Defining the Concept of Self-Efficacy

Self-Efficacy is defined as a person’s perceived capabilities to learn or perform behaviors at certain designated levels. The construct was originally introduced as part of Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory.

Bandura defined this construct as “one’s self-perceived ability at a task”. In other words, self-efficacy is a person’s belief whether he or she is capable of achieving a certain outcome.

Two aspects make self-efficacy a unique concept.

  1. First, it is personal. While influenced by opinions or comparison with others, this is an individual perception.
  2. Second, self-efficacy is task specific, so a person could consider himself or herself a mediocre skier but an excellent organizer.

In other words, the perception of self-efficacy is subjective and situation dependent—a person may have high self-efficacy in one situation and low self-efficacy in another.

When self-efficacy is high, a person believes that he or she has the capacity to respond adeptly to a situation. When self-efficacy is low, a person believes that he or she lacks the capacity to adequately respond to a situation.

Distinction from Other Competence Related Constructs

The construct self-efficacy can be distinguished from other constructs pertaining to competence beliefs, such as ability beliefs and expectancies for success.

Ability beliefs refer to a person’s evaluation of his or her current competence, whereas self-efficacy beliefs are concerned with future performance on a task.

Expectancies for success are conceptually similar to self-efficacy beliefs, as they refer to one’s expectation that he or she will perform well in the future.

However, within expectancy-value theory, both ability beliefs and expectancies for success are generally measured at a domain-specific level (e.g. pertaining to mathematics in general), whereas self-efficacy is often measured at a task-specific level (e.g. pertaining to a specific mathematics problem).

Again, self-efficacy can also be distinguished from self-esteem, self-concept, and self-worth semantically.

Self-esteemOpens in new window encompasses feelings about oneself, such as pride or shame.

Self-conceptOpens in new window is based on cognitively processing data or information about oneself.

Self-worthOpens in new window is related to how valuable a person feels. For example, a person may feel a sense of value within the family unit, either because the family expresses deep caring and commitment or because the family is made better because of skills or actions contributed by the individual (or both).

Among these four constructs, self-efficacy is the most task specific, and therefore the least resistant to outside forces. The other three are more global and more vulnerable to a single experience. However, it is clear that the four self-constructs are interwoven, and each is affected by changes in the other three. For in-depth knowledge, see Self-Efficacy TheoryOpens in new window.

Determinants of Self-Efficacy

According to Bandura (1977), self-efficacy is influenced by four main factors, as follows.

  1. Enactive attainment or mastery practice
    Experience has proven that the more we practice, the more skillful we become. The more you work at a task, so to speak, the more your experience builds and the more skillful and confident you become at doing it.

    When we maintain constant practice in an activity, greater skill increases in that activity, and there is an upward spiral in mastery, choice, and self-efficacy.
  2. Modeling and vicarious learning
    This is an act of learning by observing others. When someone else is good at a task and we are able to observe how they do it, we gain confidence in being able to do it ourselves.

    Sometimes, we watch others execute various subskills and try to mimic their behavior (if he can do it, I can). Conversely, we may watch others attempt maneuvers and fail. After watching them; we avoid similar actions, taking varied approaches to prevent failure.
  3. Social persuasion
    When others either encourage or discourage a person’s behaviors or choices, it may affect choice or level of involvement. The more power a person has in our life, the greater may be the effect of their opinions.
  4. Physiological arousal
    There are signals from our body as we engage in activities. Some are obvious, such as sweating, increased heartbeat, or pain. Others are more subtle but equally as effective in influencing our behaviors and decisions—such as production of endorphins or adrenalin.

Cognitive Studies On Self-Efficacy

Collins (1982) selected children who judged themselves to be of high or low efficacy for three levels of mathematical ability (i.e. low, medium, and high) and found that, within each level of ability, children with high mathematical efficacy solved difficult problems more accurately and used more strategies than children with low mathematical efficacy.

Collins (1982) also found that efficacy beliefs rather than actual ability predicted interest in mathematics and positive attitudes towards mathematics.

Pintrich and De Groot (1990) found that seventh-grade student’s self-efficacy predicted their self-reported use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies, controlling for prior achievement.

The relation between self-efficacy and achievement was fully mediated by the use of these cognitive strategies.

Additional studies suggest that learners who are more efficacious also choose to engage in more challenging tasks, set higher goals, monitor their time, engage in self-evaluation, and persist longer on difficult tasks than learners who are less efficacious.