as giving them an opportunity to see the connections between methodology and knowledge."  


I want to translate not only the methodology but also the new teaching ideas I have gained from doing Action Research, as well as those embodied in the New Curriculum to my students. It is easy to read and gain theoretical knowledge. It really is difficult to carry it out in teaching, learning, and one’s own life. I think it will be a really great contribution to education  and to my country if I can extend this kind of methodology. I am already imagining with delight the things which my students' students will be able to do!


After a series of activities, my students have improved a lot. On May 18th, Mao Ning Xia gave us an excellent morning speech . She prepared some watch-pictures on the blackboard for practicing sentences which can be used to express time and for asking the time. She also brought some candies as rewards instead of punishment as she had done before. The students were very active. I heard one student say: "Why don't you call me to answer it? I was the first to put up my hand." Then, she stood up directly to answer it. I jokingly remarked I could retire now! Gradually, Mao Ningxia started to communicate with me in a free way. When she had finished answering my question one day, she asked me, "What do you think, Miss Ling ?" which seldom happened before. The next day's morning speech was done by Fen Ling who was wonderful too. There is a comment on her morning speech written by my colleague, Liu Bingyou, who was invited to visit my class that day:


"At the very beginning of the class, a girl impressed me the most. It was a mini-lecture rather than a morning report, and she looked like a teacher rather than a student -----confident, generous and free. I really want to describe her performance: First, she gave some sentences patterns and some examples, although with some grammar and pronunciation mistakes. She did a good job ----with her gestures and proper language, causing most of her classmates participate in her lecture. Second, she taught some translation skills, most of which is about transformation of part of speech . She did a good job and all her classmates clapped with joy. It is out of my expectation -------a freshman student, doing better than some of the students in grade three, I thought .


Yang Xiao Yan did make progress in her morning speech as well. She introduced three sentences to the class. After explaining those three sentences, she offered three functions for them, and then asked some students to come to the blackboard to connect them. She made full eye-contact with her classmates. It really impressed me a lot. On May 14th, she put up her hand twice on behalf of her group to participate in the classroom activity. I couldn't help saying that day: "How wonderful you are." She said to me that she had recite the whole text during the time she had had to miss class because of her illness. Yang Qing became more active during these days too. He put up his hand to answer the student's question, to recite the text (I like my students to recite some beautiful paragraphs). He began to joke with the other people. Yu Yan Ping, one of his old classmates, once told me that Yang Qing had changed a lot. Moira Laidlaw wrote:


"All the students seem intent on their studies. These students know what they are doing and clearly are highly motivated. Motivation is an aspect of confidence. Confident students are usually highly motivated, because they know they can succeed and it is generally thought that success encourages greater efforts and confidence. It is a kind of cyclical form. Confidence leads to knowledge, which leads to success, which leads to confidence. So that initial confidence is vital and this is where a good teacher like you can really boost them at the beginning and throughout the learning process. If your question is about confidence, then there is evidence here that the students are confident, in the way they volunteer, they are enthusiastic, they smile a lot and they check their notes all the time." (10th May, 2004)


Jiang Hongxia and Liu Hui (colleagues) have also visited my class. They gave me a lot of good advice and said that my students were attentive and active. Liu Fengyun (another colleague) said that she was deeply moved by Sheng Hai Qing 's morning speech. She said that she did a better job than some of the students in grade three. I was very happy to hear the words from her because she is teaching methodology in our Department . Teresita (VSO volunteer) said to me that my students have improved a lot this term and Wang Ying (colleague) once said that my students did a good job in training teaching pronunciation in her class.  


Actually, my AR and my understanding of AR made it easier to understand the New Curriculum. I learnt that I should treat a student as a "whole person" not only as a language learner. It is easy to express, even to understand, but it is really difficult to realize in your teaching and in students' learning. This is all related to freedom. What is this freedom? How do we understand the centrality of the idea of freedom, which is related to each human-being’s innate character? I know from this research, we shouldn't bind it up, shackle this freedom to our insights. In this way, creativity, interests, initiative and imagination are stymied which results in hindering the improvement of learning, the development of society, and the development of human beings. The only thing we can do is to make full use of this human creativity and enable it to benefit human beings.


I believe with McNiff (2002): "Action Research is learning how to do things in more personally and socially beneficial ways”. As she writes in "Action Research: Principles and Practice":


“through studying my practice as a professional educator I have become aware that the heart of the matter is to do with how I can contribute to the development of a good social order through education!”


Finally, I want to show my respect to Dr. Moira Laidlaw and Dean Tian Fengjun because they have guided me during this process. I also want to thank my dear colleagues Teresita, Li Peidong, Jiang Hongxia, Liu Fengyun, Liu Hui, Wang Ying, Liu Binyou and other colleagues in our Department who gave me a lot of help in my teaching. I also want to thank my students because my little achievement is the result of our collaboration.



McNiff,J., with Whitehead, J., (2002), Action Research: Principles and Practice.

McNiff, J., Lomax, P., Whitehead, J.,(1996), You and Your Action Research Project, Hyde Publications, Dorset.

Jack C. Richards and Theodores S. Rodgers, (1986), Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.