New paper: improving self-belief among young people key to widening participation, study finds

In a CGHE working paper published today, Dr Morag Henderson, Dr Kirstine Hansen and Dr Nikki Shure from the UCL Institute of Education find that academic self-belief among young people is an important determinant of social and economic success.

The study of 9,575 students explores the extent to which young people’s belief in their own academic ability influences their educational trajectories.

The paper, ‘Does academic self-concept predict further and higher education participation?’, examines whether young people with higher self-belief are more likely to study A-levels, participate in further and higher education, and attend high status universities or study high status subjects.

Taking into account prior attainment and other background characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity and social class, young people with higher self-belief are more likely to take A-levels than those with lower belief in their academic ability, the study found. Conversely, young people with lower self-belief are more likely to enter further education than their peers with greater self-belief.

The findings show that young people with higher self-belief are more likely to attend university, although this is not the case once A-level achievement is taken into account. This highlights the importance of the pathway to university, as those with higher self-belief are more likely to take A-levels which in turn influences their likelihood of attending university.

Higher self-belief also increases the odds of studying at a high-status university and there is some indication that academic self-belief is associated with the subjects studied at university, according to the study.

These findings have important policy implications for higher education participation, and widening participation in particular. Education is one of the reasons students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to attend university and it seems that self-belief plays an important part in this.

Self-belief is shown to vary by ethnic background, gender, special education needs and school type. The study also shows that prior attainment is an important predictor of self-belief. The study recommends that policymakers focus on ways of raising the self-belief of young people with lower belief in their academic ability. Programmes to instil confidence in young people could be incorporated into their learning, while teachers and parents could be encouraged to help in their educational interactions with young people.

Dr Morag Henderson, co-author of the study, said:

‘Our findings seem to suggest that students who have the same prior attainment but lower levels of self-belief are less likely to study A-levels and if they attend university they are less likely to study at high status universities. This means that equally able students are not fulfilling their potential due to some limiting beliefs. We hope that raising awareness of this association will ensure that policymakers, teachers and parents work with students to encourage ways to build self-belief and confidence in order to reach their potential.’