Redefining self-efficacy: the importance of context to confidence

What is the relationship between belonging and self-efficacy? How can teachers foster and protect self-efficacy in the classroom?

My previous piece asked the first question above, along with a more drilled-down follow-up — “How do confidence and self-efficacy affect student abilities to engage in automatic processes (such as system 1 thinking or wu wei), effortful processes (such as system 2 thinking), and activities that bridge automatic and effortful processes (such as flow)?” — and proceeded to answer the latter in detail and the first not really at all. I set out to address it in this follow-up, but found I was stuck even just trying to wrap my hands around a definition of self-efficacy. The more I grappled with it, the more I became convinced that a redefinition is in order. Here, I will try to pin down an actionable definition of self-efficacy, based on the interplay between cognitive tasks and belonging, confidence, and epistemological prior knowledge explored in that first piece, and use that definition to suggest ways teachers might work to bolster the self-efficacy of the students in their charge.

1. What comprises self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is one of the slipperiest terms in the book when it comes to education. For both teachers and students, it is the linchpin of their performance and growth, and the term gets bandied about in professional learning courses, curriculum development, student support meetings, advisory conferences, and end-of-term comments with a frequency and an ease that suggest universal, common understanding. In my experience, however, few teachers or administrators pause to define self-efficacy and ensure that they’re on the same page; I’ve very rarely, if ever, heard it defined to parents — or, for that matter, to students. Even amongst my grad school cohort, seasoned educators all, there was disagreement about just what self-efficacy entails and a wide range of experience and comfort using the term. We questioned its very nature. Is self-efficacy fixed? What’s the threshold for achieving enduring, transferable self-efficacy?

The most common understanding of self-efficacy is that it is a student’s confidence in her capacity to complete a particular task, her resilience in the face of set-backs during that task, and her ability to independently stay on track after those set-backs. Grit and resilience — traits of character — and self-regulation — an affective metacognitive skill — leach into our definition here. It’s inevitable that skills like these will co-mingle in our definitions of them; after all, they feed into and influence each other. But there are risks in defining self-efficacy so closely with resilience and self-regulation. First, it paints self-efficacy as a cumulative skill, something that once gained, cannot be lost. This assumption overlooks the content and context-specific nature of self-efficacy: I might have a rock-solid belief in my ability to craft a decent article, but that would have little bearing on my confidence should you hand me a set of calculus problems to do right now. Even as a capable adult learner, I would experience a moment of panic and an overwhelming sense of there’s no way I can do this anymore, before remembering that I have tools available to me and getting myself onto Khan Academy as quickly as possible. A kid, who has less experience problem solving on her own and whose identity is less well-formed (and therefore under more threat — for better or worse, I’ve achieved an adult confidence grounded in my identity as a “smart kid”[1]) is far more likely to get stuck in the panic. The second problem with conflating self-efficacy, resilience, and self-regulation is that it opens the door to unhelpful — and even harmful — responses from teachers: you can do it — just keep trying! or you’ve just got to stay focused. Incorrect assumptions about resilience and regulation, like poor understanding of growth mindset, often lead to these platitudes that only serve to make a struggling student feel worse — and less efficacious. Finally, while this definition of self-efficacy does jibe with the core principle of the term — namely, a student’s sense of I have the tools to do this — it ignores the external threats to her confidence. The comparative environment of the classroom, especially for a student in a new school or operating under stereotype threat, can quickly lead our student to a series of detrimental follow-up thoughts: are my tools actually good? Do my tools work here? Are there better tools that they have that I don’t? To truly grasp and foster self-efficacy, we need to understand its contextual nature.

Image via freegr (Pixabay)

To that end, I propose a two-tiered definition of self-efficacy. The common understanding of self-efficacy — the answer to the question do I have the tools to learn this concept or accomplish this task? — is the second piece of the puzzle. But before a student can even ask herself that question, she needs to get through the first level of self-efficacy, which is the answer to the contextual question can I learn or accomplish here? If the answer is no, the presence or absence of strategic learning tools to tackle the task at hand is moot. If a student does not believe she can learn in her context, she’s not going to reach for her toolbox; her tools, no matter how practiced in a different context, may even stop looking like reliable tools. Doubt erodes self-efficacy.

The question of transfer here is particularly interesting. If strategic learning tools have been truly — that is, in an enduring, transferable fashion — learned, then they are themselves, by definition, transferable. But contextual self-efficacy, our student’s sense that she can learn here, in this specific environment, is, (again, pretty much by definition) not. And the application of learning tools, the transfer of the second tier of self-efficacy, is dependent on the establishment of contextual self-efficacy. A student can only transfer her skill-based self-efficacy if she already feels efficacious in the new environment; the transferable element of self-efficacy is contingent on the non-transferable element.

