Self-Efficacy (page 3)
In general, self-efficacy is a person’s self-constructed judgment about his or her ability to execute certain behaviors or reach certain goals. To see examples of your own self-efficacy for various activities, try the following exercise.
Experiencing Firsthand • Self-Appraisal- Take a moment to answer the following questions:
- Do you believe you’ll be able to understand and apply educational psychology by reading this textbook and thinking carefully about its content? Or do you believe you’re going to have trouble with the material regardless of how much you study?
- Do you think you could learn to execute a reasonable swan dive from a high diving board if you were shown how to do it and given time to practice? Or do you think you’re such a klutz that no amount of training and practice would help?
- Do you think you could walk barefoot over hot coals unscathed? Or do you think the soles of your feet would be burned to a crisp?
People are more likely to engage in certain behaviors when they believe they will be able to execute the behaviors successfully—that is, when they have high self-efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1997). For example, I hope you believe that with careful thought about what you read, you will be able to understand the ideas in this textbook. In other words, I hope you have high self-efficacy for learning educational psychology. You may or may not believe that with instruction and practice, you would eventually be able to perform a passable swan dive. In other words, you may have high or low self-efficacy about learning to dive. But you are probably quite skeptical that you could ever walk barefoot over hot coals, so my guess is that you have low self-efficacy regarding this activity.
Self-efficacy is a component of one’s overall sense of self. It may seem similar to such concepts as self-concept and self-esteem, but important qualities distinguish it from them (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Pajares & Schunk, 2002; Pietsch, Walker, & Chapman, 2003). When psychologists talk about self-concept and self-esteem, they are typically describing a fairly general self-view that pervades a broad range of activities (e.g., “Am I a good student?”) and may encompass feelings as well as beliefs (e.g., “How proud am I of my classroom performance?”). In contrast, self-efficacy is more task- or situation-specific and involves judgments (rather than feelings) almost exclusively (e.g., “Can I master long division?”).
How Self-Efficacy Affects Behavior and Cognition
Students’ sense of self-efficacy affects their choice of activities, their goals, and their effort and persistence in classroom activities. Ultimately, then, it also affects their learning and achievement (Bandura, 1982, 2000; Schunk & Pajares, 2004).
Choice of Activities Imagine yourself on registration day, perusing the hundreds of courses in the semester schedule. You fill most of your schedule with required courses, but you have room for an elective. Only two courses are offered at the time slot you want to fill. Do you sign up for Advanced Psychoceramics, a challenging seminar taught by the world-renowned Dr. Josiah S. Carberry? Or do you sign up for an English literature course known across campus as being an easy A? Perhaps you find the term psychoceramics a bit intimidating, and you think you can’t possibly pass such a course, especially if Dr. Carberry is as grouchy and demanding as everyone claims. So you settle for the literature course, knowing it is one in which you can succeed.
People tend to choose tasks and activities at which they believe they can succeed and to avoid those at which they think they will fail. Students who believe they can win a role in the school musical are more likely to try out than students with little faith in their acting or singing ability. Students who believe they can succeed at mathematics are more likely to take math courses than students who believe they are mathematically incompetent. I
Goals People set higher goals for themselves when they have high self-efficacy in a particular domain. For instance, adolescents’ choices of careers and occupational levels reflect subject areas in which they have high rather than low self-efficacy (Bandura et al., 2001). Their choices are often consistent with traditional gender stereotypes: Boys are more likely to have high self-efficacy for, and so aspire to careers in, science and technology, whereas girls are more likely to have high self-efficacy for, and so choose, careers in education, health, and social services (Bandura et al., 2001).
Effort and Persistence People with a high sense of self-efficacy are more likely to exert effort when attempting a new task. They are also more likely to persist (to “try, try again”) when they confront obstacles to their success. In contrast, students with low self-efficacy about a task will put in little effort and give up quickly in the face of difficulty. For example, in the opening case study, Nathan is convinced he can’t learn French. With such low self-efficacy, he gives up quickly on French homework assignments whenever he encounters something he doesn’t immediately understand.
