It can be easy to observe student behavior — especially less-appealing student behavior, like disengagement, lack of effort, or distraction — and make erroneous assumptions. After a few instances of this kind of behavior, a student might be labeled lazy, underachieving, or difficult. Our expectations for that student might begin to wane. And yet, it’s difficult to know everything we need to know through outward behaviors alone (even when the behaviors are positive). If we look at challenging scenarios through a lens of self-efficacy, we can begin to formulate a variety of different responses.
Albert Bandura, who began formulating his theory of self-efficacy in the nineteen seventies, defined it as: “people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances.” In simpler language, self-efficacy comes down to the question:
“Do I believe I am capable of doing this thing I am trying to do?”
It’s a critically important question as self-efficacy beliefs have been shown to be essential to student success. John Hattie’s research, for example, shows self-efficacy beliefs to be one of the highest predictors of student achievement. And skills alone aren’t enough. Students who have the needed skills but not the self-belief are much less likely to accomplish the task. Students who have neither the skills nor the confidence are extremely unlikely to succeed. This lack of skill or confidence (or both) might very well appear outwardly as lazy, distracted, or unengaged.
So how can we help students develop both the skills and the self-efficacy beliefs they need?
Howard Margolis and Patrick McCabe, in their paper, “Improving Self-efficacy and Motivation: What to do, what to say,” suggest four different sources of self-efficacy:
Mastery Tasks - self-efficacy is built upon successful experiences, but the tasks that build it have to be just the right level of challenging. Give a student a too-easy task, and instead of building self-efficacy, the student might believe you don’t think they are capable. Give a too-difficult task and the student might further engrain expectations of defeat. The key is finding tasks a student can accomplish — with effort.
Vicarious Experiences - watching someone else complete a task can help a struggling student begin to conceptualize a plan for how they might begin. When the person they are watching is able to talk through their thinking and the steps they are taking, that’s even better. It can be especially powerful for a struggling student to watch a peer who hasn’t fully mastered the task but who can model what they do when they get stuck or have questions. Not all students develop strategies easily on their own, but through vicarious experiences, they can add strategies to their toolboxes.
Verbal persuasion - as students are completing a task, it’s important that they get feedback. Struggling students often need moments of feedback sooner than more confident students. Importantly, the feedback we give is most powerful when it is specific, actionable, and related to successful use of strategies. Effort feedback that doesn’t help a student see how they are advancing toward a goal can be counterproductive, leaving a student to feel (again) that we don’t think they’re capable of success, just of “trying hard.”
Emotional states - similarly, students who are experiencing depression, anxiety or other strong emotions will struggle to develop skills or self-belief. In states of high anxiety, for instance, we are processing information in an entirely different way than we do when we are calm. Our ability to concentrate disappears. Our working memory shrinks. Our sense of hearing is diminished. The environment we create matters. It matters that mistakes are celebrated rather than a cause for embarrassment. It matters that we have relationships with students that are authentic and high-trust. It matters that students see us as equitable, fair, and invested in them.
Teachers can leverage all of these strategies to help students develop self-efficacy. The effort we put into relationships and classroom culture is the foundation of that leverage. As Hattie and Clarke note in Visible Learning Feedback, “Underpinning much of this is the level of trust generated between teachers and students. Students need the knowledge that the teacher cares about them and likes them, that they are safe, that peers will not disparage them, that they will not lose face if they ask a question and will be treated with respect.”
As I’ve learned about self-efficacy and the ways we can help students build it, I’ve begun to look at outward behaviors differently and make fewer assumptions. What I generally find is that students want to do well. Sometimes they lack specific skills. Sometimes they need help with self-belief. Sometimes it’s both. I’ve found it to be a far more helpful frame than assumptions and labels. As a bonus, as I’ve learned about ways to help students build self-efficacy, I have found my own increasing.
How do you help students develop self-efficacy in your classroom? Reach out — we’d love to hear and share your ideas!