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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive.

Education Opinion

What Teachers Need to Know About Self-Efficacy

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — October 07, 2020 2 min read

This is the first in a two-part series from Albert Bandura, a pioneer in the field of social cognitive theory and the most cited living psychologist in the world. The David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, he is the author of Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control and Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves.

What is self-efficacy, and why should teachers know about it?

Among the sources of human accomplishments, none is more central than people’s resilient beliefs in their capabilities, called “self-efficacy.” Unless people believe that their actions can produce desired results, they have little incentive to persevere in the face of difficulties. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one can influence the course of events and shape the path that life takes.

Self-efficacy is not a Pollyannaish mindset: I believe; therefore, I achieve. Instead, it includes realism about tough odds. But crucially, there is also optimism that one can beat those odds through self-development and perseverance. When students are taught that the road to success includes learning from mistakes and failures, setbacks need not be demoralizing.

I recommend building self-efficacy at three levels—student, teacher, and school.

When a student is struggling, just telling them to work harder without providing the means to translate effort to success can be demoralizing. Nor is it helpful to tell students who are encountering difficulties that they are highly talented. Instead, academic interest and competency are best developed through mastery experiences. With support from their teachers, students can learn to break down ambitious long-term goals into a series of more manageable subgoals that, when mastered, build confidence and highlight their growing capabilities.

What about teachers? Teachers must also believe in their own self-efficacy—that difficult students are reachable and teachable through extra effort and appropriate techniques, and that they can make a difference. Those who do so tend to rely on persuasion to control their classroom, while those who doubt their own abilities are more likely to manage the classroom with restrictive and punitive modes of discipline.

And, finally, school culture is important. Principals can work to bring out the best in their teachers and promote innovative educational approaches—for example, adopting new technologies for distance learning and coaxing hesitant teachers to learn to use them. But note that while interpersonal supportiveness by principals may contribute to a positive climate in the school, it does not, in itself, build teachers’ sense of efficacy. Rather, principals who create a school climate with a strong academic emphasis and serve as advocates on behalf of teachers’ instructional efforts with the central administration enhance their teachers’ beliefs in their instructional efficacy.

When a staff has a collective sense of efficacy—if they believe that, with determined effort, students are motivatable and teachable whatever their background—a school can promote high levels of academic progress in even the most disadvantaged communities.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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