Learning and Achievement People with high self-efficacy tend to learn and achieve more than those with low self-efficacy. This is true even when actual ability levels are the same (Bandura, 1986; Eccles, Wigfield, et al., 1989; Klassen, 2002). In other words, when several individuals have equal ability, those who believe they can do a task are more likely to accomplish it successfully than those who do not believe they are capable of success. Students with high self-efficacy may achieve at superior levels partly because they engage in cognitive processes that promote learning—paying attention, organizing, elaborating, and so on (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
Most 4- to 6-year-olds are quite confident about their ability to perform various tasks and, in fact, often overestimate what they can do (R. Butler, 1990; Eccles et al., 1998; Nicholls, 1979). As they move through the elementary grades, however, they can better recall their past successes and failures, and they become increasingly aware of how their performance compares with that of their peers (Eccles et al., 1998; Feld, Ruhland, & Gold, 1979). Presumably as a result of these changes, they become less confident, although usually more realistic, about what they can and cannot do (Bandura, 1986; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2006).
Ideally, learners should have a reasonably accurate sense of what they can and cannot accomplish, putting them in a good position to capitalize on their strengths and address their weaknesses (Försterling & Morgenstern, 2002; Wang & Lin, 2005). However, a tad of overconfidence can often be beneficial, because it entices learners to take on challenging activities that will help them develop new skills and abilities (Assor & Connell, 1992; Bandura, 1997). Within this context it is useful to distinguish between self-efficacy for learning (“I can learn this if I put my mind to it”) and self-efficacy for performance (“I already know how to do this”) (Lodewyk & Winne, 2005; Schunk & Pajares, 2004). Self-efficacy for learning (for what one can eventually do with effort) should be on the optimistic side, whereas self-efficacy for performance should be more in line with current ability levels.
Sometimes students, girls especially, underestimate their chances of success, perhaps because of a few bad experiences (D. A. Cole et al., 1999; D. Phillips & Zimmerman, 1990). For example, a girl who gets a C in science from a teacher with exceptionally strict grading criteria may erroneously believe that she is no good in science. Or a new boy at school whose attempts at being friendly are rejected by two or three thoughtless classmates may erroneously believe that no one likes him. In such circumstances students set unnecessarily low goals for themselves and give up easily in the face of small obstacles.
But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. When learners are too overconfident, they may set themselves up for failure by forming unrealistically high expectations or exerting insufficient effort to succeed (Bandura, 1997; Paris & Cunningham, 1996; D. Phillips & Zimmerman, 1990). And they will hardly be inclined to address weaknesses that they don’t realize they have (McKeachie, 1987; Pintrich, 2003).
Factors in the Development of Self-Efficacy
Several factors appear to affect the development of self-efficacy, including a learner’s previous successes and failures, messages that other people communicate, the successes and failures of other individuals, and successes and failures within a larger group.
A Learner’s Previous Successes and Failures Learners are more likely to believe they can succeed at a task when they have succeeded at that task or similar ones in the past (Bandura, 1986; Valentine, Cooper, Bettencourt, & DuBois, 2002). For example, Edward is more likely to believe he can learn to divide fractions if he has already mastered multiplication of fractions. Elena will be more confident about her ability to play field hockey if she has already developed skills in soccer. However, we are likely to see developmental differences in how far back students look when they consider their prior successes and failures. Perhaps because of more limited cognitive abilities, children in the early elementary grades typically recall only their most recent experiences when judging their competence to perform a particular activity. In contrast, older children and adolescents are apt to consider a long-term pattern of successes and failures (Eccles et al., 1998).
As you can see, then, one important strategy for enhancing students’ self-efficacy is to help them be successful at a variety of tasks in different content domains. Ideally, we should tailor task difficulty to students’ current self-efficacy levels: Students with little or no confidence in their ability to perform in a particular domain may initially respond more favorably when we give them tasks at which they will probably do well (Stipek, 1996). But ultimately, students develop higher self-efficacy when they can successfully accomplish challenging, rather than easy, tasks. We can best enhance their self-efficacy under such circumstances if we provide some degree of structure—that is, scaffolding—to help pave the way for successful performance (Lodewyk & Winne, 2005).
