Friday, July 30, 2010

Self-Efficacy: Commentary and a Review

A Review of Albert Bandura article
Self Efficacy (1994) originally published 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). Online version:


While Bandura’s article dos not emphasize adult education, his focus on the central issue of self-efficacy is crucial in our work with adult students. This is because feelings of adequacy and confidence are a major source of motivation in determining whether, how long and the degree to which adult education students will persist in their efforts. In this respect, self-efficacy not only impacts self-perception, whether positively or negatively. It also plays a pivotal role in determining what students actually learn, including the depth, usefulness, and retention of such learning both within and beyond the program setting and its application in contexts that truly matter to students.

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well being in encouraging people to persist in difficult tasks. Through such an efficacious outlook adults are more likely to embrace and follow through on challenging goals, without which they are more likely to give up on. Such a can do outlook is a strong antidote to giving up too easily, but it needs to be perceived as real and not just a matter of “positive thinking.


Affective processes: “Processes regulating emotional states and elicitation of emotional reactions.”

Cognitive processes: “Thinking processes involved in acquisition, organization, and use of information.”

Motivation: “Activation to action. Level of motivation is reflected in choice of course of action, and in intensity and persistence of effort.”

Perceived self-efficacy: People’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce effects.

Self-regulation: “Exercise of influence over one’s own motivation, thought processes, emotional states and patterns of behavior.”

Bandura argues for a strong correlation between people’s beliefs about their capabilities and what they attempt to take on and actually accomplish as a result. Self-efficacy determines how people think, feel, motivate themselves and behave. These perceptions are mediated through four processes: cognitive, motivational, affective, and what Bandura refers to as selection processes, all of which are briefly identified above and elaborated upon below.

Sources of Efficacy

People strengthen their beliefs through mastery experiences. Such successes build a robust belief in one’s own personal competence in which progress is viewed as a result of effort rightly directed.

• Self-efficacy is enhanced through the modeling influence of the skills and accomplishment of significant others. Through effective mentoring and coaching learners are able to progressively transfer knowledge from their guide’s practice to their own. Effective guidance, in turn requires skillful scaffolding in providing just that right level and type of support needed to accomplish the specific task or knowledge acquisition activity needed.

• Social persuasion in accepting the feedback from others that they have or can develop the skills and knowledge base to succeed in a given challenge is also highly influential. This requires more than simply raising people’s beliefs in their capabilities, which can easily be conflated by disconfirming experience. What is needed also is helping learners in entering or structuring situations in ways that will likely bring some success through their perceived self efforts and to avoid placing people in situations prematurely where they are likely to fail.

• The interpretations of such bodily and emotional states is the fourth way that individuals of assessing and building up their sense of efficacy. All else being equal, a positive tone to their emotional well being will tend to enhance felt sense of efficacy while those beset with a negative tone to their emotional well being will tend to deflate self-efficacy. Physical activity itself can serve as a positive resource in releasing bodily chemical and enzymes that enhance personal energy. Degree of self-efficacy is also related to levels of stress people experience. While a certain level of stress often serves as a positive stimulant to enhance effort a too strong sense of stress, whether personally or environmentally induced often results in a diminution of effort.

Cognitive Processes

Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capabilities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves. People’s beliefs in their self-efficacy shape the type of anticipatory scenarios they construct and rehearse. Those who have a high sense of self-efficacy visualize success scenarios that provide positive guides and supports for things that can go wrong. That is, they anticipate what they need to do and what is in their power to shape, in which failure is interpreted as lack of sufficient forethought or organizing rather than a result of any intrinsic sense of failure syndrome. Those who doubt their own competence reinforce their negative self-fulfilling prophecies by visualizing failure scenarios and dwelling on the many things that could go wrong. A major educational challenge is that of enabling people to develop healthy ways of effectively processing cognitive information that from an objective standpoint contains many ambiguities, uncertainties and potential pitfalls. Adult learners need to draw on their knowledge as well as that of support of others (peers, family, teachers) to construct options, to weigh and integrate predictive factors, to test and revise their judgments against the immediate and potential longer range results of their actions, while being keenly attuned to what worked well, how so, and for what sets of reasons as applied specifically to key learning challenges.

Motivational Processes

One’s own perception of self-efficacy plays a key role in the self-regulation of motivation. The formation of perception results from a dynamic transactional between cognitive and emotional functions. People motivate themselves and guide their action positively or negatively by the exercise of forethought. They form beliefs about what they can do and can’t do and anticipate likely outcomes, which become self-reinforcing. When learners are highly motivated, based on perceptions of possibility that are both optimistically focused and realistic, they set goals and plan courses of action designed to realize valued futures. At the core of such motivation are a complex interplay between causal attributions, outcome expectancies, and cognitive goals.

