What are self-efficacy beliefs? Why do we have them, and how can they help or hinder language learning? Chiara Bruzzano discusses how our beliefs in our abilities to complete a task, or self-efficacy beliefs, impact our own motivation then addresses how to best foster positive beliefs in our learners.
Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘I just won’t be able to do this’? Our students will often think this and sometimes even verbalise it for us.
But where does this kind of belief come from? How does it impact language learning and how can we foster more constructive beliefs? To find the answers, we need to learn more about self-efficacy, the psychological construct behind this kind of thinking.
What is self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy is a concept that comes from the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. It can help us understand our learners’ beliefs about their abilities and how they can impact their learning. Simply put, self-efficacy is the extent to which we believe that we can execute the behaviours necessary to succeed in a challenging task. Self-efficacy is domain- and context-specific, so, for example, I will have specific beliefs about whether I will be able to do what is necessary to understand a news report or write an essay for my academic writing class.
You may have heard of similar concepts, like self-esteem. Although there are areas in which the two overlap, self-esteem is defined by Harter as ‘the overall evaluation of one’s worth or value as a person’ (2012:22–24), so it is much broader in scope and possibly less useful when it comes to thinking about our learners. Further, self-efficacy has been investigated widely in education and also in the specific field of language learning, with findings that we can use to inform our practices.
Where do self-efficacy beliefs come from?
If you are wondering where our self-efficacy beliefs originate, the research suggests that four main factors contribute to them:
- Mastery experiences, that is, experiencing success in challenging task. The key word here is ‘challenging’: as Bandura reminds us, ‘if people experience only easy successes they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by setbacks and failures’ (2012:13). Mastery experiences are the main predictor of self-efficacy.
- Vicarious experiences, in which we observe others succeeding at tasks. Importantly, vicarious experiences help form positive self-efficacy beliefs especially when we observe someone who struggles through a problem until it is solved rather than someone who seems to naturally be capable of succeeding.
- Verbal persuasion, in which others convince us that we are capable or uncapable. In our classes, this is most likely to come from the teacher.
- Emotional states: experiencing stress, fatigue or tension can inform our self-efficacy beliefs.
How are self-efficacy beliefs related to language learning motivation?
A key point in any discussion of self-efficacy is that it is closely related to motivation: the more we believe we will be able to enact the behaviours needed to succeed at a task, the more likely we are to invest time and effort, and persevere when faced with difficulties.
Indeed, self-efficacy is related to Attribution Theory, a theory of motivation that I talked about in a previous post. According to Attribution Theory, we can attribute the causes of our successes and failures to factors that are controllable and internal (like our efforts) or uncontrollable and external (like the difficulty of a test or our luck). If our attributions are related to controllable, internal factors, we are more likely to persevere with tasks and interestingly, learners who have high levels of self-efficacy also tend to attribute their successes and failures to factors within their control (Graham, 2022).
Another important theory of motivation that relates closely to self-efficacy is expectancy value theory. The key point is that there are two factors involved in motivation: the first corresponds to our expectation that our actions will lead to success and the second is the value that we place on a successful outcome in a specific activity.
What is interesting is that, based on a huge study involving almost 400,000 secondary school students from over 50 countries (Nagengast et al. 2011), if expectations are high but the value placed on the outcome is low, then motivation overall is low: this has clear implications for us as teachers, as part of our job in fostering positive self-efficacy beliefs will be to highlight the value of language learning.
How can we foster positive self-efficacy?
Based on what we have learned so far, here are three ways in which we can help our learners develop positive self-beliefs:
- Doing challenging but achievable tasks: learners need to have mastery experiences with tasks that they can complete but that are also challenging. While we may be tempted to give easier work to demotivated learners, this can inadvertently convey the idea that they can only succeed at easy tasks.
- Reflecting on learning: especially after completing a task, learners should be encouraged to reflect on how they achieved the goal, what difficulties they had and how they and others overcame them. This can help them reframe their attributions and learn how to overcome obstacles in the future.
- Simultaneously enhancing expectancy and value: in order for students to be motivated to succeed, they have to both believe that they can do it and also place value on success in a given activity. Our job is then to emphasise both aspects simultaneously, as focusing on only one undermines motivation as a whole.
Do you have other ideas for fostering self-efficacy in your learners? Let us know in the comments!
Bandura, A. (2012). ‘On the functional properties of perceived self-efficacy revisited’. Journal of Management, 38 1:9–44. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications for the Southern Management Association.
Graham, S. (2022). ‘Self-efficacy and language learning – what it is and what it isn't’. The Language Learning Journal, 50 2:186–207. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the Language Learning Research Club at the University of Michigan (United States).
Harter, S. (2012). The Construction of the Self: Developmental and sociocultural foundations. New York: Guilford Publications.
Nagengast, B., Marsh, H. W., Scalas, L. F., Xu, M. K., Hau, K. T., & Trautwein, U. (2011). ‘Who took the “×” out of expectancy-value theory? A psychological mystery, a substantive-methodological synergy, and a cross-national generalization’. Psychological Science, 22 8:1058–1066. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.