Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment, grading, leadership, and behavioral support. He is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher.

They Only Have to THINK They’re Right

Belief is powerful. When we truly believe something, we don’t just think it – we feel it. When you believe, you know like you know like you know – it’s unmistakable. Our belief about anything is usually what sets the wheels of success or failure in motion. It’s Henry Ford who is often credited with saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, either way you’re probably right.

When it comes to learning, it turns out belief is every bit as powerful. Many of you know how often I speak of the importance of developing student confidence as a precursor to maximizing student engagement and success; that the development and maintenance of confidence should be our first priority. With confidence, students will try harder and persevere through temporary obstacles and stumbles on their road to success. Without it, students are likely to give up and stop trying.

So much has been written about the importance of failure in the process of learning; that as teachers we need to create an atmosphere within our classrooms where students view their initial failures as part of the learning process. While I generally agree with that perspective, without first developing student confidence and the belief of eventual success, failure becomes counter-productive. For students to view fail as what many refer to as a first attempt in learning, they need to come into their learning experiences with a confident, growth-mindset, where setbacks are only temporary (Dweck, 2006).

Confidence is grounded optimism and is the sweet spot between arrogance and despair (Kanter, 2004). Arrogance is the inability to see any flaws, while despair is the inability to see any strengths; confidence is having just enough of both. Confident students see themselves as learners because they have learned in the past.

Now when it comes to learning, assessment, and the use of descriptive feedback, it turns out that the research is clear that confidence plays a pivotal role in whether or not students will have a productive response to being assessed and receiving feedback. Consider this:

“Feedback has its greatest effect when a learner expects a response to be correct and it      turns out to be wrong. Conversely, if response certainty is low and the response turns out to be wrong, feedback is largely ignored.” (Kulhavy & Stock, 1989)

In other words, students only have to think they’re right for feedback to have its greatest effect. If students don’t expect their responses to be correct then feedback is essentially ignored. What matters is how certain students are about the correctness of their responses. John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) drew a similar conclusion in 2007:

“The degree of confidence that students have in the correctness of responses can affect receptivity to and seeking of feedback.” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007)

The real key to the effective use of descriptive feedback is how receptive our students are to the feedback they’re provided, which is directly related to their level of confidence. In my last post I wrote about the Five Questions About Feedback, which included examining whether our feedback routines elicited a productive responses; this is more likely when students believe they can learn.

Confident students often invest more of themselves into reaching the intended learning goals:

“Feedback is effective to the degree to which it directs information to enhanced self-efficacy and to more effective self-regulation, such that attention is directed back to the task and causes students to invest more effort or commitment to the task.” (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996)

The bottom-line is that effective feedback is the key to advancing our students’ levels of proficiency in relation to the intended learning goals or standards; however, it’s the students’ confidence or self-efficacy that maximizes their use of that feedback. Begin shaping the learning environment with confidence-building assessment practices that lay a foundation for a positive belief in a positive outcome, and you’ll have students more willing to persevere. In her most recent post, Cassie Erkens wrote about how we can build efficacy  through our assessment practices and how, as she wrote, “The evidence that is generated from classroom assessments must be used to help learners believe that they can produce desired effects by their own actions and beliefs.”

Once they believe they can produce those desired effects, students can learn anything. Remember, they don’t have to be right; they only have to think they’re right!


Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House Publishing Group.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Kanter, R. M. (2004). Confidence how winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. New York: Crown Business.

Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Kulhavy, R. W., & Stock, W. A. (1989). Feedback in written instruction: The place of response certitude. Educational Psychology Review, 1(4), 279–308.

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