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Self-efficacy

Module by: Lisa White-McNulty. E-mail the author

In addition to being influenced by their goals, interests, and attributions , students’ motives are affected by specific beliefs about the student’s personal capacities. In self-efficacy theory the beliefs become a primary, explicit explanation for motivation (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that he/she is capable of carrying out a specific task or of reaching a specific goal. Note that the belief and the action or goal are specific. Your self-efficacy is your beliefs about whether or not you can write an acceptable term paper, for example, or repair an automobile, or make friends with the new student in class. These are relatively specific beliefs and tasks. Self-efficacy is not about whether you believe that you are intelligent in general, whether you always like working with mechanical things, or think that you are generally a likeable person. These more general judgments are better regarded as various mixtures of self-concepts (beliefs about general personal identity) or of self-esteem (evaluations of identity). They are important in their own right, and sometimes influence motivation, but only indirectly (Bong & Skaalvik, 2004).

Self-efficacy beliefs, furthermore, are not the same as “true” or documented skill or ability. They are self- constructed, meaning that they are personally developed perceptions. There can sometimes therefore be discrepancies between a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and the person’s abilities. You can believe that you can write a good term paper, for example, without actually being able to do so, and vice versa: you can believe yourself incapable of writing a paper, but discover that you are in fact able to do so. In this way self-efficacy is like the everyday idea of confidence, except that it is defined more precisely. And as with confidence, it is possible to have either too much or too little self-efficacy. The optimum level seems to be either at or slightly above true capacity (Bandura, 1997). As we indicate below, large discrepancies between self-efficacy and ability can create motivational problems for the individual.

Effects of self-efficacy on students’ behavior

Self-efficacy may sound like a uniformly desirable quality, but research as well as teachers’ experience suggests that its effects are a bit more complicated than they first appear. Self-efficacy has three main effects, each of which has both a negative or undesirable side and a positive or desirable side.

Choice of tasks

The first effect is that self-efficacy makes students more willing to choose tasks where they already feel confident of succeeding. While this seems intuitive, given the definition of the concept of self-efficacy, it has also been supported by research on self-efficacy beliefs (Pajares & Schunk, 2001). For teachers, the effect on choice can be either welcome or not, depending on circumstances. If a student believes that he or she can solve mathematical problems, then the student is more likely to attempt the mathematics homework that the teacher assigns.

Unfortunately the converse is also true. If a student believes that he or she is in capable of math, then the student is less likely to attempt the math homework (perhaps telling himself, “What’s the use of trying?”), regardless of the student’s actual ability in math.

Since self-efficacy is self-constructed, furthermore, it is also possible for students to miscalculate or misperceive their true skill, and the misperceptions themselves can have complex effects on students’ motivations. From a teacher’s point of view, all is well even if students overestimate their capacity but actually do succeed at a relevant task anyway, or if they underestimate their capacity, yet discover that they can succeed and raise their self-efficacy beliefs as a result. All may not be well, though, if students do not believe that they can succeed and therefore do not even try, or if students overestimate their capacity by a wide margin, but are disappointed unexpectedly by failure and lower their self-efficacy beliefs.

Persistence at tasks

A second effect of high self-efficacy is to increase persistence at relevant tasks. If you believe that you can solve crossword puzzles, but encounter one that takes longer than usual, then you are more likely to work longer at the puzzle until you (hopefully) really do solve it. This is probably a desirable behavior in many situations, unless the persistence happens to interfere with other, more important tasks (what if you should be doing homework instead of working on crossword puzzles?). If you happen to have low self-efficacy for crosswords, on the other hand, then you are more likely to give up early on a difficult puzzle. Giving up early may often be undesirable because it deprives you of a chance to improve your skill by persisting. Then again, the consequent lack of success because of giving up may provide a useful incentive to improve your crossword skills. And again, misperceptions of capacity make a difference. Overestimating your capacity by a lot (excessively high self-efficacy) might lead you not to prepare for or focus on a task properly, and thereby impair your performance. So as with choosing tasks, the effects of self-efficacy vary from one individual to another and one situation to another. The teacher’s task is therefore two-fold: first, to discern the variations, and second, to encourage the positive self-efficacy beliefs. The following table offers some additional advice about how to do this.

