To review 15 years of research on self-efficacy to contrast it with related constructs and examine its effect on academic motivation.
Overview of Self-Efficacy Theory
Self-efficacy is a person’s judgement of their ability to achieve goals or overcome obstacles. According to Bandura’s (1986) self-efficacy theory, learners develop self-efficacy through several different channels. The strongest predictor of self-efficacy is perceived performance and accomplishments. Success, especially on difficult tasks, improves self-efficacy, but receiving external assistance can negate this effect. A weaker contributor to self-efficacy is observing others succeed, especially if the person is perceived to be similar in ability. Similarly, external persuasion and encouragement, especially by role models, can boost self-efficacy temporarily, but it must be accompanied by later accomplishments on authentic tasks to be sustainable. The last source of information that students use to develop self-efficacy is physiological and emotional experiences. If students feel physically sweaty or emotionally anxious while working on problems, these experiences can translate to low self-efficacy. Alternatively, feeling excited or experiencing flow can translate to high self-efficacy.
Constructs Related to Self-Efficacy
Schunk explains constructs that affect academic motivation separately from self-efficacy.
- Perceived control is related to locus of control, i.e., whether a person believes internal or external factors have more control over their behavior. An external locus of control means that students have little agency over their ability to develop skills and achieve goals.
- Expected outcomes and perceived value of those outcomes can motivate someone to achieve a goal or not separately from their belief that they are good at a task.
- Attributions are the perceived cause of an achievement or failure. Ability could be the cause of an achievement as much as effort or luck.
- Self-concept is the progenitor of self-efficacy and includes other self-focused constructs like self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-crystallization.
Variables that Affect Self-Effiacy
To foster high self-efficacy, Schunk found that goal setting, feedback, and rewards could all improve self-efficacy. Goal setting, whether by the learner or by teachers or parents, most improved self-efficacy when goals were proximal (this week…) and specific (…I will miss only one question on my homework) compared to distal goals (this semester…) and general (…I will try harder) goals. Progressing from easier goals to more difficult goals was most effective for improving self-efficacy in a new discipline. Similarly, feedback on effort and success was especially effective when given for small, easy tasks early in the learning process and large, difficult tasks later on. Beyond feedback, rewards increased efficacy when paired with accomplishments and progress, not when given for effort or participation regardless of success.
Why this is important
This review article is thirty years old but still provides valuable insight into the self-efficacy of our students and other factors that affect their academic motivation. These factors have direct instructional design implications, especially when students are learning a new discipline. This paper makes clear the importance of early, small successes on concrete goals, with appropriate feedback and rewards. It also highlights that techniques believed to improve self-efficacy, like verbal encouragement or effort-based rewards, can fall flat without tangible, progress-based success.
Bandura, A. (1986). The explanatory and predictive scope of self-efficacy theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 4(3), 359-373.
Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26(3-4), 207-231.
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