Insight • October 7, 2019

The Link Between Confidence and Critical Thinking

By Karen Foster

You Got This written in chalk on the ground.

Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing the word “confidence” used quite a bit. 

Whenever we partner with clients on a project, one of the many questions we always ask the business sponsor is, “What do you want your learners to be able to do, or do better, as a result of this program?”  Obviously, the responses vary depending on the business’ needs and the learners’ roles and responsibilities.  However, one reply we consistently hear across the board is, “We need them to do X with more confidence!”

Confidence: A By-Product of Knowledge

Well, over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that confidence, in and of itself, is not something that can be taught or trained to, but rather is a direct result of how learners are taught or trained. A learner’s confidence comes from really “digging in” to a topic, thinking critically about it and gaining personal experience with it.

Think about it this way.  If you go to a restaurant and experience it for yourself—you taste the food, talk with the staff, and relax in its atmosphere—you’re going to have a different level of confidence when you tell your friends it’s awesome as compared to if you had simply been told it was great by others.  

Critical Thinking + Experience = More Confidence

It’s important for Learning and Development (L&D) professionals to connect improving a learner’s confidence in (for example) using clinical or economic evidence with training that allows learners to think critically and gain experiences in the targeted knowledge or skills. Unfortunately, in my experience, many training programs don’t do this. Instead, often they follow this pattern:

  1. Provide learners the evidence (such as a clinical trial or a vis aid) with the prioritized points already annotated and highlighted.
  2. Provide the key messages learners must communicate.
  3. Have learners verbatim repeat those messages through verbalization exercises.

This is not a recipe for confidence.  Why?  Because learners are handed everything and not provided an opportunity to think through or engage with the content themselves.

Another, far more effective approach would be one that encourages learners to truly think about the material.  Imagine a program that:

  1. Gives learners a clinical trial and asks them to read it (not annotated or highlighted).
  2. Asks learners to identify and formulate key messages on their own based on their own understanding of the marketplace, their customers and the trial.
  3. Provides an opportunity for learners to discuss their key messages and explain why they developed them (it’s OK if their messages aren’t the same as the ones Marketing will ultimately have them communicate in the field.  The key is to make them think about the content and engage with it).
  4. Affirms or “course corrects” the learners where necessary, helping them arrive at the correct key messages to be communicated.
  5. Has learners repeat and defend those key messages through verbalization exercises.

The process described above drives learners to internalize the content far better than simply handing them “pre-digested” material.  It gets them to absorb the information and work with it to create, test, and defend key messages.  After going through an exercise like that, the learners will be far more confident and effective.

As you work to develop new learning and development programs, remember the link between confidence and critical thinking.  By incorporating more critical thinking exercises into your programs, you’ll be able to generate far more confidence and better results in the field.