Self-Efficacy and its Impact on Learning

I don’t know what it is this week, but I’ve come across references to self-efficacy a few times while reading and doing research, I was intrigued enough to learn more. “Self-efficacy theories (Bandura, 1977, 1982; Corno & Mandinach, 1983) suggest that students’ belief about their ability to succeed at a learning task is more important than their actual skill level or the difficulty of the task. If a student is confident in her ability to perform a task successfully, she will be motivated to engage in it.”

My initial reaction to the statement that confidence is MORE important than skill level and difficulty of task in relation to success, was mixed. I agree that the belief in oneself is critical to success, but I’m not sure I agree whether it is a more important factor than skill level and difficulty of task. I think all these elements play a role. Let’s use the task of performing a cartwheel with a student who has never attempted a cartwheel before, as an example to work through. Self-efficacy theorists claim that the most important thing in learning to perform a cartwheel is the belief in oneself, that, yes, I am confident that I can perform a cartwheel. In reality, I can have all the confidence in the world and I may never be able to perform a cartwheel, because I just don’t have the physical ability to perform the task. I don’t believe that self-confidence outweighs physical limitations or difficulty of task. Self-confidence does, however, factor into the willingness to try to do a cartwheel and the perseverance to stick with it. After reading and doing more research I discovered that what the theorists meant when they claimed that self-efficacy is the most important factor over skill and difficulty is that given a group of participants, none of whom can perform a cartwheel, those participants with the belief that they can perform a cartwheel will be more successful than those who do not believe they will be able to.

My personal experience is that my self-confidence wavers depending on whether or not I have the skill for the task and the difficulty of the task. For example, my confidence for performing academic tasks is generally high as I have experienced academic success in the past and I feel comfortable in the role of the learner and my ability to learn new things. Now, if the task were to perform a cartwheel, my confidence would be pretty low. I may not even attempt it.

According to Bandura (1977), there are four major sources of self-efficacy.

1. Mastery Experiences – Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failing to adequately deal with a task or challenge can undermine and weaken self-efficacy.

2. Social Modeling – Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities master comparable activities to succeed.”

3. Social Persuasion – Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best effort to the task at hand.

4. Psychological Responses – Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in these situations. Bandura also noted that “it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted.” By learning how to minimize stress and elevate mood when facing difficult or challenging tasks, people can improve their sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy studies were done on participants with a fear of snakes, and it was found that those people who received some sort of self-efficacy intervention such as social modelling, in particular, seeing an individual handle a snake, were more apt to engage in the activity and successfully handle a snake despite their fears. Translate self-efficacy theory to academic pursuits, and the impact that self-confidence, or lack of it has on student success. Keeping this in mind, as an instructor, what might you be prepared to do, if anything, to build the self-confidence of students to set them up for their best chance at success?

Developing learning experiences where students experience success will raise learner self-confidence. It is important to develop learning activities which have plenty of practice time, and opportunities to take risks without repercussions. Creating opportunities for students to witness peers experiencing success can assist in building self-confidence as well. Examples of previous students’ work can help students realize they are capable of successfully completing learning activities too. Providing encouragement and belief in one’s students can go a long way in helping them believe in themselves. Simply letting students know that you believe they will be successful can raise self-confidence. Teaching techniques and providing resources for minimizing stress and elevating mood can help students cope as well. It is also important to create a welcoming environment for learners where they are free to take risks without repercussions.

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