Before I press on, a word on belonging. How does this conception of self-efficacy differ from belonging? Isn’t this definition just saying that belonging is a precondition for self-efficacy? There’s an element of that, to be sure. But belonging is about a student’s perception of her right to be in the room. Contextual self-efficacy, as I’ve defined it above, is her belief not only that she deserves to be there but that she can actively engage, learn, and perform in the environment. So, yes, belonging is a prerequisite for self-efficacy — because if a student doesn’t feel she should be in the room, there’s no way she’s seeing herself as an efficacious learner there — but it’s not hard to imagine a student who has a sense of belonging in a school, or even a solid social belonging in a classroom, who still doesn’t believe that she can learn and achieve in the environment. Like with motivation, belonging gets you to the starting block but without self-efficacy, you’re not diving into the pool.

Self-efficacy, then, should more accurately be looked at as a student’s confidence in her abilities in context. As a result, self-efficacy is not fixed but is a dynamic trait, one that grows or shrinks relative to a student’s picture of herself in the environment.

2. What might contextual self-efficacy look like?

To illustrate contextual self-efficacy, let’s imagine three different hypothetical scenarios. First, let’s picture a new student, who has just transferred from a local elementary school to a K-12 independent school. She’s not the only student being on-boarded in this year; 6th grade is a common entry point for the school and the class size grows by ~40% between 5th and 6th grade. She was a capable, confident student in her prior school; indeed, her teacher recommendations extol her strong self-efficacy. Methods are different, however, in this new environment. Take math. In her elementary school, math was largely individualized, with students conferencing with a teacher when they’d completed a problem set and moving on to the next level at their own pace. At this new school, math is not tracked and 6th grade math is project-based and mostly collaborative, with students working in table groups with peers to solve problems and then using those problem sets in the service of larger math-related projects. Our new student has never had to work with classmates in math and has no experience applying her math knowledge to larger projects. Her peers who’ve been at the school for earlier years — and some who come from new schools that employ a similar pedagogy — have experience with this style of learning. Our new student had had confidence in her mathematical tools; now, she’s feeling like she’s shown up with a box full of flat-head screwdrivers and all the furniture in this new place is put together with Phillips-heads. She might be able to force what she’s got to work, but it doesn’t feel right and isn’t giving her the same power as all these other kids, armed with the proper tools, seem to feel. If this is what 6th grade math looks like, she wonders, maybe everything I’ve done up to this point wasn’t actually real math. She knows she used to feel she had the right tools to be a learner of math, but in a new context she begins to question whether she really knows how to do math at all.

Next let’s look at a subtler case, but one no less common: the student advancing from one year, and one teacher, to the next. Here our student has been an avid student of history; he thinks of himself as a budding historian and gets excited about going to his 10th grade world history class. He loves the Harkness style employed by his 10th grade teacher and gets excited about research projects as he knows he’ll be able to choose his own topic and go to whatever depth he desires. As he approaches the end of the year, he’s eagerly anticipating 11th grade and American history with the history department chair. She has a reputation for being one of the most memorable teachers in the school and used to teach AP US history, before the school stopped offering APs. Upon entering her class in the fall, however, our student is bewildered. The teacher lectures and expects students to take copious notes on what she says. There are no open-ended discussions; it’s clear when she offers the floor to students, she’s looking for very specific answers. She is engaging and quick-witted, but this only serves to make our student feel more disheartened when he’s lost or doesn’t quickly come to the answer the teacher is seeking. What’s more, independent research has been replaced by document-based questions and he feels frustrated with the prescribed topics and unsure of his ability to properly analyze the sources his teacher provides —she just seems so particular in what she’s looking for. Our student no longer thinks of himself as a historian; instead, he begins to talk about how he did well in the 10th grade teacher’s class but wonders whether he actually learned any valuable historical skills at all.

Neither of these are particularly jarring examples, and both speak to the need to intentionally transition students, whether it’s on-boarding a kid from a different school or transitioning students from grade to grade. Techniques for teachers to mitigate the loss of self-efficacy in these situations include: starting the fall semester in on-boarding years with projects or units that are new for all students, regardless of where they come from; mindfully creating groups so that new students have positive, collaboratively-skilled peers with whom to work; reinforcing or remediating skills that may be new for some students with all students; conscious call-backs to material and skills from previous years; and open acknowledgement of shifts in style. But what about places where we don’t expect students to lose self-efficacy?

