Students are more likely to commit to a task if they are confident that they can complete it successfully. What can we do to increase their confidence and encourage them to begin tasks, complete them and recognise their success?

Albert Bandura is a key figure in the study of self-efficacy. An early introduction to his ideas and work in a classic paper (1982) found that people’s perceived efficacy – their beliefs about their chances of success in a specific activity – affected their willingness to act and their persistence once they had started.

Bandura identified four sources of information that affect those beliefs. From most to least influential, these are: mastery experiences – past successes; vicarious experiences – seeing others’ successes; verbal persuasion, and self-control. He noted that people were more affected by self-judgments of their efficacy than how effective they actually were. In other words, if they believed they were good at something, they felt confident to complete it, whether or not this reflected their past performance.

Bandura showed how his theory applied to other fields as diverse as career choices, overcoming phobias and recovering from heart attacks.

Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), pp.122-147.

An intriguing study by Ambabile and Kramer (2011) investigated how Bandura’s ideas applied in the workplace by asking workers to complete daily diaries. They concluded that people’s best days at work were usually those on which they took “steps forward in meaningful work”; their worst were those on which they experienced setbacks.

In line with Bandura’s work, these steps forward changed how people perceived their work – something they called the “progress principle”. They concluded: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Managers, they argued, “needn’t fret about trying to read the psyches of their workers, or manipulate complicated incentive schemes, to ensure that employees are motivated and happy.” They should focus instead on supporting people’s work, to “facilitate their steady progress in meaningful work” and “make that progress salient to them”.

Amabile, T. and Kramer, S. (2011). The Power of Small Wins. Harvard Business Review. May.

How do these ideas apply in the classroom? Recently, I came across research into a professional development programme that shared the theory around self-efficacy with teachers, alongside practical guidance on how to apply it.

After an introduction to the key ideas, teachers were offered concrete suggestions on how to apply them: each day, teachers “reviewed goal accomplishments from the previous day, posted the current lesson’s goals prior to instruction, and reviewed the daily goal accomplishments at the end of the current lesson with their classes.” Students recorded one thing they had learned or excelled in each day.

Compared with a control group, these students had greater self-efficacy after only four weeks: the effect held for boys and girls, and for students at different levels of attainment. The researchers concluded that, with “minimal training and effort” teachers can use mastery, models and verbal persuasion to “produce more confident students”.

Siegle, D. and McCoach, B. (2007). Increasing Student Mathematics Self-Efficacy Through Teacher Training. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18(2), pp.278–312.

Siegle and McCoach noted that most teachers are already using lesson objectives to guide learning. Their study showed that increases in students’ self-efficacy “can be achieved during a short period of time with minor changes in instructional style”. We want our students to feel confident to tackle, and persist in new challenges: building their confidence by ensuring their success and helping them to recognise it is an important way to achieve this.