Chen, J. A., & Usher, E. L. (2013). Profiles of the sources of science self-efficacy. Learning and Individual Differences, 24, 11–21.
Holding positive self-efficacy beliefs—feeling capable of learning or doing science—is part of becoming a successful science learner. The authors of this article set out to understand how students develop their beliefs about their ability to do science.
Research on Bandura’s (1977, 1997) theory of self-efficacy has found that individuals’ beliefs about their abilities influence their interest development, motivation, persistence, academic success, and even career choices (Usher & Pajares, 2008). The theory posits that students’ self-efficacy beliefs originate from four sources:
- Mastery experiences: interpretations of their past performance
- Vicarious experiences: observations of others’ performance
- Verbal and social persuasions: feedback from others about their performance
- Physiological and affective states: anxiety, stress, fatigue, joy, or other feelings that arise when engaging in an activity
We do not know which of these sources contribute most to the formation of self-efficacy beliefs, nor has much research been conducted on self-efficacy in science. Furthermore, little research has studied the interplay of kids’ self-efficacy beliefs with their “theory of intelligence”—their belief that scientific ability is either fixed or malleable (Dweck, 2007).
Chen and Usher studied 1,225 middle and high school students in public and charter schools. The students filled out a validated survey asking about all four sources of self-efficacy. The survey also tried to ascertain whether students held a fixed theory of scientific ability (“You have a certain amount of science ability, and you really can’t do much to change it”) or an incremental theory (“No matter who you are, you can change your science abilities a lot”). The researchers compared survey results against students’ science class grades and checked for gender and age differences.
Students fell into one of four profiles. The students who had the most positive self-efficacy beliefs also had the highest science grades. They reported drawing on multiple sources for their self-efficacy beliefs, including mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, and social persuasions. They tended not to report using physiological and affective states to form their self-efficacy beliefs. These “Multi-Source” students also were most likely to view scientific ability as fluid, meaning they had an incremental theory of intelligence. The least adaptive profile, which the researchers called At-Risk, included students who reported the lowest self-efficacy beliefs and performed worst in their science classes. These students tended to form their beliefs from physiological and affective states and to have a fixed theory of intelligence. There were no gender differences, but more students in the higher grade levels fell into the At-Risk profile, while students in the lower grades fell into one of the other three profiles.
Implications for Practice
The results of this research suggest that practitioners ought to design experiences that offer opportunities for:
- Developing mastery. Meaningful effort is key. For example, in citizen science projects, participants learn to collect and contribute data for use in scientific studies. In the end, their determination is rewarded by seeing the complete dataset and reading the publicized results (Bonney et al., 2009). Mastery experiences should not come easily, however. True mastery comes as a result of struggling through something important until a breakthrough is reached. “Tinkering and Making” spaces in museums and afterschool programs often emphasize this element in their activities (Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan, 2013).
- Watching others closely. Seeing other learners, especially peers, go through a learning experience helps learners gauge difficulty levels. Watching others struggle and then succeed may be a more effective way to raise self-confidence than watching someone succeed quickly (Schunk & Hanson, 1989). Working in a group setting with clear sightlines to others’ work could produce such vicarious learning. Another approach would be to implement a “jigsaw” classroom in which children work in groups that mix and remix over the course of a project (Aronson, 2002).
- Getting feedback. Receiving constructive comments from others can raise self-efficacy. However, praising results over process can often drive children to hide their mistakes and struggles rather than learn from them (Dweck, 2002). Instead, mentors and educators ought to praise effort to raise self-efficacy.
- Feeling joy. Although the Multi-Source students in the study did not report that emotions were a key source of self-efficacy, the At-Risk students did. When dealing with science, they reported feeling anxiety, which led them to doubt their abilities. The clear antidotes are feelings of joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Creating whimsical, funny, supportive, and exciting science learning experiences that offer opportunities for mastery seems key to combating anxiety.
Aronson, E. (2002). Building empathy, compassion, and achievement in the jigsaw classroom. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 209-225). San Diego: Academic Press.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. (2009). Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy. BioScience, 59(11), 977-984. doi: 10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.9
Dweck, C. S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students' beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 37-60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
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Petrich, M., Wilkinson, K., & Bevan, B. (2013). It looks like fun but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. E. Kanter (Eds.), Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators (pp. 240). New York: Routledge.
Schunk, D. H., & Hanson, A. R. (1989). Influence of peer model attributes on children's beliefs and learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 431-434.
Usher, E. L., & Pajares, F. (2008). Sources of Self-Efficacy in School: Critical Review of the Literature and Future Directions. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 751-796.