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Building a Culture of Self-Efficacy

By focusing on mastery and identity, every learner (and teacher) can become an active achiever
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“We don’t want to foster identities of students who can and students who can’t,” says David Dockterman, an expert on learner variability and personalized learning. Instead, he says, we want to “help students see themselves progress.” When you celebrate each student’s accumulated mastery, and use that progress to determine the next step in their individual path, you will encourage persistence and growth.

Here, Docketerman joins Rhonda Bondie, a lecturer on education, in a set of reflections about bolstering self-efficacy in learners and teachers.

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What is self-efficacy — and what challenges it?

Self-efficacy is the belief that we can achieve a desired goal through our actions, say Bondie and Dockterman. When we believe in our ability to perform a task — whether it’s writing an essay, mastering a new technology, or motivating a group of disengaged students — we are prompted to act.

Any effort to encourage self-efficacy (in students or educators) has to focus on creating opportunities for individuals to achieve mastery — and to measure it.

A sense of mastery is key to developing that belief. Any effort to encourage self-efficacy (in students or educators) has to focus on creating opportunities for individuals to achieve mastery, and then provide them with evidence of that mastery.

But it’s also important to consider the role of identity in self-efficacy. An individual’s past history of achievement, coupled with prevailing social messages surrounding it, can also influence that person’s beliefs about their abilities. A group of students who tend to do poorly in math can adopt a self-reinforcing identity, for example — and ties to that group identity can grow over time.

Below, two lenses on how to move the needle on both mastery and identity as key pathways toward self-efficacy.

Develop “quality criteria” to help students reflect on performance

Bondie says that one strategy to promote self-efficacy “is to direct students to reflect on their performance using explicitly provided ‘quality criteria.’ I like to think of quality criteria as having two components: Must Haves — the requirements — and Amazings — the added qualities that challenge students (especially early finishers) to go beyond the requirements.

Must Haves ensure that all students are focused on reaching the required standards or objectives,” Bondie says. “For example, Must Haves may include required vocabulary, using the word “because,” or supporting ideas with evidence. Amazings criteria, on the other hand, provide room to extend expectations, ensuring that all students are challenged. Amazings may include using advanced vocabulary, providing alternate strategies or perspectives, and including all group members in a response.”

“Teachers are learners too, who benefit from seeing competence unfold. And social identity, context, and culture matter for teachers, too.”

Self-efficacy is linked to an appropriate level of challenge in tasks, she continues. By developing the Must Haves and Amazings categorizations, “teachers can assign criteria to all, some, and/or individual learners to ensure that students with a wide range of abilities feel stretched while completing a common task.” And these criteria offer a concrete way for students to notice their actions and how their efforts have led to learning.

Track progress and foster a culture that rewards growth

Strategies to promote self-efficacy, for students or teachers, should consider both the individual and the social context, says Dockterman. Ideally, we want to “give individuals a window into their growing competence, while fostering a culture that rewards growth and effort.”

For students: Focus on tracking and rewarding progress, he says. A curriculum is broken down into a progression of learning objectives, and teachers can often break down those objectives and tasks further.

Show students where they have developed mastery, and then focus them on the next step in the path, “working to keep them in their individual zones of proximal development.” Keep the focus on accumulated mastery — “Look what I can do now!” — rather than on distance to completion (or, “What’s the fastest way to be done with this?”).

For teachers: Again, focus on tracking progress. “There’s no reason to expect a teacher to master a new instructional approach or program the first time she or he tries it,” Dockterman says. “Teachers are learners too, who benefit from seeing competence unfold. And social identity, context, and culture matter for teachers too.” Like their students, teachers learn best when they feel they belong to a group that honors and supports growth — where asking for help to improve practice is a sign of a productive, strategic learner, rather than an incompetent performer.

Read more from David Dockterman and Rhonda Bondie on Digital Promise.

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