Early research into self-efficacy

The history of self-efficacy research lies within the treatment of individuals suffering from psychological illness, and not education. However, since its first inclusion into the research literature by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, subsequent research has attempted to apply the general theory to other areas, including teaching and learning. Bandura is, in essence, a social psychologist and his social-cognitive theory includes a combination of external social systems and internal self-influencing factors that motivate and regulate behaviour. Self-efficacy represents one particular self-influencing factor. Bandura defines self-efficacy as, 'beliefs in one's capabilities to organise and execute the causes of action required to produce given attainments' (Bandura, 1977). This is a rather long-winded way of saying that self-efficacy is about how beliefs in our abilities to shape our choices of action and implementation of a set of skills that leads (or does not lead) to the successful completion of a given task.

Prior to the introduction of self-efficacy (pre-1977) Bandura found himself investigating the role of human motivation in therapeutic treatments in terms of outcome expectations, that is, patients beliefs in their ability to use the techniques taught to them in regards to therapeutic interventions. Within such beliefs there arose a number of individual differences that could not be explained by outcome expectations, in that the types of outcome people anticipated appeared largely dependent on their own judgements of how well they could perform in specific given situations. In other words, the efficacy of the technique was less important than the belief that the individual was able to successfully use it.

As a result of Bandura's work and his shift from outcome expectations to efficacy, it soon became apparent that this newly evolving psychological construct could be applied to non-clinical settings, including education. This shift from psychopathology to education resulted in the sub-category of academic self-efficacy (abbreviated here to ASE) with a wealth of supporting evidence into the nature of its impact on academic success and failure. Educationalist John Hattie has described academic self-efficacy as 'the confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves to make our learning happen' (Hattie, 2012, p. 45) and this definition certainly suits our purpose here.

Self-efficacy is measured using a number of factors: level, generality and strength. Level of self-efficacy refers to dependence on the difficulty of the task, that is, it's relationship to increasing challenge, for example, the spelling of words of incremental difficulty. Generality involves the transferability of self-efficacy beliefs across activities, such as from algebra to statistics. Finally, self-efficacy is measured in regards to strength, the amount of certainty about being able to perform a given task.

ASE had been investigated in varying educational contexts, including early years, high school and university settings. It's research base is, therefore, strong, making it a worthy area of discussion within teaching and learning. It is also necessary, of course, to our discussion of academic buoyancy.

Self-efficacy and related concepts

Self-efficacy in certainly related to our concept of self but its differences warrant a separate discussion due to the wide-ranging impact it has on both academic and non-academic outcomes. Many of these differences can be seen in the way we measure self-efficacy - the questions we ask in order to evidence it in people. The differences are, therefore, differences of measurement. For example, outcome expectations are certainly related to self-efficacy beliefs but in order to investigate it we ask different questions. For example, we might ask a student how relevant they believe a task to be in terms of, say, future employment (an outcome expectation measure), while a self-efficacy measure will ask about how confident they feel in their ability to complete the task, irrespective of how useful they feel the task to be. Both will impact motivation but the reasons for this are different. In a study into achievement in reading and writing, for example, combined self-efficacy predicted 32 per cent of the variance in reading achievement but perceived self-efficacy accounted for virtually all of this variance. In other words, perceived confidence in the ability to complete the task far outweighed any perceived future utility of it. Furthermore, perceived self-efficacy was the only significant predictor of writing achievement (Zimmerman, 2000).

Self-efficacy is related to, but not the same as, academic self-concept because it is task specific. We might, therefore, describe someone as having high academic self-concept in maths (they have a positive attitude towards the subject), but even then their answer to a question such as 'Ifeel confident in my ability to solve this algebraic equation' (a question relating to ASE) could be low. The difference between self-efficacy and academic self-concept lies primarily with individual judgements of how confident people feel in their ability to succeed in an academic area (7 am good at mathematics') and in their ability to complete a specific task (7 can solve this equation'). The former represents academic self-concept while the latter, self-efficacy.

Self-concept is, therefore, a more general self-descriptive concept that incorporates many forms of self-knowledge and self-evaluative feelings, whereas self-efficacy in based around task-specific performance expectations. Self-efficacy is also more about future predications than past experiences, although these often correlate. Nevertheless, it is possible to have high self- efficacy about our capability to perform a task even if academic specific self- concept is low. For example, a student might have low self-concept in maths but still be confident in their ability to successfully complete a specified mathematical task.

Self-efficacy is also related to our feelings of perceived control, or our general expectations about whether outcomes are controlled by our own behaviour or by external factors (Chapter 10). However, perceived control differs from self-efficacy in that the latter refers to general beliefs about the causes of actions rather than being task or domain specific.

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