Self-Efficacy: The Secret Sauce to Learning Success

Years of experience and decades of research underscore the wisdom contained in Mr. Ford’s words. This statement captures the core of what we call self-efficacy. This seemingly simple concept holds significant implications both for learners and for us as educators in our journey to nurture high levels of skill and knowledge.

We know that the most difficult and challenging learner to teach is the learner who believes he or she cannot succeed. For this learner, developing challenging and complex skills and concepts is a task to be avoided. If success does not come on the first attempt, these learners easily conclude that learning is not possible and abandon their efforts. (Bandura, 1986; Bandura, 1991) Often, learners with a low sense of self-efficacy try to hide and go unnoticed in classes or even misbehave and act out to avoid the embarrassment and pain of being exposed as not being able to learn what is expected of them.

On the other hand, learners with a strong sense of self-efficacy approach complex and challenging learning tasks with a sense of confidence that if they use good strategies, practice smart persistence and utilize the full range of resources available to them, they can and will succeed. (Wigfield and Wagner, 2005) These learners welcome challenges that stretch their capacity and build their skills. When success is not immediate they examine their strategies to see if there are more effective approaches to employ. They see learning missteps and setbacks as lessons from which to learn rather than failure and a signal to abandon the struggle.

Admittedly, many factors and experiences can undermine the strength of self-efficacy learners possess. The good news is that there is much we can do to reinforce and build self-efficacy. Here are ten strategies to get started:

  1. Focus on learning as the goal by allowing flexibility in the pace at which learners are expected to learn. A “lock step” approach to instruction can send the message to some learners that they are not capable when all they really need is more time.
  2. Support learners to set short-term, attainable goals for their progress. When they have developed the confidence and capacity, guide them to focus and persist for longer periods on more challenging goals.
  3. Coach learners to select and employ specific strategies as they engage in learning tasks. Have them reflect on and adjust their strategies based on progress and experience.
  4. Compare a learner’s progress with their goals and current level of performance rather than with other learners.
  5. Make feedback immediate and informative. Include guidance regarding next steps in the learning process. When we point out errors without accompanying feedback and guidance, we risk reinforcing what is wrong without providing a path to success.
  6. Encourage learners to link their progress and performance to the strategies, effort and resources they employed. Guide them away from attributing success to some innate ability.
  7. Delay the assignment of grades as long as practical in the learning cycle. When we assign grades to early learning attempts, we disadvantage learners who come without rich background knowledge and risk sending the message that they are not good learners.
  8. Provide learners with peer learning models who will help them bolster and broaden their learning skills and strategies.
  9. Where practical, give learners choices about their learning. This could include strategies to employ, timelines for completion, activities to demonstrate mastery, their learning team, or other dimensions of the work.
  10. Be explicit in your belief about learners’ potential and capacity to succeed. The four most powerful words we can say may be: “I believe in you.” When learners feel our confidence and support, it is much easier for them to take learning risks and persist when they struggle.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1991, February) Human agency: The rhetoric and the reality. American Psychologist, 46, 156-161.
Wigfield , A., & Wagner , A. L. (2005). Competence and motivation during adolescence. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 222–239). New York: Guilford Press.

To Learn more:
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Schunk, D. (1991). Self-Efficacy and Academic Motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26(3&4), 207-231. Retrieved from
Watkins, C. (200). Learners in the driver’s seat. School Leadership Today. 1(2), 28-31.


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