Table 1: Ways of encouraging self-efficacy beliefs
Strategy Example of what the teacher might say
1. Set goals with students, and get a commitment from them to reach the goals. “By the end of the week, I want you to know be able to define these 5 terms. Can I count on you to do that?”
2. Encourage students to compare their performance with their own previous performance, not with other students. “Compare that drawing against the one that you made last semester. I think you’ll find improvements!”
3. Point out links between effort and improvement. “I saw you studying for this test more this week. No wonder you did better this time!”
4. In giving feedback about performance, focus on information, not evaluative judgments. “Part 1 of the lab write-up was very detailed, just as the assignment asked. Part 2 has a lot of good ideas in it, but it needs to be more detailed and stated more explicitly.”
5. Point out that increases in knowledge or skill happen gradually by sustained effort, not because of inborn ability. “Every time I read another one of your essays, I see more good ideas than the last time. They are so much more complete than when you started the year.”

Example 1: Self-Efficacy, Illustrated

This flash animation illustrates the journey of a teacher and student as the student's self-efficacy increases. Sammy has low self-esteem, but his teacher sees a teachable moment in his desire to act and sing. She employs verbal persuasion with positive statements and peer modeling by having Sammy observe another successful classmate who had the same fears. She provides Sammy with specific feedback on his performance, and Sammy has a successful experience in his tryout as a result. By Jim Stewart, Jill Weldon, Celeste Buckhalter- Pittman, and Holly Frilot.

Source: Orey (2010).

Response to failure

High self-efficacy for a task not only increases a person’s persistence at the task, but also improves their ability to cope with stressful conditions and to recover their motivation following outright failures. Suppose that you have two assignments—an essay and a science lab report—due on the same day, and this circumstance promises to make your life hectic as you approach the deadline. You will cope better with the stress of multiple assignments if you already believe yourself capable of doing both of the tasks, than if you believe yourself capable of doing just one of them or (especially) of doing neither. You will also recover better in the unfortunate event that you end up with a poor grade on one or even both of the tasks.

That is the good news. The bad news, at least from a teacher’s point of view, is that the same resilience can sometimes also serve non-academic and non-school purposes. How so? Suppose, instead of two school assignments due on the same day, a student has only one school assignment due, but also holds a part-time evening job as a server in a local restaurant. Suppose, further, that the student has high self-efficacy for both of these tasks; he believes, in other words, that he is capable of completing the assignment as well as continuing to work at the job.

The result of such resilient beliefs can easily be a student who devotes less attention to school work than ideal, and who even ends up with a lower grade on the assignment than he or she is capable of.

Sources of self-efficacy beliefs

Psychologists who study self-efficacy have identified four major sources of self-efficacy beliefs (Pajares & Schunk, 2001, 2002). In order of importance they are (1) prior experiences of mastering tasks, (2) watching others’ mastering tasks, (3) messages or “persuasion” from others, and (4) emotions related to stress and discomfort. Fortunately the first three can be influenced by teachers directly, and even the fourth can sometimes be influenced indirectly by appropriate interpretive comments from the teacher or others.

Prior experiences of mastery

Not surprisingly, past successes at a task increase students’ beliefs that they will succeed again in the future. The implication of this basic fact means that teachers need to help students build a history of successes. Whether they are math problems, reading assignments, or athletic activities, tasks have to end with success more often than with failure. Note, though, that the successes have to represent mastery that is genuine or competence that is truly authentic. Success at tasks that are trivial or irrelevant do not improve self- efficacy beliefs, nor does praise for successes that a student has not really had (Erikson, 1968/1994).

As a practical matter, creating a genuine history of success is most convincing if teachers also work to broaden a student’s vision of “the past.” Younger students (elementary-age) in particular have relatively short or limited ideas of what counts as “past experience;” they may go back only a few occasions when forming impressions of whether they can succeed again in the future (Eccles, et al., 1998). Older students (secondary school) gradually develop longer views of their personal “pasts,” both because of improvements in memory and because of accumulating a personal history that is truly longer. The challenge for working with any age, however, is to ensure that students base self-efficacy beliefs on all relevant experiences from their pasts, not just on selected or recent experiences.

