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Factor Focus: Self-Efficacy

The "Factor Focus" series is designed to review various noncognitive factors and their relevance to student success.

Confidence is a factor often attributed to success. One look at the woman in the picture above, and something about her posture and the look on her face suggest she's sure she can handle whatever it is she's about to do.

When it comes to student success, a student's belief in themselves has a complex role in outcomes like grades, retention, and completion. We all know students who were overly confident in themselves - maybe they didn't study for a test because they'd never had to before - who then confronted a challenge or even failure. More and more, we're aware of students who aren't confident learners and the ways in which we need to become aware of their doubts, provide support, and build a pathway to success.

The goal of this Factor Focus post is to dive more deeply into students' self-perception, understand the antecedents and impacts, and what we can do to work with students, particularly when they aren't confident in their ability to be successful.

Confidence vs. Efficacy

Before going any further - as is usually the case with me - it's worth some time to define exactly what we're discussing. To this point, I've used terms like "confidence," "self-efficacy," and "self-perception." In fact, within the psychological literature, terms like these carry very specific meaning.

Now, I actually wrote out this section once with a very descriptive history of social cognitive theory, Albert Bandura, and lots of other very traditional literature review type stuff. Then I realized, why am I trying to reinvent the wheel? There's a great review of self-efficacy in academic settings written by Frank Pajares (cited below). If you'd prefer that style of reading - or if you're questioning where most of this stuff came from - I'd recommend going there.

Here's what I think you really need to know. First, it's important to know about Albert Bandura, one of the most noted psychologists of the 20th century. As part of his social cognitive theory, he noted the role of "self-regulatory thought"in explaining behavior. This is what determines the relationship between knowledge and action. For example, as I write this, I know I should go for a run today, and I'm certainly physically capable (OK, somewhat physically capable). But what determines my actions is self-regulatory thought, or how I process that information to make choices about behavior.

Bandura articulated precisely what he meant by this self-regulatory thought in 1997:

It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term "confidence." Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one's agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self -efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system. (p. 382)

While Bandura articulates self-efficacy by specificity, this distinction was once described to me as emotion vs. cognition. Whereas self-confidence is an overall feeling you might have about doing something, efficacy is your discrete belief that you can or cannot do it (or perhaps the likelihood that you'd be able to do it if you try). This is central when we talk about student success because confidence is, as Bandura points out, a general perception that can be formed by efficacy as well as a host of other factors (e.g., perceived social norms). Trying to change that can be difficult and multi-faceted. However, isolating, understanding, and focusing on self-efficacy can be more direct.

Another important aspect of specificity is the reference to a discrete behavior. Both Bandura and Pajares have noted that the power of self-efficacy measures to predict future behavior is greatly increased when those measures refer to one thing (e.g., voting), rather than a broad or unspecified state (e.g., citizenship). Frankly, this has always been a challenge for me when building measures for college students, because the list of relevant behaviors is so vast and can vary from student to student or institution to institution.

The hard part about self-efficacy is that, while more specified than self-confidence, it's not objectively simple. It's as much an outcome of past experience as it is a predictor of future success. As such, it can be susceptible to the Duck Problem I've mentioned before, whereby it's easy to identify a student who lacks or possesses self-efficacy, but impacting that state requires a more nuanced understanding. Thus, let's next explore some of the antecedents of self-efficacy.

What forms self-efficacy?

Imagine yourself teaching an introductory college course. A student walks in and, from the very first day, knows what they're doing. Asking questions, providing answers, working with others - this student seems to have their act together. Among a host of other things, this student has self-efficacy.

Where did this come from? We often assume that "confidence" is an inherent characteristic - some people just have it or they don't. Whether or not the global trait (or, perhaps more importantly, portrayal) of confidence is one thing, the development of self-efficacy is another. In a 1977 article, Bandura identified four mechanisms that drive self-efficacy. Certainly, there's been a great deal of research in the four decades since, so this list is not exhaustive, but it seems like a good place to start.

Performance accomplishments - This one perhaps makes this most sense: people are more efficacious in areas where they've succeeded in the past. Thus, if a student believes or disbelieves in their ability to succeed in college, that could largely be based on academic endeavors high school or even previous attempts in higher education.

This is a great example of why understanding students - in this case, how they develop their self-efficacy - is vital to understanding how to build a plan of action. Students who are "unconfident learners" will likely benefit most from understanding (a) how college will be different from high school/past unsuccessful efforts and (b) how resources will support their success. This is very different than ways to approach work with students who lack self-efficacy for other reasons.

Vicarious experience - One way to make someone believe that they can succeed is to show them someone else succeeding. How many times, in a moment of frustration, have you said to yourself, "Come one - anyone can do this!"? In a way, you're trying to vicariously learn from the times that others have performed the task.

