Self-Efficacy in Education Research Paper

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Current theoretical accounts of learning and instruction postulate that students are active seekers and processors of information (Pintrich et al. 1986). Research indicates that students’ cognitions influence the instigation, direction, strength, and persistence of achievement behaviors (Schunk 1995).

This research paper reviews the role of one type of personal cognition: self-efficacy, or one’s perceived capabilities for learning or performing behaviors at designated levels (Bandura 1997). The role of self-efficacy in educational contexts is discussed to include the cues that students use to appraise their self-efficacy. A model of the operation of self-efficacy is explained, along with some key findings from educational research. The entry concludes by describing the role of teacher efficacy and suggesting future research directions.

1. Self-Efficacy Theory

Self-efficacy can affect choice of activities, effort, persistence, and achievement (Bandura 1997, Schunk 1991). Compared with students who doubt their learning capabilities those with high self-efficacy for accomplishing a task participate more readily, work harder, persist longer when they encounter difficulties, and demonstrate higher achievement.

Learners acquire information to appraise self-efficacy from their performance accomplishments, vicarious (observational) experiences, forms of persuasion, and physiological reactions. Students’ own performances offer reliable guides for assessing efficacy. Successes raise self-efficacy and failures lower it, but once a strong sense of self-efficacy is developed a failure may not have much impact (Bandura 1986). Learners also acquire self-efficacy information from knowledge of others through classroom social comparisons. Similar others offer the best basis for comparison.

Students who observe similar peers perform a task are apt to believe that they, too, are capable of accomplishing it. Information acquired vicariously typically has a weaker effect on self-efficacy than performance-based information because the former can be negated easily by subsequent failures. Students often receive persuasive information from teachers and parents that they are capable of performing a task (e.g., ‘You can do this’). Positive feedback enhances self-efficacy, but this increase will be temporary if subsequent efforts turn out poorly. Students also acquire efficacy information from physiological reactions (e.g., heart rate, sweating). Symptoms signaling anxiety might be interpreted to mean that one lacks skills.

Information acquired from these sources does not automatically influence self-efficacy; rather, it is cognitive appraised (Bandura 1986). In appraising efficacy, learners weigh and combine perceptions of their ability, the difficulty of the task, the amount of effort expended, the amount of external assistance received, the number and pattern of successes and failures, similarity to models, and credibility of persuaders (Schunk 1991).

Self-efficacy is not the only influence in educational settings. Achievement behavior also depends on knowledge and skills, outcome expectations, and the perceived value of outcomes (Schunk 1991). High self-efficacy does not produce competent performances when requisite knowledge and skills are lacking. Outcome expectations, or beliefs concerning the probable outcomes of actions, are important because students strive for positive outcomes. Perceived value of outcomes refers to how much learners desire certain outcomes relative to others. Learners are motivated to act in ways that they believe will result in outcomes they value.

Self-efficacy is dynamic and changes as learning occurs. The hypothesized process whereby self-efficacy operates during learning is as follows (Schunk 1996). Students enter learning situations with varying degrees of self-efficacy for learning. They also have goals in mind, such as learning the material, working quickly, pleasing the teacher, and making a high grade. As they engage in the task, they receive cues about how well they are performing, and they use these cues to assess their learning progress and their self-efficacy for continued learning. Perceived progress sustains motivation and leads to continued learning. Perceptions of little progress do not necessarily diminish self-efficacy if learners believe they know how to perform better, such as by working harder, seeking help, or switching to a more effective strategy (Schunk 1996).

2. Factors Affecting Self-Efficacy

There are many instructional, social, and environmental factors that operate during learning. Several of these factors have been investigated to determine how they influence learners’ self-efficacy. For example, research has explored the roles of goal setting, social modeling, rewards, attributional feedback, social comparisons, progress monitoring, opportunities for self-evaluation of progress, progress feedback, and strategy instruction (Schunk 1995).