Watching others’ experiences of mastery

A second source of efficacy beliefs comes from vicarious experience of mastery, or observing others’ successes (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). Simply seeing someone else succeed at a task, in other words, can contribute to believing that you, too, can succeed. The effect is stronger when the observer lacks experience with the task and therefore may be unsure of his or her own ability. It is also stronger when the model is someone respected by the observer, such as a student’s teacher, or a peer with generally comparable ability. Even under these conditions, though, vicarious experience is not as influential as direct experience. The reasons are not hard to imagine.

Suppose, for example, you witness both your teacher and a respected friend succeed at singing a favorite tune, but you are unsure whether you personally can sing. In that case you may feel encouraged about your own potential, but are likely still to feel somewhat uncertain of your own efficacy. If on the other hand you do not witness others’ singing, but you have a history of singing well yourself, it is a different story. In that case you are likely to believe in your efficacy, regardless of how others perform.

All of which suggests that to a modest extent, teachers may be able to enhance students’ self-efficacy by modeling success at a task or by pointing out classmates who are successful. These strategies can work because they not only show how to do a task, but also communicate a more fundamental message, the fact that the task can in fact be done. If students are learning a difficult arithmetic procedure, for example, you can help by demonstrating the procedure, or by pointing out classmates who are doing it. Note, though, that vicarious mastery is helpful only if backed up with real successes performed by the students themselves. It is also helpful only if the “model classmates” are perceived as truly comparable in ability. Overuse of vicarious models, especially in the absence of real success by learners, can cause learners to disqualify a model’s success; students may simply decide that the model is “out of their league” in skills and is therefore irrelevant to judging their own potential.

Social messages and persuasion

A third source of efficacy beliefs are encouragements, both implied and stated, that persuade a person of his or her capacity to do a task. Persuasion does not create high efficacy by itself, but it often increases or supports it when coupled with either direct or vicarious experience, especially when the persuasion comes from more than one person (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004).

For teachers, this suggests two things. The first, of course, is that encouragement can motivate students, especially when it is focused on achievable, specific tasks. It can be motivating to say things like: “I think you can do it” or “I’ve seen you do this before, so I know that you can do it again.” But the second implication is that teachers should arrange wherever possible to support their encouragement by designing tasks at hand that are in fact achievable by the student. Striking a balance of encouragement and task difficulty may seem straightforward, but sometimes it can be challenging because students can sometimes perceive teachers’ comments and tasks quite differently from how teachers intend. Giving excessive amounts of detailed help, for example, may be intended as support for a student, but be taken as a lack of confidence in the student’s ability to do the task independently.

Emotions related to success, stress or discomfort

The previous three sources of efficacy beliefs are all rather cognitive or “thinking oriented,” but emotions also influence expectations of success or failure. Feeling nervous or anxious just before speaking to a large group (sometimes even just a class full of students!) can function like a message that says “I’m not going to succeed at doing this,” even if there is in fact good reason to expect success. But positive feelings can also raise beliefs about efficacy. When recalling the excitement of succeeding at a previous, unrelated task, people may overestimate their chances of success at a new task with which they have no previous experience, and are therefore in no position to predict their efficacy.

For teachers, the most important implication is that students’ motivation can be affected when they generalize from past experience which they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be relevant. By simply announcing a test, for example, a teacher can make some students anxious even before the students find out anything about the test—whether it is easy or difficult, or even comparable in any way to other experiences called “tests” in their pasts.

Conversely, it can be misleading to encourage students on the basis of their success at past academic tasks if the earlier tasks were not really relevant to requirements of the new tasks at hand. Suppose, for example, that a middle-years student has previously written only brief opinion-based papers, and never written a research-based paper. In that case boosting the student’s confidence by telling him that “it is just like the papers you wrote before” may not be helpful or even honest.

