Yes, we can!
As a child, every time I complained that I couldn’t do something, my father would respond with this quote accredited to Henry Ford:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right”
It used to annoy me greatly, but now as I’ve come to read quite a bit of research on self-efficacy, this quote has become a comforting source of strength.
Albert Bandera defines perceived self-efficacy as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives” (1994). In other words, self-efficacy is believing you are capable of doing something successfully. Self-efficacy is a key concept in education as it relates to so many other important concepts like effort, tenacity and achievement (Bandura, 1986; Mills, Pajares, and Herron, 2007) as well as strategy use, attributions, anxiety and goals (Mercer, 2012). Very importantly, learners who hold higher self-efficacy beliefs seem to sustain greater levels of motivation which in turn influences achievement (Hseih, 2012). (See previous post about how different concepts interact).
All of this means that Henry Ford’s quote has been supported by empirical evidence! If you believe you are capable of achieving something, even if it is difficult, you will preserve in spite of mistakes and failures, you will take advantage of the opportunities you come across, you may even design your behaviour and environment to help you reach your goal, and most likely, you will eventually succeed (or die trying). Conversely, if you don’t believe you can do something, you will likely give up after a few failed attempts. (See this post for a real example of how this works.)
So if self-efficacy is key to developing resilience, motivation and achievement, how can we help our students cultivate it? Let’s first look at where it comes from and then I’ll make some suggestions for classroom activities to promote positive self-efficacy beliefs.
Self-Efficacy has five different sources (Bandera, 1994; Williams, 1995)
- Mastery Experiences– actually achieving successes in the face of obstacles. These mastery experiences can be large or small, but it is important they aren’t just “easy” successes, as it is important to gain experience coping with and managing the inevitable setbacks.
- Vicarious Experiences-seeing someone like you (a peer perhaps) work hard and successfully accomplish the goal.
- Social Persuasion– this includes positive encouragement from others; i.e. “You can do it!” or “I believe in you!”. However, Bandura warns against empty or false encouragement, as this can in fact lower the other person’s self-efficacy if they do indeed fail. He suggests that good self-efficacy builders craft situations where the learner is suitably challenged and unlikely to experience an overwhelming failure.
- Emotional and Physiological States– your current mood or if learning something physical, your muscle aches and pains, can affect your belief in your capacity to do something. If you’re in a good mood, you are more likely to think you are capable of accomplishing your goal and vice versa. Importantly, it is not ACTUALLY the emotions you experience or your aches that influence your self-efficacy, but how you interpret and evaluate them. You may experience frustration and think “I’m frustrated because I’m an idiot which means I’ll never get this!” and consequently give up, or think “I’m frustrated because I keep making the same mistake again and again. How can I avoid this mistake? Maybe I just need to take a break and come back to it.”
- Imagined Experiences– if you imagine, or visualize, yourself succeeding, you can also improve your self-efficacy beliefs, just not as strongly as if you actually experience success.
Cultivating Self-Efficacy in the classroom
Successes, whether big or small, can have a huge impact on a learner’s trajectory (if you haven’t already, read about my student María’s small win with big gains here). Tests, quizzes and exams can be stressful and overemphasized in education, but they can also be powerful motivators if they allow students to reflect on their accomplishments. For example, I sometimes give vocabulary quizzes where I dictate ten vocabulary words in the learner’s L1 and then they translate them to English. They then report to me, a partner or write privately in their notebooks how many words they knew. The following lesson, one of the students becomes the teacher and dictates ten words for the class and so on. Not the most communicative activity, but great for boosting confidence.
I’ve also given students timed-tests for irregular verbs. (Here’s a version in Word: irreg verbs timed test). I give them three minutes to fill in as many verbs as they know and tally up their points. The next lesson, I give them EXACTLY the same test and they see how many more they can do. It’s a wonderful feeling to walk into a class before it starts and see the students quiz each other in preparation for the timed-test! There are no points for this activity, no marks, no grades-they just want to succeed for their own sake!
Sometimes, however, these tiny victories don’t get noticed. Taking time to reflect can help make them more salient. Having students keep record sheets of marks can be a great way to do this. Training students to self-evaluate using can do statements can also be powerful. However, these techniques can be a little too structured and don’t allow for a lot of reflection about why the student succeeded or failed or how she can improve the next time. Here are some more open-ended ways to do that.
After every progress test or exam we do, I ask students to answer some feedback questions. They can write the answers in English or Spanish and their answers can be as long or short as they want. I ask them questions like these:
I often get responses like this:
An even more in depth way to do this is by asking the students to write you a letter. After my students know their midcourse exam marks in January, they write me a letter explaining their efforts so far, what they think they’ve done well and what they’d like to concentrate on for the following term. Here is an example of a letter I recieved last year:
The aim of these letters is to help my students develop their own metacognition and sense of self-efficacy as well as to give me some feedback about the course. The added bonus is that many of the letters are positive, which boosts my own self-efficacy and sense of accomplishment!
We believe we can achieve something if someone like us has achieved it, and many, many people have learned other languages! Unfortunately, due to the dominance of native-speaker teachers in my own context, many students may become discouraged because they will never speak the language as well as their teacher-role model. Well, we can quite simply change the role model!
In my centre, we have created an event where small groups of students prepare and give a short talk to class in a lower level about what the course entails. For example, a pair of students who have just done their B2 exam give a talk to a class of students who are in a PRE-B2 course. These “expert” students explain the course demands and structure and talk about what they’ve done to succeed in the level. The expert students pass down their tricks and strategies while the novice students meet peers who have actually accomplished the same goals.
