Inspire your students to blow their own trumpet

June 27, 2003

Ever questioned why some undergraduates fail? It's all down to a lack of confidence, insists Christopher Ball

Most students get degrees. A few fail. Why? The question arises even more insistently in schooling and professional development than in university education. There are only four possible answers. They are lack of motivation, self-belief, talent or opportunity. Those who really want to, believe they can, are blessed with talent and are given a chance always succeed. As these attributes are stripped away, or if they are missing, the likelihood of failure increases.

Consider this: Tom, Dick and Harry are three boys learning to play the trumpet. Tom has a trumpet and knows he can learn to play if he tries. But he doesn't want to. Dick also has a trumpet and would love to be able to play it. But he knows he can't. Harry wants to learn and believes he can. But he has no trumpet. Which student is most likely to succeed? I would bet on Harry. He may not have a trumpet, but he is the kind of boy who would beg, borrow or steal one to achieve his objective. Anyway, we know there are two unused trumpets in his world.

Also worth considering is that, to a very large extent, those who appear to lack ability in fact suffer from a lack of self-belief or motivation. The 20th century was mistaken in putting so much emphasis on issues of ability and opportunity (aptitude and trumpets), and so little on questions of motivation and self-belief. These are the real reasons for learning failure or success. I hope the 21st century will pay them more attention. Together, they constitute self-esteem. So defined, self-esteem is the key requisite to successful learning at any level from nursery school to university and beyond. And it can itself be taught and learnt.

In many years of teaching and examining students - not only at Oxford University - I have never come across one who lacked the ability to succeed. Has any university teacher ever met such a student? They all have the opportunity to succeed - they have won their place in higher education.

So I am bound to conclude that, when students fail in universities, it must be due to low self-esteem - poor motivation and/or lack of self-belief.

Self-esteem is key to success in higher education, as in all other kinds of learning. It should be the key to admission. But, if it can be learnt and taught, then in principle anyone - with the possible exception of the severely disabled - can reasonably aspire to a successful university education, if they choose. All they need is motivation and self-belief. How do we learn self-esteem? It is a form of remedial education. Everyone is born with high self-esteem - strong motivation to learn and powerful self-belief. The question should be: how do we lose our natural self-esteem? Round up the usual suspects: parents, teachers, peer-group.

By the time students enter universities, their self-esteem has taken quite a few knocks and is damaged - though not seriously, or they would not have gained admission. Those who are rejected, or who never apply, are the ones we should be most concerned about. Their low self-esteem has served to conceal their real ability and talent from the admissions officers, and even from themselves. There is no comfort to be had from the thought that those who do not apply are merely exercising their choice. University education is like travelling abroad or falling in love. No one who wishes to enjoy a full life - and we all do - would hope to die without some experience of foreign travel, sexual passion and higher education at some point in their lives. It is low self-esteem that prevents us, not free choice, experiencing these delights.

So how can teachers restore self-esteem? Recognise the issue. Raise its profile. Discuss it with students. Challenge and test my assertions.

Scrutinise questions of self-esteem at least as thoroughly and professionally as universities have traditionally studied the questions of ability and access. Learners usually succeed when they have choice, challenge, clarity, confidence and comfort. It is the teacher's first task to ensure that these conditions prevail, because when some or all are missing, self-esteem diminishes or disappears. Success comes without fail to those who love what they are doing and believe in themselves. So we must inspire, and re-inspire, our students with a love of learning in general and their chosen programmes of study in particular, and work constantly to reinforce and strengthen their self-belief. I used to tell my students when they doubted themselves that they impugned my competence as a selector and a teacher. Not surprisingly, no one ever failed. They trusted my judgement.

What students need is not more ability but enhanced self-esteem. And it is our job to give it to them.

Sir Christopher Ball is chancellor of the University of Derby, chairman of the Talent Foundation and patron of the Society for Effective Affective Learning.

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