This article is dedicated to the memory of Albert Bandura.
In a previous article, we presented the self-efficacy theory of the psychologist Albert Bandura, a pioneer of the socio-cognitivist movement. At the heart of this theory is the feeling of self-efficacy, which Bandura considers to be a central mechanism of self-management inherent to our motivation, our achievements and our well-being. The importance of self-efficacy can be summarized by saying that if you don’t believe you have what it takes to achieve your goals, you are unlikely to succeed… More relevant than ever and used in many fields, this theory is also applied in education. Here’s what every teacher needs to know about self-efficacy in the context of learning and what they can do to foster it in their learners.
More persistent and successful learners. Learner perseverance and performance are not based solely on “objective” skills. A sense of self-efficacy has both a direct and indirect influence on learner behaviour. In the first case, it allows them to mobilize and organize their skills, and in the second, it influences their choice of objectives and actions. In educational psychology, there is a consensus that feeling competent and in control impacts commitment and performance. This is true for both adult and younger learners, except for young children. This correlation is not only true for feelings of self-efficacy but also for the related concepts of perceived competence and self-concept. Although self-efficacy is not the only factor influencing engagement and performance, it must be considered in any educational pathway. It should be noted that when studies refer to observations of a correlational nature, this means that a relationship is observed between the elements studied but that no statement can be made about its direction.
A range of benefits. Studies have found that learners with high self-efficacy are more likely to engage in activities that challenge them and provide opportunities to develop skills rather than easy tasks that they have already mastered. These learners are also more likely to set high goals, persevere in the face of adversity, regulate their efforts more skillfully, better manage their stress and anxiety, and perform better. In addition to these observations, they are less likely to cheat (see Why are we cheating?), are more likely to ask for help and to use sophisticated information processing strategies, use self-regulation strategies in their learning — for example, during assessments — and use metacognition (see Metacognition 101).
A contextual and flexible feeling. A learner with little experience in a given activity can expect to develop their skills, even significantly, if they have high self-efficacy. Equally, a learner who has some experience in an activity but for some reason begins to doubt their ability to do it may find that their performance is affected. The good news is that the sense of self-efficacy is relatively flexible and that it is, therefore, possible in most cases to influence it in several ways. It also has the advantage of being specific (to a task, a subject, an activity, a field of activities), hence the fact that this feeling is also called “contextual” or “situational” confidence.
A virtuous circle… or a vicious one. Having one success — or better yet, several! — in a given activity is the best way to develop high self-efficacy in that activity and see one’s performance strengthen, one’s intrinsic interest in the study increase… and so on. However, this virtuous circle has its counterpart: the vicious circle that can be triggered by a failure that undermines self-efficacy, which, in turn, affects commitment and performance, which, in turn, harms self-efficacy. Whether vicious or virtuous, this cycle can also occur through vicarious experience, which is indirect experience based on the observation of others. Vicarious experience is the second most important source of influence on our self-efficacy beliefs. To make the most of its potential, teachers should allow learners to share their experiences and encourage peer tutoring or cooperative learning.
Build on lived experience. Lived experience or enactive mastery experience is the most influential source for developing and strengthening self-efficacy. Thus, the experiences of successes and failures that mark the learner’s academic journey and their performance will significantly impact their efficacy beliefs. In fact, it is the notion of acquired skills rather than innate skills that foster a sense of self-efficacy. While a learner’s educational background impacts their current self-efficacy, new experiences can change their perception. To help learners in this regard, teachers need to get them to focus on how to acquire the skills they are seeking. This factor should also be a priority when giving feedback on performance, whether good or not, rather than attributing it solely to the learner’s efforts or abilities.
The delicate choice of challenges and goals. Mastering a new skill does not happen overnight, and all learning involves challenges, but it is through challenges that we can come to believe in our abilities. These challenges should be stimulating to promote self-efficacy but at a moderate or “realistic” level of difficulty. While it is wise to establish a long-term goal for any training that describes its overall direction, this goal will not help increase the learner’s sense of efficacy. Instead, attainable sub-goals or sub-skills that are more easily mastered in the short term and that focus on the process of understanding and learning will gradually increase self-efficacy. To empower learners and cultivate their motivation and commitment, the teacher should involve them in the implementation of these objectives.
It should be noted that while these sub-skills should be more easily mastered, their success should not be easy and should be under the learner’s internal control, notably, their sustained efforts, skills, choices, behaviours, etc. The notions of control and agentivity (personal power of action) are fundamental to self-efficacy theory. In this perspective, if the learner attributes their success to a factor beyond their control (luck or the type of assessment, for example), this success will not affect their self-efficacy. The teacher must therefore be sensitive to what learners attribute their successes, difficulties and failures to.