As originally conceptualized by Bandura, self-efficacy is a domain-specific construct. Self-efficacy research in education has tended to follow this guidance and assess students’ self-efficacy within domains at the level of individual tasks. In mathematics, for example, students may be shown sample multiplication problems and for each sample judge their confidence for solving similar problems correctly. Efficacy scales typically are numerical and range from low to high confidence. After completing the efficacy assessment students are presented with actual problems to solve. These achievement test problems corresponding closely to those on the self-efficacy test, although they are not identical. Such specificity allows researchers to relate self-efficacy to achievement to determine correspondence and prediction (Pajares 1996). Other measures often collected by self-efficacy researchers include persistence, motivation, and self-regulation strategies. Following a pretest, students receive instruction complemented by one or more of the preceding educational variables. After the instruction is completed students receive a post-test; in some studies follow-up maintenance testing is done.

A general finding from much educational self-efficacy research is that educational variables influence self-efficacy to the extent that they convey to learners information about their progress in learning (Schunk 1995). For example, much research shows that specific proximal goals raise self-efficacy, motivation, and achievement better than do general goals (Schunk 1995). Short-term specific goals provide a clear standard against which to compare learning progress. As learners determine that they are making progress, this enhances their self-efficacy for continued learning. In contrast, assessing progress against a general goal (e.g., ‘Do your best’) is difficult; thus, learners receive less clear information about progress, and self-efficacy is not strengthened as well.

3. Predictive Utility Of Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy research has examined the relation of self-efficacy to such educational outcomes as motivation, persistence, and achievement (Pajares 1996). Significant and positive correlations have been obtained across many studies between self-efficacy assessed prior to instruction and subsequent motivation during instruction. Initial judgments of self-efficacy have been found also to correlate positively and significantly with post-test measures of self-efficacy and achievement collected following instruction.

Multiple regression has been used to determine the percentage of variability in skillful performance accounted for by self-efficacy. Schunk and Swartz (1993) found that post-test self-efficacy was the strongest predictor of children’s paragraph writing skills. Shell et al. (1989) found that although self-efficacy and outcome expectations predicted reading and writing achievement, self-efficacy was the strongest predictor.

Several studies have tested causal models. Schunk (1981) employed path analysis to reproduce the correlation matrix comprising long-division instructional method, self-efficacy, persistence, and achievement. The best model showed a direct effect of method on achievement and an indirect effect through persistence and self-efficacy, an indirect effect of method on persistence through self-efficacy, and a direct effect of self-efficacy on persistence and achievement. Schunk and Gunn (1986) found that the largest direct influence on achievement was due to use of effective learning strategies; achievement also was heavily influenced by self-efficacy.

4. Teacher Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is applicable to teachers as well as students. Ashton and Webb (1986) postulated that self-efficacy should influence teachers’ activities, efforts, and persistence. Teachers with low self-efficacy may avoid planning activities that they believe exceed their capabilities, may not persist with students having difficulties, may expend little effort to find materials, and may not reteach content in ways students might better understand. Teachers with higher self-efficacy might develop challenging activities, help students succeed, and persevere with students who have trouble learning. These motivational effects enhance student learning and substantiate teachers’ self-efficacy by suggesting that they can help students learn.

Correlational data show that self-efficacy is related to teaching behavior. Ashton and Webb (1986) found that teachers with higher self-efficacy were likely to have a positive classroom environment (e.g., less student anxiety and teacher criticism), support students’ ideas, and meet the needs of all students. High teacher self-efficacy was positively associated with use of praise, individual attention to students, checking on students’ progress in learning, and their mathematical and language achievement. Tschannen-Moran et al. (1998) discuss teacher self-efficacy in greater depth.

5. Future Research Directions

The proliferation of self-efficacy research in education has enlightened understanding of the construct but also has resulted in a multitude of measures. In developing efficacy assessments it is imperative that researchers attempt to be faithful to Bandura’s (1986) conceptualization of self-efficacy as a domain-specific measure. Research will benefit from researchers publishing their instruments along with validation data to include reliability and validity.

As self-efficacy research continues in settings where learning occurs, it will be necessary to collect longitudinal data showing how self-efficacy changes over time as a consequence of learning. This focus will require broadening of self-efficacy assessments from reliance on numerical scales to qualitative data. Researchers also should relate measures of teacher self-efficacy to those of student self-efficacy to test the idea that these variables reciprocally influence one another.

Finally, research is needed on the role of self-efficacy during self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to self-generated thoughts and actions that are systematically oriented toward attainment of one’s learning goals (Zimmerman 1990). Self-efficacy has the potential to influence many aspects of self-regulation, yet to date only a few areas have been explored in research. This focus will become more critical as self-regulation assumes an increasingly important role in education.


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