Learning is hard. It’s easy to lose track of what we’ve achieved and only see how much we have yet to master. My mentee, however, found a simple and powerful way to build confidence and self-efficacy: progress journals.


A mentee of mine insightfully noticed that he isn’t good at recognizing how much he’s progressed. He often focuses on ideas he failed to understand, or felt he should understand faster, or all the ideas he hasn’t learned yet.

Talking it through, we added “something I learned” to his weekly reflection.

The effect was rapid and significant. Within two weeks I noticed a significant change. He also reported feeling

  • like it was removing barriers to his development
  • more interested in parts of his work code that he’s unfamiliar with
  • more confident when handling the unknown
  • excited for growth

These are incredible outcomes, and from such a small change!

Research backing

Seeing these changes in my mentee was incredible, but it was also a bit of a facepalm moment. I realized I have been neglecting to foster his sense of self-efficacy even in ways that I use for myself. This experience connected researched ideas I already knew about.

How Learning Works describes a phase of learning called the pit. The pit is the stage where a student knows enough to realize how much they don’t know. They know enough to measure themselves and clearly see they are a beginner at that skill.

I should clarify that the pit isn’t a one-time experience. It is a phase of learning we go through for each new skill, though expertise in related skills can shorten time in this stage.

How Learning Works also emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy for learning. Of course a student won’t be motivated to learn if they don’t see that they can improve for the better. The pit is an efficacy trap!

Gap and the Gain is a psychology-backed approach for just this problem! It notes how humans get stuck in the “gap” which is the distance between where we are and what we want to achieve. The solution is focusing on the “gain” which is where we are now compared to where we used to be.

I’ve used Gap and the Gain to track my own progress toward goals for a while. I just didn’t connect the idea to helping students out of the pit. Progress journals are “gain” mindset for learning. They target that sense of self-efficacy, of believing that they have the power to learn and are making progress toward their goals.

Duck Progress

My mentee connected this gain mindset to duck docks, a tool we use to clarify, break down, and track progress toward solving a problem.

His idea was to add a “What I learned” section to every duck he creates while he works. This way he can see what he is learning over time and see how much he as progressed. My mentee is teaching me too!


Progress journals can help learners out of the pit. They are a research-backed tool for bolstering self-efficacy and highlighting progress a student has made. A tool they can carry into most any context!

I feel proud of my mentee. I can tell this habit has improved his confidence and appetite to learn. He is increasingly self-directed and is finding better ways to learn.