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How to Increase Self-Efficacy in Students

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson, we'll be learning how to teach your students the important skill of self-efficacy. Here, you'll learn practical strategies you can implement easily in your classroom to support student learning.

What Is Self-Efficacy?

Picture yourself at your own job. You're handed a challenging task of organizing a new after school program. How do you feel about this task? You might feel a little nervous, but chances are you're excited at the prospect of being chosen for something important. The belief that you can succeed at something is called self-efficacy. Although this might feel like part of your personality at this point, it's actually a learned skill. Having a high self-efficacy results in greater success and better mental health.

Many students, especially high risk students like repeaters, students with disabilities, and students behind grade level, lack this trait. They've learned through repeated failures that they aren't good at school, and they won't succeed. These feelings can show up in a myriad of ways in the classroom. Students might shut down, or act out to prevent themselves from struggling with classwork.

student with head down

Much of self-efficacy is formed during childhood based on feedback from adults, such as parents and teachers. Luckily, even if your students struggle in school, there are ways to help them develop self-efficacy, which in turn will help them succeed in school.

Small Successes

You've decided you want to take up cycling as a hobby. On your first ride, would you want to ride with a professional cycling team, tackling gnarly hills? Your answer is probably not. You would fall behind the pack, and most likely start to feel slow and incompetent. No doubt this would put a damper on your ambitions to become a cyclist. Now imagine going for a ride with a friend who knows what they're doing, but is willing to show you the ropes on a flat bike path. You'll feel successful and probably excited for your next ride.

We all want to challenge our students, but much like going out with a professional cycling team, if work is too hard, your students won't be able to do it and they will feel incompetent. Your students need stepping stones that they can feel successful at to develop self-efficacy. First, choose a small assignment that is easy for students to complete. Once they have some confidence, move to work in the zone of proximal development of your students, where the work isn't too easy, but it's also not too hard. Work in this cognitive area is a little outside a student's reach, but attainable based on their skill level.

Zone of proximal development
zone of proximal developement

Teach Strategies

How many times have you seen a student quit working because they got stuck? Many times, students don't know what to do when they reach a hard problem because they lack self-efficacy. They don't have strategies or techniques to help them keep going. Although figuring out how to proceed when work gets challenging might feel intuitive to us as adults, students need to be explicitly taught strategies to keep them going.

Try creating some anchor charts, or posters with instructions, around the room, and explaining them to your students. For example, first you might suggest students look in their notes or consult their textbook. If they can't find an answer, ask a neighbor to collaborate. This increases their self-efficacy by building skills that help them persevere and succeed on their own.

Models

You think it might be good to start lifting in addition to cycling. However, you've never really been a 'gym person'. Would you rather go to the gym with someone who has been lifting for years and knows the ropes, or another novice like yourself? It's a lot easier to start a challenging task when you have someone to model, or learn from based on their actions. The same goes for your students.

There are two great models in a classroom, teachers and students. Obviously, the teacher is the first model students look towards. If you want them to develop self-efficacy, you need to practice it yourself. Believing you can accomplish a task actually helps you do it, and you need to mirror that for your students. Don't let them hear you beating yourself up, it shows them that's an okay pattern to engage in.

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