• Causal attributions affect motivation performance and affective reactions mainly through beliefs of self-efficacy. If I do A, B follows. Consequently, my attainment of B is the direct result of my actions (A), which then reinforces the belief (C) that I possess the confidence to take on and complete the task at hand.

• In expectancy theory, motivation is affected by the expectation that a given course of behavior will produce certain valued outcomes. There are countless attractive options potentially open to people that they don’t pursue because they judge they lack the capabilities to accomplish them or bringing them to successful completion. This is particularly the case in a task or potential accomplishment, while viewed as intrinsically valuable is also perceived as especially difficult. Thus the question as to whether I truly want and can take on a given challenge has a strong correlation that one possesses the short, intermediate, and long-term resources to take on a challenging task like:
o Staying the course in an adult education program
o Succefully completing a four year college progam
o Pursuing a career track where one currently lacks many of the requisite skills, yet where one has as sense of having the capacity to succeed,, including at least some of the skills and the temperament for it if one applies oneself diligently to the new effort

Affective Responses

People’s beliefs in their coping abilities affect how much stress and depression they experience in threatening or difficult situations, which impacts on motivation. For highly competent people, greater efficacy or other controls exercised against anxieties do not conjure up disturbing thought patterns. Those who dwell on coping deficiencies, however real or fabricated, in turn, experience them, at the least as a forceful imaginative influence with accompanying real-world consequences of one sort or another. This, in turn, reinforces a vicious cycle of inadequacy leading to various escape mechanisms, however destructive they may be.

Perceived self-efficacy to control thought processes, therefore, is a key factor in regulating self-induced stress and depression that can feel and often is quite real. Such positive self control, on the other hand, opens up a greater sense of self-motivation as a basis for moving toward greater efficacy in various challenging tasks. As stated, guided mastery, what in education is sometimes referred to as scaffolding, is one of the most fundamental vehicles for instilling a robust sense of coping efficacy. This is especially necessary in attempting something new, especially something challenging, such as seeking to make some significant life changes through adult education, particularly when there are a lot of resistances in the internal and external environment operating to stymie or blunt such change.

The critical task of the mentor or coach is to foster an environment for adult students whose current self-perception and skill set need to work together to effect a viable transformation in moving to a new and unaccustomed place where doing, thinking, and feeling need to operate well in an integrated fashion to activate and persist with the change process. Part of this scaffolding is to gradually remove the support systems in ways that enable the student to assimilate the new behavior into his or her own autonomous capacity. As an example, take a look at the example that Jim Carabell provides in his short essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Standards-Bearer” which also provides some insight into the EFF framework ( In short, guided mastery or well calibrated scaffolding is one of the most critical linchpins we can provide in helping students move from where they are to closer to where they would like to be. In short, progressive control of self-defeating thoughts and well calibrated guided instruction or scaffolding that helps students move toward both greater competency and autonomy are indispensable.

Selection Process

Selection as Bandura is defining it has to do with choices that people make in what they will take on. Self-perception will play a significant role in what people believe they can accomplish as well as what they would like to do. A sense of self-efficacy reinforced by achieved levels of progressive competency plays a subtle, indispensable, and sometimes unconscious role in influencing selection toward one career pathway or one life choice over another that can have consequences for years. Helping students negotiate these challenges and building such ways of self-coping and learning explicitly into the adult education curriculum has much to offer as part of any classroom or program focus, as reflected, for example, in the EFF project, as an integrated and well-developed educational framework.

Adaptive Benefits of Optimistic Self-Beliefs of Efficacy

The pivotal point here is mediating the gap between an essential sense of personal optimism for moving forward and what is interpreted as realism through accurate self-appraisal of existing capacity, which can undercut the motivation needed to move for moving toward the realization of challenging goals. This tension can be especially acute in the desire to embrace change of a transitional or even transformational nature such as preparing for re-entry from prison, preparing for a new job significantly different than one’s current position, or some other significant life issue like losing and maintaining effective weight loss, quitting smoking, starting an exercise program, going to college, etc.

As depicted in Bandura’s article, there is a synergistic relationship between the new behavior desired and the formation of reinforcing attitudes, including self-perceptions that allow one to see oneself in a new light. In the process of embracing such change, however planned out and supported through effective scaffolding, elements of risk and uncertainty remain inescapable. Coping with reasonable risks is part of the change/learning process itself that needs to be intelligently embraced, without which a predisposition to maintaining the status quo is only likely to persist. As is reflected in the literature on innovation or change management of any sort the goal is to move from the present to a more desirable future, which may in some ways be substantially different from the present and to do so in a manner where one can visualize oneself in that new context. From this new perspective one then begins to develop the steps to carry out the change process, which might emerge through a gradual process of implementation while reinforcing a sense of progress.

There are many subtle and important points Bandura is making about self-efficacy. While he is not focusing on adult education, what he lays out in the article is critical to our work and long term success of our students.

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