Expectancy-Value Theory

By now, it should be clear that motivation is affected by several factors, including reinforcement for behavior, but especially also students’ goals, interests, and sense of self-efficacy. The factors combine to create two general sources of motivation: students’ expectation of success and the value that students place on a goal. Viewing motivation in this way is often called the expectancy-value model of motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002; Wigfield, Tonk, & Eccles, 2004), and sometimes written with a multiplicative formula: expectancy x value = motivation. The relationship between expectation and value is “multiplicative” rather than additive because in order to be motivated, it is necessary for a person to have at least a modest expectation of success and to assign a task at least some positive value. If you have high expectations of success but do not value a task at all (mentally assign it a “0” value), then you will not feel motivated at all. Likewise, if you value a task highly but have no expectation of success about completing it (assign it a “0” expectancy), then you also will not feel motivated at all. Dr. Eccles explains Expectancy-Value theory in the classroom in this brief article .

Expectancies are the result of various factors, but particularly the goals held by a student, and the student’s self-efficacy . A student with mastery goals and strong self-efficacy for a task, for example, is likely to hold high expectations for success—almost by definition. Values are also the result of various factors, but especially students’ interests and feelings of self-determination . A student who has a lasting personal interest in a task or topic and is allowed to choose it freely is especially likely to value the task—and therefore to feel motivated.

Ideally both expectancies and values are high in students on any key learning task. The reality, however, is that students sometimes do not expect success, nor do they necessarily value it when success is possible. How can a teacher respond to low expectations and low valuing? A number of suggestions to meet this challenge have been offered in conjunction with discussions of other theories of motivation. In brief, raising low expectations depends on adjusting task difficulty so that success becomes a reasonable prospect: a teacher must make tasks neither too hard nor too easy. Reaching this general goal depends in turn on thoughtful, appropriate planning—selecting reasonable objectives, adjusting them on the basis of experience, finding supportive materials, and providing students with help when needed.

Raising the value of academic tasks is equally important, but the general strategies for doing so are different than for raising expectations. Increasing value requires linking the task to students’ personal interests and prior knowledge, showing the utility of the task to students’ future goals, and showing that the task is valuable to other people whom students’ respect.

A caution: Motivation as content versus motivation as process

A caution about self-efficacy theory is its heavy emphasis on just the process of motivation, at the expense of the content of motivation. The basic self- efficacy model has much to say about how beliefs affect behavior, but relatively little to say about which beliefs and tasks are especially satisfying or lead to the greatest well-being in students. The answer to this question is important to know, since teachers might then select tasks as much as possible that are intrinsically satisfying, and not merely achievable.

Another way of posing this concern is by asking: “Is it possible to feel high self-efficacy about a task that you do not enjoy?” It does seem quite possible for such a gap to exist. A young child may show some promise as a pianist, for example. Given encouragement (pressure?) from her parents, her successes lead to further practice. She may persist in developing as a pianist, her beliefs in her skills propelling her to commit more and more time to practice and a high level of performance. But, it is possible that this girl does not particularly like playing the piano; perhaps she does it to please her parents. From a motivational perspective, self-efficacy (the girl’s confidence in her skills as a pianist) explains her persistence and effort, but does not tell the full story. Accounting for such a gap requires a different theory of motivation, one that includes not only specific beliefs, but “deeper” personal needs as well. An example of this approach is self-determination theory.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bong, M. & Skaalvik, E. (2004). Academic self-concept and self-efficacy: How different are they really? Educational psychology review, 15 (1), 1-40.

Eccles, J. (2009). Expectancy value motivational theory. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/expectancy-value-motivational-theory/

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., & Schiefele, U. (1998). Motivation to succeed. In W. Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Volume 3: Social, emotional, and personality development, 5th edition (pp. 1017-1095). New York: Wiley.

Erikson, E. (1968/1994). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: Norton.

Goddard, R., Hoy, W., & Hoy, A. (2004). Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33 (3), 3-13.

Orey, M. (Ed.). (2010). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://dl.dropbox.com/u/31779972/Emerging%20Perspectives%20on%20Learning%2C%20Te aching%2C%20and%20Technology.pdf

Pajares, F. & Schunk, D. (2001). Self-beliefs and school success: Self- efficacy, self-concept, and school achievement. In  Riding & S. Rayner (Eds.), Perception (pp. 239-266). London: Ablex Publishing.

Pajares, F. & Schunk, D. (2002). Self-beliefs in psychology and education: An historical perspective. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement (pp. 3-21). New York: Academic Press.

Schunk, D. & Zimmerman, B. (1997). Social origins of self-regulatory competence. Educational psychologist, 34 (4), 195-208.

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