Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capabilities, or the degree of confidence that people have in their ability to succeed at a task that matters to them. These beliefs play a critical role in determining the choices people make, their degree of anxiety while performing tasks, their level of persistence and effort in the face of challenge, and their motivation to complete a task.

Psychologist Albert Bandura, a pioneering researcher in self-efficacy and the role of environmental influences in shaping the concept of self, found that we develop self-efficacy beliefs in four critical ways. For students, these powerful sources of information significantly affect the way they feel about their potential in academic settings:

  • When students have experienced academic success, they are more likely to believe they can succeed again in the future. These are known as mastery experiences.
  • Students can learn from others who are succeeding at a challenging task, and increase their own self-efficacy beliefs in the process. These are known as vicarious experiences.
  • Students’ beliefs are influenced by the feedback they get from peers and teachers. This process is referred to as social influence or persuasion.
  • Students respond to their thoughts, feelings, and physiological states when they work on a task, and their beliefs are affected by these thoughts, feelings, and conditions.

Research has shown that self-efficacy is a strong predictor of academic achievement—whatever the learner’s area of interest or age. Moreover, students with a higher sense of self-efficacy monitor their progress more frequently, seek help more often, and engage in strategies to regulate their own efforts.

Students’ self-beliefs and their motivation in academic settings are closely connected. Students can be motivated from both internal and external sources. Intrinsic motivation refers to internal drive that causes an activity or a task to be associated with the experience of personal pleasure or interest. When people are intrinsically motivated, they have a genuine desire for the activity itself and enjoy it or find it fun.

Research makes clear that, when students are intrinsically motivated to learn or engage in academic tasks, they are more likely to persist through struggle, continually evaluate their problem-solving strategies, take intellectual risks, and believe they can succeed.

Students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated when they associate their achievement with factors they can control, such as their level of effort. And, intrinsic motivation is more likely to flourish when students have choice and control over their learning goals and strategies for accomplishing them. 

Extrinsic motivation refers to external drives that influence the performance of an activity—in essence, driving our efforts by factors outside of ourselves, such as achieving a reward or preventing punishment. Extrinsic motivators provide pressure to either obtain something or avoid harmful feedback. Extrinsically motivated students are more likely to hold performance goals that are focused on wanting to look competent to others or on avoiding failure. Students with extrinsically motivated goals have been found to be less likely to seek help and persist in the face of challenge.

For many academic tasks, both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators interact. For instance, a student may enjoy and find pleasure in seeking solutions to challenging problems but also want a good grade on those problems. This supports the notion that parents and educators should look for ways to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation around a task, such as their academic and long-term goals, while still offering external motivators.