While the previous activity is quite intensive and can require a lot of time and organization, you can also do something similar by having higher-level students record short passages to be used as listening comprehension activities for lower level students. Having a higher-level peer come in as a guest speaker is another easy way to do this. Additionally, a YouTube video of a celebrity from your students’ country speaking English inspire their own beliefs in themselves (Thanks to a suggestion from Chris Roland, I’ve used interviews with Rafa Nadal for this purpose). Similarly, save copies of good-writing tasks that you can use as examples instead of relying on the ones from the course book.
I also get students to share their strategies with one another and ask one another for advice. For example while practising functional language for giving and making suggestions, my students did a mingling activity based on this slide:
After getting suggestions from their peers, they wrote down one new strategy they wanted to try at home and reported back the following week.
Teacher encouragement can obviously be very powerful as can setting students up for success. Verbal encouragement should focus on elements within the student’s control or at the very least, link accomplishments to effort. The typical teacher phrase: “The test isn’t hard if you study” can be a great start. I like to give my students a little pep-talk after a revision class praising them for all the hard work that they’ve done and the progress I’ve seen them make. I like to give them concrete examples if possible but end the talk with something like “all I ask that you do your best and give it your all!” I also write extensive responses to the letters they write me where I highlight my impressions of the effort they’ve put it and how much they’ve accomplished because of it.
But what about actually setting students up for success, especially in mixed-ability groups with an imposed syllabus? Well, first of all, scaffolding and giving clear instructions is a start. Doing pre-assessment activities to see what they already know is also a great technique. I also think it is very important to give them clear expectations and examples of what success looks like. For example, when asking my students to do a writing activity, I give them a list of grammar and vocabulary I’d like them to include. This way they know what is expected of them and they can start to internalise the strategy of trying out new language in their writing. I also have them write a second-draft so that they can improve and measure their improvement (see this post for some examples).
Emotional and Physiological States
The times when our students are exhausted, stressed or just apathetic can cause some of our biggest challenges as teachers. Experiencing moments like these are inevitable from time to time, but in terms of self-efficacy they are only problematic if the student interprets them as evidence that she is incapable of doing something. Teaching emotional self-regulation merits its own post, so I’ll just talk about some ways to reframe one very common emotion, frustration, in order to maintain self-efficacy.
All of us experience frustration from time to time when we are struggling to achieve something, so students need to be told this is completely normal. If a student is overcome with frustration (think beginner adult doing a listening activity) it may be a good idea to have the student take a quick break before coming back to the activity. Give the student support options if possible (eg. Follow along with the transcript in the book or allow her to stop the track when she wants to) and remind the student that language learning takes time. I know it seems a bit cliché, but as we’ve seen above, an encouraging word can be very helpful. I have motivational quotes hung up around my classroom: things like “Mistakes are proof you’re trying” and the classic Michael Jordan quote: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I point them out if necessary, or to lighten the mood with some jokes about how cliché it all is. On that point, having a laugh can really break through this feeling and using humour can ease the tension. Nevertheless, I do feel that it is important to encourage the learner to eventually return to the activity and that shes does achieve some success with it, even if it requires a lot of teacher or peer support.
Finally, I’d like to share what I think is my favourite language learning strategy. When learning languages, I like to invent imaginary situations where I need to use the language and have a conversation with myself. For example, I’m currently just beginning to learn German so this morning while making coffee I invented that I was meeting my German friend’s boyfriend for the first time and that I had to introduce myself. I “role-played” the whole little dialogue out loud in the kitchen and thought about the questions he would ask me, how he would ask for clarification, how I would ask him to repeat, how I would respond, what questions I would ask him, etc. Yes, I had an entire 5-minute conversation with an imaginary German in my kitchen! But you know what, I was able to clarify what language I didn’t know (for example I didn’t know how to say “nice to meet you”), predict the kinds of questions I might hear, I practiced my fluency, paid attention to my pronunciation and intonation, and I went back to self-correct when I knew I made a mistake. In doing all of this, I got one step closer to automatizing the language that I know and I feel more confident that I would have the coping skills necessary if I were in a similar situation. Having imaginary successes can help you feel more competent as well as make you more competent by helping you predict difficulties or notice gaps in your current knowledge.
This seems very awkward and embarrassing for many students, but it works! It’s just like preparing for a job interview or a big presentation. I tell my students to just imagine telling me about something that interests them. What questions would I ask you? What would I want to know? Or with teenagers, I tell them to imagine they’re meeting a famous celebrity who wants to know about their life. Imagining successes can help lead to actual success.
- Craft situations where students can experience success
- Have students reflect in order to make small successes salient
- Use peer role models
- Praise students’ actions and effort not ability or talent
- Encourage students’ effort
- Set students up for success by giving an example of what success “looks like”
- Help students re-frame negative emotions like frustration
- Encourage students to imagine successful situations using the language
If you want to read more, this site has a lot of excellent information about cultivating self-efficacy.
If you’ve managed to read this far (what a long post-I appreciate the effort!) please leave me a comment! I’ve outlined a possibe future post about ways for teachers to cultivate their own self-efficacy in order to protect against burnout. Would you be interested in reading about that?
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Mercer, S (2012). Self-concept: Situating the Self. In S. Ryan, M. Williams, and S. Mercer (Eds.), Psychology for language learning, pp. 10-15. Houndsmills:Palgrave Macmillan.
Mills, N., Pajares, F., and Herron, C. (2007). Self-efficacy of college intermediate french students: Relation to achievement and motivation, Language learning [online] 57:417-442. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2007.00421.x [Accessed 13
Williams, S. L. (1995). Self-efficacy, anxiety, and phobic disorders. In J. E. Maddux, (Ed.), Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research and application (pp. 69-107). New York: Plenum.