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  • Tom Brooksher

The Role of Confidence in Learning

Knowledge may be power, but a person’s level of confidence in knowledge determines whether they use the power of their knowledge. Put another way, what you know isn’t a very good predictor of whether you’ll act on the knowledge you have. What you confidently know, or think you know, is a much better predictor of your behavior because we tend to act on confident knowledge, regardless of whether what we know is correct or not.

Academics have known this for 75 years. And it’s a very important concept to those of us who develop training, right? After all, if our objective is to teach someone to perform their job better—which means they need to know what to do and be able to do it, as well as know what not to do and not do that—then wouldn’t it be important to teach the correct and incorrect methods (knowledge) in a manner that maximizes the likelihood that they will perform the correct method and avoid the incorrect method? That’s the role of confidence in learning.

When’s the last time you took confidence into account in instructional design? "Never" is a pretty likely answer. Let’s take brief look at the fundamentals of confidence-based learning (CBL) and its role in training.

A theory and a methodology

CBL is a theory of learning and a teaching methodology that takes into account the learner’s level of confidence in the knowledge they are acquiring in addition to knowledge transfer itself. Its roots can be traced to an academic paper written in 1932 that proposed that measuring confidence and knowledge is a better predictor of performance than just measuring knowledge.

CBL asserts that the relationship between knowledge and confidence in predicting performance can be illustrated in four quadrants:

Illustration Credit: Amplifire

The quadrants demonstrate how an increased level of confidence manifests itself in behavior. Someone with a low level of confidence as well as a low level of knowledge is uninformed and tends not to act on the little knowledge they have. If the individual possesses knowledge but has a low level of confidence in that knowledge, they tend to doubt what they know and hesitate to apply their knowledge.

However, if the individual has a high level of confidence in their knowledge about something, they’re likely to act on the knowledge. If they are misinformed, but confidently believe in what they think they know, then they’ll act and likely make mistakes.

Describing the quadrants

The objective of CBL is to attain a state where the individual knows all of the information and is confident in their knowledge. This is referred to as “Mastery,” and results in the individual taking action on their knowledge and the action being appropriate. The four quadrants can be explained as follows:

  • Uninformed – low level of knowledge and little confidence – is often a result of just not acquiring the knowledge yet and, without knowledge or confidence in the knowledge, individuals are unlikely to act at all. This is the untrained salesperson who avoids talking to prospects because she doesn’t know what to say about her product.

  • Misinformation – low or incorrect level of knowledge but high confidence in that knowledge – is also known as confidently held misinformation and is the most dangerous CBL quadrant. Consider a salesperson who strongly believes she knows all about a product’s features and benefits, but what she actually “knows” is wrong. She’s likely to act on her misinformation, which may result selling a product that won’t fulfill the promises she made about it.

  • Doubt – high level of knowledge but a low level of confidence in that knowledge – results in inaction or delayed action. Consider that salesperson again. If she knows her product’s features and benefits but isn’t confident in her knowledge, she’s likely to hold back and not fully answer a prospect’s question – or even abort the call rather than go confidently for the close.

  • Mastery – high level of knowledge and high level of confidence in the knowledge – is the ideal state of performance. Consider a well-trained salesperson with complete knowledge of her product. She’s likely to answer every question promptly and in a manner that engenders rapport and respect from the prospect.

Confidence-based learning in practice

CBL has been used extensively in Europe and to a lesser degree in the United States as an educational methodology. When implemented in a commercial learning environment, it typically includes the following:

Confidence-focused presentation of information: When teaching students a body of material, the presentation has dual objectives: to impart correct knowledge and to promote a high level of confidence in the knowledge. Several techniques are used to accomplish this, including:

  • Uncovering misinformation and leveraging the emotional reaction to being wrong in order to drive learning and retention of the correct information;

  • Determining what the student already correctly knows, raising confidence in that information rather than just reteaching the information;

  • Building confidence in knowledge through repetition of learning, which involves determining what a student doesn’t know, then teaching them through iterations of instruction and assessment until their recall of the information and/or application of it is virtually automatic.

Confidence-based assessment: In addition, most CBL methodologies employ an assessment tool that seeks to determine what the student knows and how confident they are in that knowledge. A common way to do this is to ask a student a question, then to ask them how confident they are in their answer, such as highly confident, confident, not very confident or don’t know.

If you would like to learn more about how to incorporate confidence into your training design, please contact us at

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