An exploration of confidence related to formal learning in Saudi Arabia
Learners approach learning tasks with varying degrees of confidence and their confidence
may influence the prospects of progress and success. The main purpose of the
investigations reported in this thesis was to explore confidence in relation to learning, in
the context of education in Saudi Arabia, focussing mainly on early university
experiences. Because of access to students in Saudi Arabia, most of the sample of over
1400 students were female.
Confidence is an elusive concept but it can affect many areas of life. This study seeks to
explore academic confidence, to see how it relates to other aspects of confidence and to
see whether any aspects of learning or the nature of learning situations relates particularly
to the enhancement of confidence with learners.
The study starts by exploring what is meant by confidence, specifically in an educational
setting, and then moves on to consider how experiences held in memory relate to the
formation and development of confidence. In thinking of confidence, it is suggested that
confidence can be seen, at least in part, as an attitude towards oneself. It is how a person
sees himself in the context of a task or opportunity.
This study starts by an attempt to explore several aspects of confidence to see to what
extent confidence is a generic characteristic and how academic confidence might relate to
that. Academic confidence might be related to specific cognitive characteristics or to
views of learning or to specific kinds of learning situations. Questionnaires and
interviews were the approach adopted in this study.
Semi-structured interviews were undertaken to establish some kind of measure of the
validity of the questionnaires. Working memory capacity was measured using the digits
span backwards test while examination and test data were also obtained. In every case,
large samples were used in the data collection. The overall aim was to obtain a picture of
the nature of confidence and to see how this was related to other attributes (which were
also measured by survey) and to performance (as measured by formal examinations).
The key observation is that academic performance tends only to be correlated with
academic confidence. Thus, confidence is probably not a general attribute. Interviews
tend to confirm the outcomes from the survey. In that working memory is a well established rate determining factor in much learning, it might be thought that that working
memory capacity might be a factor in enhancing confidence but, in the context of the
sample of female students used in this study, this was not found to be so.
Students were asked to look at themselves in the learning process, to indicate their
preferred styles of learning and assessment but, in general, few aspects seem to show any
strong relationship with the development of academic confidence. However, those who
expressed specific confidence in their abilities related to studying tended to be those who
were, in fact, better performers as measured by examinations. Thus, students seem to be
appropriately self-aware. Also, the importance of tests and examinations was seen and it
did appear that results from these were a major feature of confidence growth.
Attitudes to learning (following the Perry model, 1999) also tend not to correlate
significantly with academic performance although there is a hint that assessment might be
important. Aspects of learning style, purposes of learning, evaluation in examinations,
group-working skills and academic self-perception showed few clear patterns in relation
to confidence. The strong. overall impression is that preferred curriculum approaches are
not very important in developing confidence although the influence of the subject teacher
may be very important. Also it seems to be an innate human characteristic to seek for
meaning. Memorisation is not, perhaps, the natural way forward. All of this tends to give
a kind of picture of characteristics that might describe some confident students rather than
give a set of criteria for developing a confident person.
Although not the main purpose of the study, the patterns of results from the many
questionnaires revealed major deficiencies in the Saudi education system as seen by the
learners and offers an agenda for change for the future. There seemed to be an expressed
interest in more opportunities for thinking (rather than memorising), for questioning,
creativity and working in groups.
From all of this, it might be deduced that the key feature underpinning confidence lies in
simple success (reflected in speed of learning, understanding, and examination success).
Thus, confidence makes it possible for students to enjoy the challenges of further
learning, to take risks and to take risks in a social learning situation like group work.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the lack of features which correlate with measures
of academic confidence.Any attempt to find some kind of insight into a way of teaching and learning which
generates increased confidence is not easy from the data. There are two possible reasons
for this. Perhaps, different students prefer different ways and this hides any significant
correlations overall. Perhaps, also, the students are so accustomed to a system which
offers information in quantity and provides rewards only to those who can recall it
accurately that this hides other possibilities for these students.
The one thing that stands out is that success seems to lead to confidence. These students
are among those who have been more successful at school in terms of examinations. The
fundamental question is how to offer success to those who are not so good at formal
examinations based on recall. If success is so dependent on this and confidence is not
related much to other aspects, then there is a real danger that the examination system will
generate a population where many are unsuccessful. The system might be leading to a
destruction of confidence. It does not seem to be the style of examination but the fact of
success in examinations which is an important determinant of confidence. The samples
considered were drawn from those who had been successful at school. Further studies
might focus on those, who were not so successful.