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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Developing self-efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to someone’s belief in their ability to perform a specific task (1).

Developing self-efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to someone’s belief in their ability to perform a specific task (1). Self-efficacy tends to be domain specific; someone can have belief in their ability to perform to a high level on one type of task but no belief in their ability to perform a different task. Academic self-efficacy refers to a student’s belief in their ability to learn and engage in academic tasks and perform successfully (2).

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Research has established that there are relationships between academic self-efficacy and both student mental health and academic engagement, persistence and performance (3, 4). When students don’t believe they can engage in a task successfully, they are more likely to spend less time working on the task or may avoid it altogether. They are also more likely to give up when the task becomes difficult. Students with low academic self-efficacy may experience higher levels of imposter syndrome and be at greater risk of withdrawal (5). Lack of self-belief and lack of skills can exist in a cyclical relationship – low belief results in low levels of engagement and practice, leading to under-developed skills, which results in further low belief.

By contrast, students with high self-efficacy have been found to spend more time on learning and assessment tasks, persist when they become difficult, achieve better academic outcomes and be more satisfied by their own learning and performance (2). This link between academic self-efficacy and these outcomes has important implications for both learning and wellbeing (6). Kirschner & Hendrick (7) quote Shakespeare to encapsulate this concept; "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Self-efficacy, as a concept in education, was first suggested by Bandura (8), who highlighted four areas that impact on a student’s self-efficacy.

Performance Accomplishment

Students’ confidence in their ability increases if they recognise that they have previously performed well in a similar task. Through accomplishment, students develop a sense of mastery and are therefore more likely to derive pleasure and fulfilment from the performance of a task (9). As a result, a significant proportion of motivation arises from successful performance. A well-structured curriculum and appropriate feedback can support the growth of academic self-efficacy. There are a number of key concepts that relate to this, which include:

  • Training students to be successful as students through appropriate scaffolding – providing explicit instruction to begin with, then reducing instruction and support as students become more confident and proficient.
  • Having a learning focus as opposed to a performance focus. Students who are guided to process (learning) goals, tend to have higher self-efficacy than those who have performance goals (10).
  • Providing feedback that focusses on the development of the student’s learning and skill, rather than on performance.
  • Developing students’ ability to self-reflect and self-regulate, so they can recognise their own growth and take steps to improve their learning, so gaining a greater sense of control.

Vicarious Experience

Seeing peers being able to perform challenging academic tasks, can help an individual student improve their belief in their own capability (7, 11). This can be done by using previous students’ work, to analyse what they did that made the work of good quality. Academics can also model processes and behaviour that will improve learning and performance and relate stories of previous students who managed to travel the same journey. For this to be successful, it is important that this includes clear steps students can follow.

Bandura (8, 12, 13) also highlighted the importance of creating collaborative learning cultures and discouraging unnecessary competition, as this can act as a barrier to students learning from each other. Creating a culture of ‘we all can’, is more likely to lead to the development of self-efficacy, good wellbeing and good performance across the cohort.

Verbal Persuasion

Positive feedback grounded in reality that includes specific instructions and encourages students to believe they can succeed, can have a positive effect on self-efficacy (14). Believing that their lecturer believes in them, can enhance student self-belief and motivation. However, it is important that this persuasion is not nebulous or vague. Praise that has not been earned, or is unrealistic, can actually have a demotivating effect (15). It is also the case that any positive impact of verbal persuasion can be undone if the student then performs poorly. This can also reduce the future credibility of the academic, in the student’s eyes.

Therefore, it may not enough to simply say “I believe you can do this.” Students are more likely to develop self-efficacy if expressions of belief, on the part of a lecturer, are accompanied by evidence of their ability to succeed and an outline of the steps they can take to ensure success.

Emotional Arousal

Emotions provide us with evidence about our current experiences. If a student experiences high levels of anxiety while performing an academic task, they are likely to interpret those sensations as evidence that they are likely to fail. By contrast, if they experience a sense of mastery, confidence and flow, they are likely to interpret this as a sign that they can be successful (7).

The curriculum can support students to develop the skills of managing negative emotions and utilising positive emotions, through partnerships with professional staff to provide embedded psycho-education. Managing emotions productively can enhance a student’s ability to respond to future challenge and increase self-efficacy (7).

Students can also be supported in this domain if the curriculum focusses on learning, rather than the risk of failure, and if students are supported to find meaning in their learning and assessment tasks.

Key Lessons

  • Academic self-efficacy refers to a student’s belief in their ability to learn and engage in academic tasks and perform successfully.
  • There are clear relationships between self-efficacy and student wellbeing and self-efficacy and student learning and performance.
  • The curriculum can support the development of academic self-efficacy through scaffolding learning, providing a learning focus, creating a collaborative learning environment, modelling success, supporting students to explicitly develop skills and self-reflection and using evidence and feedback to build self-belief.

Top Tips

  • Focus feedback on learning and development, rather than performance.
  • Work with professional staff to embed psycho-education into the curriculum.
  • Use evidence to demonstrate your justified belief in students’ ability.
  • Build reflection on growth and learning into learning activities and assessments.
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  1. Maddux JE, Gosselin JT. Self-efficacy. The Guilford Press; 2012.
  2. Schunk DH, Ertmer PA. Self-regulation and academic learning: Self-efficacy enhancing interventions. Handbook Self-Regul Elsevier. 2000:631–49.
  3. Grøtan K, Sund ER, Bjerkeset O. Mental health, academic self-efficacy and study progress among college students–The SHoT study, Norway. Frontiers in psychology. 2019 Jan 24;10:45.
  4. Boekaerts M, Pintrich PR, Zeidner M. Self-regulation: An introductory overview. Handbook of self-regulation. 2000 Jan 1:1-9.
  5. Walker CA. Impostor Phenomenon, Academic Self-Efficacy, and Persistence Among African-American Female Undergraduate STEM Majors (Doctoral dissertation, Northeastern University).
  6. Heslin PA, Klehe UC. Self-efficacy. Encyclopedia Of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, SG Rogelberg, ed. 2006 Sep 22;2:705-8.
  7. Kirschner PA, Hendrick C. How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Routledge; 2020 Feb 12.
  8. Bandura A. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review. 1977 Mar;84(2):191.
  9. Elliot AJ, Church MA. A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1997 Jan;72(1):218.
  10. Watkins, C. (2010). Learning, Performance and Improvement. Research Matters. 34. London: International Network for School Improvement.  
  11. Hattie J. Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge; 2012 Mar 15.
  12. Bandura A. (1982) Self-efficacy Mechanism In: Human Agency. American Psychologist, 37(2) 122-147
  13. Bandura A. (2006) Guide for Constructing Self-efficacy Scales In: Pajares, F & Urdan, T. (Eds) Self-efficacy beliefs of Adolescents. Greenwich: Information Age
  14. Zulkosky K. Self‐efficacy: a concept analysis. InNursing forum 2009 Apr (Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 93-102). Malden, USA: Blackwell Publishing Inc.
  15. Neff K. Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity. 2003 Apr 1;2(2):85-101.