Social persuasion in a learning context. So-called “social” or “verbal” persuasion is also one of the four sources that can influence self-efficacy. During the learning process, the learners are likely to receive different opinions, both positive and negative, about their abilities and performance from those around them and peers. These comments will influence their self-efficacy to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the importance and credibility they attach to the speaker. The teacher is in a privileged position to persuade the learners that they can succeed, and their influence can be more significant if the learners are not very experienced in the task or activity in question. However, the opposite effect is also true: a criticism or an awkward remark can affect the learner’s sense of effectiveness. And it is essential to know that this power of persuasion also comes through non-verbal messages: a look, a tone, a decision showing the interest or disinterest, the confidence or lack of confidence that the teacher has in the learner. It should be added that cultivating high expectations of learners promotes their self-efficacy. In contrast, low expectations tend to have the opposite effect (see Cognitive biases in education: the Pygmalion effect).
The proper use of evaluations. Evaluations are opportunities to multiply small victories. But a few precautions are needed to avoid having the opposite effect. First, assessment activities should not always take the same form or be presented to learners as tests of ability; instead, they should be progress-oriented, that is, criterion-referenced and not prescriptive. The teacher should not make qualitative judgments about the assessment they are about to administer — such as suggesting that it will be easy or not — as this may thwart the emergence of learners’ sense of efficacy. However, the teacher’s post-assessment intervention is essential to guide learners by giving them precise and personalized feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their performance and on the concrete ways in which they can do better. It should be noted that it is not so much the reason identified by the teacher as being at the origin of the learners’ performance that would impact their self-efficacy, but the vision of ability and effort transmitted by the teacher. If the teacher communicates a view of ability resulting from a sustained effort, learners’ motivation and performance should be boosted.
To avoid putting some learners at a disadvantage compared to others, these assessments should not create situations of competition or comparison between peers, nor should they be held in contexts that increase social visibility. While observing peers succeeding at an activity in the same ways that one has learned can reinforce self-efficacy, seeing a peer “perform” well when one has not done so well can, on the contrary, undermine self-efficacy. Unsurprisingly, it is learners who generally perform less well who are most at risk of having their sense of efficacy undermined in a comparison situation. That said, studies have shown that when a task is presented as an opportunity to improve, learners, including the least advantaged, tend to be more constructive in their attitudes and are motivated to use comparison information to see if and how they can improve. The more learners are convinced that they can improve, the more they will try to achieve that.
In general, learners with a low sense of efficacy attribute their poor performance to a supposed lack of ability — a factor over which they have little control — while those with a high sense of efficacy are likely to attribute their setbacks to a lack of either effort, knowledge, or skill-factors over which they have control. For everyone to take a more constructive view of their self-efficacy, they need to develop the ability to assess themselves, a skill that falls under the realm of metacognition (see Metacognition in 3 Questions and Develop Your Metacognitive Skills).
Prevent setbacks. Failure can be very damaging to a learner’s self-efficacy, especially if it is repeated, if it occurs early in the course, and if the learner had worked hard to meet the challenge. Therefore, the teacher must ensure that the degree of difficulty of the challenges they propose gradually increases. They must also avoid putting learners’ confidence at risk at the beginning of the course and give them the most appropriate tools for success. Attributing failure to the learner’s abilities is to be avoided; it is better, once again, to emphasize the means that can be taken and the efforts that can be made to improve. However, it should be noted that experiencing difficulties or failure can have some virtues if the learner has good self-efficacy in the activity in question; this setback can remind them that sustained effort is necessary for success.
The domino effect of teacher self-efficacy. Beyond the recommended teaching, a very personal factor to the teacher can significantly influence their learners’ sense of effectiveness: the teacher’s own self-efficacy. Indeed, teachers who have a high sense of “pedagogical” efficacy are, among other things, more likely to believe that, with the proper work and tools, a learner who is experiencing difficulties can improve. Therefore, these teachers are more likely to invest the time and effort necessary for guidance and value progress, conditions that in turn foster the growth of learners’ self-efficacy. In addition, by being better able to create a positive, enjoyable, and less stressful learning environment, these confident teachers also allow physiological and emotional states to emerge that are conducive to enhancing self-efficacy in their learners.
On the contrary, teachers who doubt their pedagogical self-efficacy, unfortunately, tend to have an approach that is potentially detrimental to their learners’ progress and the development of their self-efficacy. When learners find themselves in a stressful or anxiety-provoking learning context, their sense of control and personal power to act are likely to be undermined. While every teacher must take a close look at cultivating their pedagogical self-efficacy, the school administration also has a role to play. They can influence learner self-efficacy through their leadership by setting high standards and ensuring that they provide optimal teaching approaches.
Albert BANDURA, Auto-efficacité : Le sentiment d’efficacité personnel, Bruxelles, De Boeck, 2003.
Stephen Scott BREWER, Rencontre avec Albert Bandure : l’homme et le scientifique, L’orientation scolaire et professionnelle (O.S.P.), Sentiments d’efficacité personnelle et orientation scolaire et professionnelle – 1, p.29-56, 2008.