Think of a student, like our 10th grader above, who is moving from one grade to the next. His teachers in both grades have markedly similar styles and collaborate on designing curricula for their two courses. The student goes in feeling confident and his confidence is buoyed by the familiarity of the teaching style. But this self-efficacy might be the most fragile of all. As soon as the current teacher diverges from the style of the previous — or even more damaging, defines a skill, concept, or term in a different way that the previous teacher had — the floodgates of doubt are opened. Now our student is left to wonder, what if I really wasn’t getting it all last year? What if that teacher just didn’t know what he was doing? I’ve thought that I was good at this all along, but what if I’m not? Because our student doesn’t have exposure to different styles, he may be more prone to anxiety as soon as he’s confronted with something new.

Finally, let’s take a look at how the dynamic nature of self-efficacy can affect a student over the course of a single year. Let’s take our first hypothetical student, the 6th grader who’s just transferred to a new school. Say the year has started with collaborative work, but the projects don’t show up until the second semester. By December, our student has rebuilt her self-efficacy, with the help of a thoughtful teacher who scaffolded her entry using some of the techniques suggested above. In February, however, the class transitions from collaborative problem sets to a long-term project that’s done in partners and applies the skills learned in the first semester to a creative endeavor. Our student thought she’d got the hang of math in this new environment and suddenly is slammed with a brand-new approach all over again. Her still fragile self-efficacy may once again take a dip. One can imagine this dynamic with a range of students in nearly any class that shifts modes during the course of the year; teachers cannot assume that just because a kid exhibits self-efficacy in one part of the year that they will continue to feel that confidence and self-belief from that point forward. While a teacher sees the course as a unified whole, to most students, units — or even lessons — are discrete events and while a teacher may be able to see the conceptual and skill-based connections between different pieces of their curricula, students may not. This leaves them vulnerable to dips in self-efficacy, negative self-talk, and diminished capacity in the class.

3. What can teachers do to mitigate dips in contextual self-efficacy?

Understanding of self-efficacy, including its dynamic nature, is paramount for teachers. They need to be able to communicate to parents and students in clear terms what self-efficacy is and how it is developed. But they also need to know that a student’s self-efficacy may change at any major inflection point — and that they might not even see all of the inflection points on the graph. (Imagine a student who has an experience outside of school that changes his self-perception and identity as a student. His teachers may not have knowledge of the event, but they will certainly see the shift in his beliefs about himself.) In short, teachers cannot assume the transfer of self-efficacy.

In some contexts, such as the transition period at the start of each school year, this is easily done. Teachers can start the year by intentionally reestablishing self-efficacy in their students using strategic scaffolding and the principles and self-determination theory to motivate and bolster students’ self-image. But how granular does a teacher need to get? The answer, of course, will vary from teacher to teacher and course to course, but the overarching principle is to identify places where the context of the class changes — whether that’s a new unit with a different focus and which draws on a different skill set, a new assessment or project style, or simply new material (say, switching from reading John Green to Shakespeare). At those inflection points, teachers who explicitly draw connections from earlier skills and material will actively boost the self-efficacy of their students. By making the context feel similar, or at least accessible and comfortable, they facilitate their students’ transfer of strategic learning tools.

Finally, teachers need to remember that not all dips in self-efficacy are bad. Moments of discomfort can be instructive for students and allow them the cognitive dissonance and healthy confusion necessary to grow new skills and elaborate knowledge at a deeper level. But a chronic decline in self-efficacy can alter a student’s image of herself as a learner, and, if dramatic enough, can damage her sense of belonging, which in turn may bar her from nearly all modes of complex thought (as explored in earlier musings).

4. What questions still linger?

Some questions raised by this line of thinking that merit further exploration: is there a threshold for enduring self-efficacy? That is, if it gets high and sure enough, can it withstand a shift in context and become wholly transferable? Or is that just overconfidence and, potentially, just as detrimental to learning? And what about implications for teachers and their self-efficacy? What happens if a teacher changes divisions, begins teaching a different discipline, moves to a new school, or even just adopts a new pedagogy? Studies on professional development suggest that teachers need the same type of scaffolding and ongoing support that students do. How might schools structure their professional development and assessment systems to encourage self-efficacy? How can administrators work to maximize teachers’ belief in their own abilities while also fostering growth? Exciting stuff to think about, and to practice putting into action.

[1] There’s a whole other study begging to be done in here: how much does the confidence established in adolescence carry into adulthood and, in particular, how is teacher self-efficacy colored by their adolescent identity as students?