Motivating Students by Focusing on Self-efficacy

For Middle Level

Self-efficacy-a belief in one's abilities-is critical to student success in mathematics. Researchers have found that the number one reason why some students don't pursue math classes in high school is low self-efficacy (Stevens, Lan, and Tallent-Runnels, 2004). This agrees with my experience at Red Lake Middle School.

Bad habits
In my math classes, students who believe in their math abilities consistently put forth the effort necessary to succeed. The others-those lacking a sense of efficacy-often experience frustration and failure. Most of my students who have a low sense of self-efficacy have developed several bad habits, including feigning illness, creating diversionary behavior problems, writing very carelessly, or putting very little work on paper. These bad habits get in the way of what they need most: academic success.

Middle-school students' belief systems are still forming and moldable. In spite of their many problems, this malleability allows me to help provide my struggling students one of the most effective tools for learning and achieving: a belief in one's ability.

Effort and success
As a result of my research on how teachers can help students change negative beliefs about their academic abilities, I focused on two ways to improve student self-efficacy in my classroom.

  1. Build mastery experiences (Bandura and Bussey, 1999)
    Student success breeds more success; experiences of failure reinforce a feeling of inadequacy.
  2. Regular emphasis on effort (Margolis and McCabe, 2003)
    Students can learn to operate under a belief system that links effort and success. I know this is true because I saw it happen in my classroom last year!

RESEARCH NOTE: Bandura and Bussey also found that self-efficacy can increase through:

  • Modeling (watching others succeed and analyzing how they achieved success);
  • Social persuasion (expressing faith in students' ability to succeed, and teaching them strategies for attaining the level of effort required);
  • Reducing student stress and depression, which can be a physiological response to low self-efficacy.

Possibility of mastery
First, I wanted to be sure that mastery was a possibility.

Properly leveled learning materials are a precondition for mastery experiences. In previous years my lessons were too difficult for many of my students, and in the daily hustle of running my classroom, I hadn't taken the time to alter the content in a systematic way. This year, I pretested all my students early on, found their levels, and carefully altered my lesson plans so that mastery of daily assignments could happen.

Building on success
Additionally, to support students' capacity for mastery, I linked new work to previous successes, taught needed learning strategies, stressed peer modeling, and helped them create goals of personal importance (Margolis and McCabe, 2003).

According to Margolis and McCabe, students with low self-efficacy, assignments should be moderately challenging, doable with moderate effort. My lessons were designed to challenge, but to avoid frustration. I stacked the deck for success!

We started class by reviewing what we had learned the previous day to connect it to new learning. In addition, I shortened and sometimes simplified assignments; and I kept to a teaching strategy that sequenced tasks from "easily completed" to "more difficult." I remembered how often I had lost my students in previous years by starting class with a problem or concept that was too difficult. They would shut down right away, lost in low self-efficacy. Never again! I improved my sequencing, and their attention shot up!

An effort rubric
Second, I wanted to emphasize the importance of effort. I taught my students how to make daily, short-term goals, and to predict the amount of effort necessary to meet these goals. To keep the link between effort and success at the forefront of my students' thoughts, we ended each work session by assessing effort. In addition, I engaged students in discussions about persistence, and I tried to help them develop this quality through learning strategies that increase problem-solving skills.

Value of fun
The process of developing an "effort rubric" was fun for my students and me. We had a great time developing representations for each level of effort. And the fun increased the actual effort they made during work time! Contextualizing the scale (creating a rubric and attaching a meaningful, understandable metaphor for the various levels of it) was what made it memorable. Here are two examples of contextualized effort rubrics we came up with:

Example 1: Boat Motors
You work hard until the task is finished. You keep working even when you struggle and cannot find the answer on the first try. You ask questions that help you solve problems. You consider problems as opportunities to learn more.

You work on the task until you finish it. You continue to try, even if you are not successful the first time.

You try to do the task but you stop working when you run into problems.

You do not try very hard.

Example 2: Basketball Shots (descriptors for each level are identical to those above)
8 360-degree Slam Dunk
7 Jump Shot from the Free-throw Line
6 Layup
5 Airball

We came up with the outboard-motor theme in the fall and switched to the basketball theme after winter ice formed on the lake. Interestingly, students had much more to say when we evaluated effort on days when their effort level was either very high ("I'm even beyond a 360-degree slam dunk; I'm a 720, baby!!") or very low ("The battery's dead on the ol' trollin' motor, Mr. Merhar.").

I was surprised by how honest they were when they assessed themselves. I made it part of my routine to remind them about our effort rubric at the beginning of each work session, which helped them remember our goal: to try.

Good intentions
As time passed and use of the effort rubric became second nature to most students, an interesting pattern began to emerge. Many students would not only write their assignment on their goal sheet at the beginning of a work session, but they would also fill in the effort rubric (a step usually taken at the session's end). When I questioned students about this, many said it didn't matter when they filled out the effort rubric anymore because their effort would match what they predicted, regardless of when they filled it out. I found this to be true. This demonstrated that for them the intent to put forth a good effort was directly correlated to the actual effort put forth.

Tracking effort using contextualized rubrics turned out to be one of the best ways to motivate my students. I surveyed them about the effectiveness of the rubrics, and found that 22% found the practice to be highly motivating, 59% found it "kinda" motivating and 10% found it not at all motivating.

Encouraging results
Achievement results were encouraging. Evaluating daily assignment completion and performance on unit tests, those who recorded a growing sense of self-efficacy through daily use of effort rubrics were considerably more successful than those who didn't, just as researchers predicted. No matter the level of the students at the start of the year, those whose self-efficacy didn't improve almost invariably continued to struggle.

What impact does daily tracking of student effort have on student success in mathematics? After an extended period during which effort was emphasized, I found that students with low self-efficacy learned to change their beliefs about themselves, increasing self-efficacy and, in turn, increasing academic success.

Bussey, K, & Bandera, A. 1999. Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review 106: 676-713.

Margolis, H, & McCabe, P.P. 2003. Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners. Preventing School Failure 47: 162.

Stevens, T., Olivarez, A., Lan, W. Tallent-Runnels, M. 2004. Role of mathematics self-efficacy and motivation in mathematics performance across ethnicity. The Journal of Educational Research 97 (March-April): 208-222.

Charlie Merhar teaches 7th grade math at Red Lake Middle School in Red Lake MN.

Published September 2007