Nonetheless, mastery of important knowledge and skills, even fairly basic ones, often comes only slowly over time. Consequently, it is sometimes important to define success in terms of improvement rather than mastery (R. Butler, 1998a). In such instances we may need to provide concrete mechanisms that highlight day-to-day progress—for instance, giving students progress charts they can fill in themselves and providing frequent verbal or written feedback about the little things students are doing well. Veteran teacher Frances Hawkins recalls an incident in which she had been helping 7-year-old Dorothy and her classmates learn to weave on small circular looms. Dorothy was distressed about all the mistakes she had made at the beginning of the project, but Ms. Hawkins helped her put the mistakes in perspective:
She was in tears, holding her now-finished small round weaving. Sorrow poured out: “Look,” she said, tears falling, pointing to the pink and blue and yellow weaving, “It’s so bad where I began. I didn’t know how. Can I take it out and do it right like the last part?”
In spite of early mistakes, the weaving was quite lovely. These circular looms absorb mistakes. . . . I had an idea: “Look, Dorothy, this is the history, your own history, of learning to weave. You can look at this and say, ‘Why, I can see how I began, here I didn’t know how very well, I went over two instead of one; but I learned, and then—it is perfect all the way to the end!’ Now turn it over and do another.” Dorothy thought about this. The tears stopped, and slowly she walked back to her group of weavers, still properly intent on her first weaving. The next visit she brought me an elegant and flawless circle in different shades of pink, with novelty yarns—some nubby, some plain—all done without consulting me! (Hawkins, 1997, p. 332)
Once students have developed a high sense of self-efficacy, an occasional failure is unlikely to dampen their optimism much. In fact, when these students encounter small setbacks on the way to achieving success, they learn that they can succeed if they try, and they also develop a realistic attitude about failure—that at worst it is a temporary setback and at best can give them useful information about how to improve their performance. In other words, they develop resilient self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989; Dweck, 2000). When students consistently fail at an activity, however, they are apt to have little confidence about their ability to succeed at the activity in the future. For instance, students with learning disabilities, who may have encountered failure after failure in classroom activities, often have low self-efficacy for mastering school subject matter (Schunk, 1989c).
Messages from Others Sometimes students’ successes aren’t obvious. In such situations we can enhance students’ self-efficacy by explicitly pointing out ways in which they’ve previously done well or are now excelling.
We may also be able to boost students’ self-efficacy by giving them reasons to believe they can be successful in the future (e.g., Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). Statements such as “You can do this problem if you work at it” or “I bet Judy will play with you if you just ask her” do give students a slight boost in self-confidence. The effects of optimistic predictions will be short-lived, however, unless students’ efforts at a task ultimately do meet with success (Schunk, 1989a).
Sometimes the messages we give students are implied rather than directly stated, yet such messages can have just as much impact on self-efficacy. Even negative feedback can promote high self-efficacy if it tells students how they can improve their performance and it communicates confidence that improvement is likely (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Parsons, Kaczala, & Meece, 1982; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). The following are examples of negative feedback that might have such an effect:
“In the first draft of your research paper, many of your paragraphs don’t lead logically to the ones that follow. A few headings and transitional sentences would make a world of difference. Let’s find a time to discuss how you might use these techniques to improve the flow of your paper.”
“Your time in the 100-meter dash was not as fast as it could have been. It’s early in the season, though, and if you work on your endurance, I know you’ll improve. Also, I think you might get a faster start if you stay low when you first come out of the starting blocks.”
Such statements indirectly communicate the message “I know you can do better, and here are some suggestions how.”
In some cases we communicate our beliefs about students’ competence through our actions rather than our words. For example, if we offer after-school assistance to students who are struggling to master a particular mathematical procedure or musical technique, we are communicating that with a little persistence, improvement is possible. We must be careful not to go overboard, however. If we give struggling students considerably more assistance than they really need as they engage in a particular task, we may inadvertently communicate the message “I don’t think you can do this on your own” (Schunk, 1989b).
