4.3 Self-Efficacy

In addition to being influenced by their goals, interests, and attributions, students’ motives are affected by specific beliefs about their personal capacities. In self-efficacy theory the beliefs become a primary, explicit explanation for motivation (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of carrying out a specific task or reaching a specific goal. Note that the belief and the action or goal are specific. Self-efficacy is a belief that 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). 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. Therefore, discrepancies might exist between a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and the person’s actual 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 explained 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’ experiences 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 “dark” 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 they already feel confident at succeeding. This effect is almost inevitable, given the definition of the concept of self-efficacy, and has 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 incapable of solving the problem, then the student is less likely to attempt the math homework (perhaps telling themselves, “What’s the use of trying?”) regardless of their actual ability.

Furthermore, since self-efficacy is self-constructed, it is also possible for students to miscalculate or misperceive their true skills, and these misperceptions themselves can have complex effects on students’ motivations. From a teacher’s point of view, all is well if students overestimate their capacity and succeed at a relevant task anyway, or if they underestimate their capacity but discover along the way that they can succeed. (The latter instance may even have the result of raising the student’s 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 and are then unexpectedly disappointed by a failure that lowers their self-efficacy beliefs.

Persistence at Tasks

A second effect of high self-efficacy is to increase one’s 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 (e.g., 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 cause by 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.

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 at a local restaurant. Suppose, further, that the student has high self-efficacy for both of these tasks; they believe, in other words, that they are 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 a less-than-deal amount of attention to school work, and who even ends up with a lower grade on the assignment than they are capable of of achieving.


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Foundations of Educational Technology by Penny Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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