Where do beliefs about our ability to do science originate?

By Joshua P. Gutwill - May 2014


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.

Theoretical Basis 

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:

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). 

Research Design 

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. 

Research Findings 

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:


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