Successes and Failures of Other Individuals We often form opinions about our own abilities by observing the successes and failures of other people, especially those who are similar to us (Eccles et al., 1998; Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). For instance, you are more likely to enroll in Dr. Carberry’s Advanced Psychoceramics class if several of your friends have done well in the course. After all, if they can do it, so can you. But if your friends who are taking the course have been dropping like flies, then you may suspect that your own chances of succeeding are pretty slim.
In much the same way, students often consider the successes and failures of their classmates, especially those of similar ability, when appraising their own chances of success. When students see similar-ability classmates being successful, they have reason to be optimistic about their own success. If they see their peers failing (as Nathan did in the opening case study), they will be far less optimistic.
Thus, another way of enhancing students’ self-efficacy—and thereby also enhancing their willingness to attempt challenging tasks—is to point out that others like them have mastered the knowledge and skills at hand (Schunk, 1983b, 1989c). For example, a class of chemistry students horrified at the number of chemical symbols they must learn can perhaps be reassured with a statement such as “I know it seems like a lot to learn in such a short time. My students last year thought so, too, but they found that they could learn the symbols within three weeks if they studied a few new symbols each day.”
But even more than telling students about others’ successes, seeing is believing. When students actually observe others of similar age and ability successfully reaching a goal, they are especially likely to believe that they, too, can achieve that goal. As a result, students sometimes develop greater self-efficacy when they see a fellow student model a behavior than when they see their teacher model the behavior. In one study (Schunk & Hanson, 1985), elementary school children having trouble with subtraction were given 25 subtraction problems to complete. Children who had seen another student successfully complete the problems got an average of 19 correct, whereas those who saw a teacher complete the problems got only 13 correct, and those who saw no model at all solved only 8! It may be even more beneficial for students to see one or more peers struggling with a task or problem at first (as they themselves might do) and then eventually mastering it (Braaksma et al., 2002; Kitsantas et al., 2000; Schunk, Hanson, & Cox, 1987; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997).
What we don’t want to do, however, is to define success in terms of how students’ own performance compares with that of their peers—perhaps identifying the “best” writer, science student, or oboe player. Such comparison sets up a competitive situation in which most students must inevitably lose (Deci & Ryan, 1992; Shih & Alexander, 2000; Stipek, 1996). Furthermore, some students (e.g., those from some Native American communities) may resist competitive activities if they believe their own successes will contribute to their classmates’ failures (Grant & Gomez, 2001).
Most students will have higher self-efficacy and will achieve at higher levels if they don’t evaluate their own performance in terms of how they stack up against others (Covington, 1992; Graham & Golen, 1991). One way to help them focus on their own progress is to minimize their awareness of classmates’ performance levels. For instance, we can use absolute rather than comparative criteria to assess their work (i.e., awarding high grades to all students who meet the criteria rather than grading on a curve), we can keep performance on assignments confidential, and we can give feedback in private.
Successes and Failures Within a Larger Group In earlier chapters we’ve discovered that learners can often think more intelligently and acquire more complex understanding of a topic when they collaborate with peers to master and apply classroom subject matter. Collaboration with peers has another potential benefit as well: Learners may have greater self-efficacy when they work in a group rather than alone. Such collective self-efficacy depends not only on students’ perceptions of their own and others’ capabilities but also on their perceptions of how effectively they can work together and coordinate their roles and responsibilities (Bandura, 1997, 2000).
The concept of collective self-efficacy is fairly new, and research to date has focused largely on adults (e.g., Bandura, 1997; Goddard, 2001; Tschannen-Moran et al., 1998). Yet we can reasonably assume that children and adolescents, too, will have higher self-efficacy when they work in groups, provided that the groups function smoothly and effectively.
Whether we ask students to tackle challenging tasks as individuals or in small groups, we must keep in mind that the school day shouldn’t necessarily be one challenge after another. Such a state of affairs would be absolutely exhausting, and probably quite discouraging as well. Instead, we should strike a balance between easy tasks, which will boost students’ self-confidence over the short run, and the challenging tasks so critical for a long-term sense of high self-efficacy (Spaulding, 1992; Stipek, 1993, 1996).
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