Sadly, this can also have negative effects when discussing students from underserved populations. When students fail to see themselves in others - either fellow students or faculty/staff - they have fewer sources of vicarious experience. This is why peer mentoring can be such a powerful intervention for students from such groups.

Verbal persuasion - Cursing at/to yourself is also a from of verbal persuasion (no, seriously: Bandura actually sites "self-instruction"). But from a student success perspective, this is where the value of coaching and reinforcement can help promote students' self-perceptions.

Emotional arousal - "Hey - take it easy. You can do this!"Sounds like something you might hear to encourage you to perform a task, right? Bandura notes that anxiety and arousal are pieces of information that can create doubt. This is one way you can conceptualize a "clutch" athlete, or someone who performs well in high-stress situations. From a psychology perspective, people who do so either (a) don't perceive stress or (b) are able to overcome that arousal through self-belief.

Again, if we understand that a student lacks self-efficacy because they are overly stressed about a situation, we can build a very different plan for working with them.

How does self-efficacy impact success?

There are many practical ways in which we might imagine a student with low-self-efficacy struggling in higher education. They might be less likely to ask for help when they need it. They might be less willing to effort through adversity and challenge. Or they might be more likely to interpret failure as an affirmation of their low self-image and simply exit college altogether.

Worth noting here, there are at least two major psychological theories that include self-efficacy as a component of success and - for lack of a better term - motivation. There are likely many other ways in which you can contextualize the role of self-efficacy, but these two models exemplify the complex role that self-efficacy plays in student success - both as an outcome of past experience and an important predictor of future success.

First, the Theory of Planned Behavior (TpB; see Azjen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) is a generalized model that has been applied to a wide variety of human behaviors. According to TpB, behavior is formed by intention, which is in turn formed by three factors: norms, attitudes, and control. Norms refer to social influences (i.e., people support me engaging in this behavior), attitudes refer to the appraisal of that behavior (i.e., I think this behavior is a good thing), and control is essentially equivalent to self-efficacy (i.e., if I tried, I could perform this behavior).

The beauty of TpB is that each of these determinants can be easily measured through short surveys, and informational interventions can then be targeted in order to change perceptions. The challenge, however, in the student success world comes back to specificity. Which specific behavior should be the focus? If, for example, class attendance was of interest, that could be a behavioral focus, but it's difficult to apply TpB to an overall student success effort.

The next theory is Expectancy-Value Theory, which frames human behavior as being driven by two perceptions. The “value” aspect deals with an individual’s perceived importance of that behavior. “Expectancy” refers to an individual’s belief (or expectation) that they are likely to successfully perform that behavior (see Wigfield, Tonks, & Klauda, 2009), which is closely tied to self-efficacy.

These are not simple demonstrations of the relationship between self-efficacy and success, but rather show how self-perception fits among other beliefs to determine behavior and success. Perhaps the most important question, though, is what we can do work with students that lack self-efficacy in order to improve their success.

How does self-efficacy impact our work with students?

Again, understanding that there is a wealth of research into the concept of self-efficacy (not to mention other, related self-perception constructs), I'll mention the recommendations of one study that I've found to be helpful. This is not an exhaustive list, but is at least a good place to start.

Margolis and McCabe (2006) identified several tactics for working with students who lack self-efficacy:

  1. Plan moderately challenging tasks that are not too difficult, but provide a sense of accomplishment.

  2. Promote learning and success strategies (e.g., study skills, organizational strategies) that give students additional tools to succeed beyond their own perceived capabilities.

  3. Have students observe or be mentored by others, especially those that they perceive to be similar.

  4. Stress successes whenever possible, such as completion of early assignments or projects.

You may observe a connection between these areas and Bandura's sources of self-efficacy. That's what I've always liked about this list of tactics - it provides multiple ways for students to build confidence. It also allows for multiple interventions across curricular and co-curricular settings.


I've elected to begin this "Factor Focus" series with self-efficacy because of its complexity. It's called by other names, has many contributing factors, and interacts with other factors when impacting student success. But that is perhaps the most important message. Many times, when we apply psychological theories to human behavior, we over-simplify. It's not ever just one thing, but a complex connection of social, contextual, and individual factors... with the occasional dash of random error. This is why student success is hard to improve. But, by better understanding the many factors that contribute to it, we can make better decisions about which actions to take.


  • Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior.Organizational behavior and human decision processes,50(2), 179-211.

  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.Psychological review,84(2), 191.

  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman and Company.

  • Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, 1. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: AddisonóWesley

  • Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in school and clinic, 41(4), 218-227.

  • Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings.Review of educational research,66(4), 543-578.

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