Efficacy is the belief that one is capable of producing a result, meeting a challenge or accomplishing a task. For students, efficacy or self-efficacy is the belief that they can succeed and learn. Too often our students already come to us thinking “I’m not good at math” or “I can’t do this.” Our challenge it is to engage students in ways that help them to examine and change their thinking and build the confidence and strategies necessary to change their perspective and their approach. Unfortunately, the way our education system is designed now leads too many students to fail early and repeatedly without a clear and dependable path to recovery.

But we know that students who are efficacious persist in the face of challenge, learn from failure rather than becoming trapped in it, try different approaches and strategies, and do what it takes to succeed. Rich learning often occurs from significant struggle; the presence of a strong sense of self-efficacy is important for learners to continue to stretch and grow and to move beyond present levels of skill and knowledge.

So, what strategies can be employed to build self-efficacy in students? One good strategy is to help learners make changes in their mental models and, as a result, their behavior. The power of this approach was demonstrated in Carol Dweck’s well-known study about thinking of the brain as a muscle. She demonstrated that when students thought of the brain like any other muscle in the body that needs to be strengthened through exercise and practice, students were able to use their understanding and associated strategies to significantly improve their academic performance. Other strategies include setting attainable, close-at-hand goals that will give the learner a sense of accomplishment to build upon. Additionally, some learners will benefit from assistance in identifying and using learning strategies instead of being left to their own devices. Explicit feedback on the effort, strategy, and resources the learner uses also can be helpful.

Helping learners to see that effort, persistence, strategy, and good use of resources can increase their learning in ways that they control can make a key difference in the level of effort learners will give. This approach can also build learner willingness to persist and identify and try alternative approaches.

Learners with strong self-efficacy understand the connection between their efforts and actions and the learning results they experience. This understanding can build ownership for learning – they are more likely to understand that the success they achieve is theirs (ownership). Efficacy is a precursor and naturally builds into learners’ realization that they own their learning.