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Leadership Insights

How to Encourage Student Self-Efficacy

By Jennifer Gunn January 7, 2019

A confident classroom is a successful classroom. How do you build a culture of academic excellence in classrooms that promote student accountability, confidence, and success? By encouraging a growth mindset for all learners, finding ways to boost their confidence and their sense of academic potential. Here’s a look at a few ways to cultivate student self-efficacy.

What is self-efficacy?

According to Transforming Education, “Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to succeed in achieving an outcome or reaching a goal. This belief, specific to a task or an area of knowledge or performance, shapes the behaviors and strategies that help one pursue their goal.” When a student has high self-efficacy, they have confidence in their ability, a sense of control over their motivation, and they can self-advocate for their needs.

“Research suggests that self-efficacy can boost student achievement, foster emotional health and well-being, and serve as a valid predictor of motivation and learning,” says Transforming Education, which offers a Self-Efficacy Toolkit to use with students. “Studies also have shown that students with high levels of self-efficacy participate more in class, work harder, persist longer, and have fewer adverse emotional reactions when encountering difficulties than students with lower self-efficacy.” Sounds like a recipe for academic success. Let’s look at how to plant these seeds with your students.

Celebrate successes big and small

When we do well, we want to keep doing well. That’s the philosophy behind building upon student successes.You know the old adage: ‘Nothing breeds success like success.’ That one is certainly true when it comes to helping your students improve their self-efficacy,” says psychologist Dennis Relojo to the American Psychological Association Education. “If a student has been successful (and has been rewarded) for a particular skill in the past, they will begin to believe in themselves that they have the ability to execute the same skill in the future and be excellent at it. Acknowledge those brilliant performances. The power of praise in changing student behavior is that it both indicates teacher approval and informs the student about how the praised academic performance or behavior conforms to teacher expectations.” Celebrate student successes, whether big or small, and you will help develop a student’s desire to push themselves toward success again.

Use peer modeling

In addition to celebrating successes in order to encourage future success, peer modeling also helps build self-efficacy. “Peer modeling is more effective than teacher modeling, especially as some students may doubt whether they can ever attain the teacher’s level of competence,” says The Education Hub, an organization that helps connect research to educators in the field. “The best peer models are those that make errors at first and express doubt about their self-efficacy (‘I’m not sure I can do this’).”

Teachers can support peer models by giving them prompts. Then those peer models can successfully complete a specific task. After they’ve finished, it’s important to ask them questions about how they overcame failure and developed mastery. When students can see their peers muddling through a task, overcoming hurdles, and doing well, they’re more likely to believe they’re able to achieve success themselves.

Set goals and monitor them

Using a regular practice of goal-setting and goal-monitoring lets students see the larger process of learning, rather than merely the obstacles and outcomes. “Teaching children how to set realistic goals and strategies for persisting in achieving those goals when they encounter obstacles helps them experience greater mastery in life,” states the National Association of School Psychologists. “Helping children to increase their pathways thinking (thinking that helps identify or create many paths to a goal and agency thinking that helps keep motivation up while pursuing a goal) helps them experience greater hope and more success in achieving the goal.” As students become more aware of their pathways, they will also build their academic self-efficacy. 

The power of yet

Every teacher has heard a student — or even themselves — say “I can’t.” And that may be true — at that moment. A student may not be able to demonstrate a skill — yet. In classrooms where potential is promoted, “the teacher makes it a habit to answer every student’s ‘I can’t’ statement with the word yet,” says Debbie Thompson Silver, Dedra A. Stafford, in their book Teaching Kids to Thrive, Essential Skills for Success. “For example, a student says he can’t do a math problem. The teacher responds, ‘You can’t do the math yet. You’ve got lots of time to figure this out.” Responses like that send a powerful message and help guide students toward self-efficacy. 

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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