Skills, Beliefs & Behaviors

Self-Efficacy: Overview

What is it?

Self-efficacy is an individual’s own perception or “judgement of their capabilities to organize and execute course of action required to attain designated types of performances” (Bandura, 1986). Since the publication of Bandura’s original work, self-efficacy has been shown to play a significant role in a very wide range of situations, from smoking cessation and recovery from heart-attacks, to social skills, academic achievement, and coping with feared events (Schunk, 1991). It is important to note that, since self-efficacy is based on one’s own assessment of one’s capabilities, there may be a mismatch between that perception and reality. Self-efficacy is not the same as self-esteem. The latter refers an individual’s overall feeling of self-worth, whereas self-efficacy, as described above, refers to an individual’s perception of their abilities to successfully perform specific tasks. Self-confidence is a loose combination of self-efficacy and self-esteem. It is important to note that an individual may have high self-efficacy in one domain or discipline or with respect to specific tasks, but may have low self-efficacy in another domain or with respect to a different set of tasks.

Why is it important?

Bandura states the importance of this belief in capability as follows:

“[Self-efficacy] influence[s] the courses of action people choose to pursue, how much effort they put forth in given endeavors, how long they will persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, their resilience to adversity, whether their thought patterns are self-hindering or self-aiding, how much stress and depression they experience in coping with taxing environmental demands, and the level of accomplishments they realize.” (Bandura, 1997, p.3).

An individual student’s self-efficacy depends on their particular abilities and on their prior experiences. Students arrive at MIT with a sense of self-efficacy which depends both on their particular abilities and their prior experiences. As they navigate through MIT they set and re-set their goals, mitigated by situational factors such as teacher feedback and academic performance. Based on these experiences, they reassess and reset their efficacy for further learning.

A student’s lack of self-efficacy may predispose them to believe that they cannot succeed and/or thrive in a particular task, subject, discipline, or even at a particular institution. If students are not given developmentally appropriate tasks and feedback that provide accurate information on their current abilities - they may misjudge those abilities, and develop lower self-efficacy. With lower self-efficacy students can become unmotivated and less likely to engage and persist.

A wide range of classroom-based studies have addressed the specific connections between self-efficacy and performance, persistence and self-regulation. A subset of these studies is described below.

Multon and colleagues have shown a relation between self-efficacy and both academic performance and persistence. In their study, students with higher self-efficacy were found to persist longer on difficult tasks, and use more efficient problem-solving skills than students with lower self-efficacy (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991).

Low self-efficacy can lead students to believe that tasks are more difficult than they actually are (Schwarzer, Wagner, Prince-Embury, & Saklofske, 2013). Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to attribute failure to external factors, where a person with low self-efficacy will blame low ability. See the Skills, Beliefs, Behaviors: Mindset section of this resource.

Bouffard-Bouchard’s 1990 study of Canadian college students found that perceived self-efficacy for a particular task was correlated with both persistence in the task and to ability to evaluate the correctness of responses. In addition, she found that task self-efficacy was malleable, i.e., students "...who had received positive feedback judged themselves to be more efficacious than those who made their self-appraisals following negative feedback (Bouffard-Bouchard, 1990, p. 360). Bouffard-Bouchard’s findings support the context-specific-dependent nature of self-efficacy judgments and “the role of social persuasion as a primary source of information in the construction of self-efficacy” (Bouffard-Bouchard, 1990).

After controlling for high-school GPA (and other factors) Chemers et al. found a strong, positive correlation between 1st-year college students' self-efficacy (as measured by self-ratings of habits and skills such as the scheduling of tasks, note taking, test taking, and researching and writing papers, and by general statements regarding scholarly ability), their perception of resources (supports) and their academic performance. They observed that students who exhibit higher self-efficacy view challenges more positively (see, Skills, Beliefs, Behaviors: Mindset ), experience less stress, have reduced incidence of reported illness and more positively rate their personal adjustment to, and satisfaction with college life. (Chemers, Zurbriggen, Syed, Goza, & Bearman, 2011).

College students with higher degrees of self-efficacy with respect to their abilities to complete technical/scientific majors achieved higher grades and persisted longer in these majors than those with relatively low ratings (Lent, Brown, & Larkin, 1984).