self efficacy

Albert Bandura may be most well known for his work on social cognitive theory and observational learning.  But it’s important for educators and parents to know about a buried treasure at the heart of social cognitive theory – self-efficacy beliefs.  Self-efficacy is what helps nurture effort, perseverance, resilience, serenity, and optimism in the face of adversity.

Bandura defines self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). In simpler terms, it’s best captured in Henry Ford’s famous quote:  “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re usually right.”

Self-Efficacy: Pervasive in All Aspects of Life

People’s self-efficacy beliefs extend to all aspects of their lives – career choice, dating behavior, and emotional regulation. A child’s ideas about what she’s good at influences her choice of studies and ultimately career. If a person doesn’t believe her efforts will result in the outcome she wants, she will have a lot of trouble starting, applying effort, or persevering in any activity – whether it’s studying for an exam, engaging in a sport or asking someone out on a date.

Interestingly, in the world of education, Bandura also extended the concept of self-efficacy to a teacher’s “instructional efficacy“ – her belief in her ability to teach – and “collective efficacy beliefs” – the institution’s collective attitudes towards its students’ ability to learn.  Both significantly impact their students’ educational outcomes.

Self-Efficacy : 4 Sources

Bandura posits that self-efficacy beliefs are formed by how individuals interpret the input they receive through four sources:

1. The person’s own mastery experiences.  How a person interprets the results of her previous performance is the most influential source of self-efficacy beliefs.

  • Classroom Strategy: As often as possible, invite students to evaluate their own work. The best way to strengthen self-efficacy is to have students identify those things they did well on assigned tasks.

2. Vicarious experience of observing others perform tasks A person forms beliefs in his own efficacy when he watches someone similar model the desired behavior.  Models can also be mentors if they show a better way of doing the task.

  • Classroom Strategy: Teachers frequently ask students to assess something done by their peers (reviewing an oral presentation to the class, editing a paper or report, etc). Add the following direction: “In your self-efficacy journal, write down two positive things you observed that you do on a regular basis.”

3. Social persuasions.  These are the verbal judgments made by others. Negative appraisals weaken self-efficacy beliefs more than positive appraisals strengthen them.

  • Classroom Strategy: When you ask your students to review/edit/assess the work of their peers, have them identify those things that were done well rather than identifying errors or weaknesses.

4. Somatic and emotional states. A person will assess how confident she feels by interpreting her own emotional and physical state as she contemplates an action.

  • Classroom Strategy: Begin by asking your students to imagine themselves doing something they do well. Help them identify their physiological and emotional states during times of success. Tell them that as they imagine taking on new challenges, they have the best chance of success if they can replicate the same positive physiological and emotional states. (Note: This requires considerable abstract thinking skills and may not be especially useful with pre-adolescent students.)

These sources of self-efficacy beliefs point to the importance of a quality that makes us uniquely human.  That is our ability to self-reflect, which is the process by which we make sense of our experience.  Knowing the life-long impact that self-efficacy beliefs have, teachers and parents can help children develop healthy self-reflection skills.  Consistent with the theory of observational learning, a great way to do this is by modeling healthy self-reflection on one’s own performance, and mentoring how a child is interpreting the results of his or her performance.  Teachers can routinely evaluate their own performance in front of the class, specifically identifying what they did well and how they plan to build on their success. By modeling self-evaluation, teachers demonstrate a process designed to promote self-efficacy.

If you want more information about self-efficacy beliefs and how to apply them, you’ll find a wealth of information here.

Classroom examples provided by educational consultant and Funderstanding contributor, Bob Sullo.


Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

Bandura, A. (1995). Self efficacy in changing societies, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pajares, F. (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy.  Retrieved 2/23/08 from

About the author -

Emily K. Fitton

Emily is now a psychotherapist and freelance writer after a 25-year career in marketing communications. She graduated with honors from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service in 2008, and is currently in a post-graduate institute for advanced training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Emily’s writing is informed by her belief that self-awareness and understanding are at the heart of happy relationships and empowered choices.

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