Jessica Gale, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, Georgia Institute of Technology
Meltem Alemdar, Ph.D., Associate Director and Principal Research Scientist, Georgia Institute of Technology
Teachers’ beliefs in what they can do are powerful. Decades of research illustrates interconnections between teaching self-efficacy, teacher effectiveness, (Wolters & Daugherty, 2007; Woolfolk et al., 1990) and student achievement (Anderson et al., 1988; Caprara et al., 2006). Teaching self-efficacy, defined as teachers’ beliefs in their ability to effectively handle the tasks, obligations, and challenges of teaching, is often measured using validated instruments, such as the Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy Scale (TSES) (Woolfolk et al., 1990). As self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, instruments often include items designed to measure self-efficacy for specific aspects of teaching (e.g., classroom management) or subject areas. These measures provide invaluable data for research and evaluation studies investigating the development of teachers’ self-efficacy. Indeed, within teacher education programs, including many NSF-funded Noyce projects, measuring teaching self-efficacy is common. In addition to understanding levels of self-efficacy (e.g., whether teachers have high or low self-efficacy), education researchers have taken a keen interest in the sources of teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs. What experiences, information, and interactions influence teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs? Bandura (1997) theorized four sources: Mastery Experiences, Vicarious Experiences, Social Persuasions, and Affective or Physiological States. The table below provides descriptions of each source.
|Sources of Self-Efficacy||Description|
|Mastery Experiences||Thought to be the most powerful source of self-efficacy beliefs, Mastery Experiences involve the attainment of goals through direct action. For teachers, common mastery experiences include successfully teaching a lesson or observing positive outcomes (e.g., student performance or engagement).|
|Vicarious Experiences||Vicarious Experiences occur when one observes a model (or oneself) doing a task. Vicarious experiences are thought to be most influential when the model is perceived to be similar to oneself. For teachers, one common vicarious experience is observing the teaching practice of a grade-level or subject-area colleague.|
|Social Persuasions||Social Persuasions occur when one receives messages or feedback from others. For teachers, social persuasions can include both formal evaluations as well as informal feedback from colleagues, administrators, students, and community members.|
|Effective or Physiological States||Affective or Physiological States including mood, stress, and anxiety. For teachers, common affective or physiological states may include positive emotions or feelings of excitement that occur when teaching is going well or negative states like stress and anxiety that arise from challenges in the classroom.|
- What experiences in your professional life as a teacher have increased your confidence in your teaching?
- What experiences in your professional life as a teacher have decreased your confidence in your teaching?
These questions do not target each of the sources of self-efficacy explicitly. Rather, by asking teachers to reflect broadly on both positive and negative teaching experiences, the questions invite teachers to share information on the most influential sources of their self-efficacy. Although many teachers provided rich responses aligned to one or more of the sources of self-efficacy, we still had many questions. Specifically, because the survey format doesn’t allow for follow-up questions, it was often difficult to develop a clear understanding of exactly how experiences reflecting the sources either increased or decreased self-efficacy. Thus, following the survey, we decided to conduct interviews with 10 Noyce teachers to gather more nuanced, contextualized narratives that would further reveal the sources of Noyce teachers’ self-efficacy. Interview participants were purposively selected to include perspectives from teachers with a broad range of self-efficacy levels and, to the degree possible, genders and subject areas (math or science). Below we highlight findings that illustrate how this multi-phase approach to studying the sources of self-efficacy strengthened the study design, allowing us to make better sense of our results.
A Complex of Sources
Our analysis of survey and interview data revealed that, for many teachers, the sources of self-efficacy were interwoven. Some of the most powerful experiences teachers described involved both mastery experiences and social persuasions. For example, in one interview, a teacher highlighted how positive feedback from a math coach and math department colleagues (social persuasions) combined with positive outcomes in student learning and engagement (mastery experiences) to boost her confidence:
For this teacher, being “shouted out” and receiving recognition for her practice validated her positive belief about her ability to achieve her goal of making math more engaging for students.
Although they were mentioned less frequently, teachers also discussed how vicarious experiences and affective or physiological states interacted with other sources to influence their self-efficacy beliefs. In contrast with mastery experiences, social persuasions, and vicarious experiences, which were cited most often as increasing self-efficacy, teachers almost always mentioned affective or physiological states when discussing experiences that lowered their self-efficacy. At the same time, descriptions of negative affective or physiological states were often intertwined with teachers’ assessments of their teaching (mastery experiences) or experiences receiving feedback from others (social persuasions). For a detailed discussion of our findings on the sources of self-efficacy, we invite readers to consult our recent article (Gale, Alemdar, Cappelli, & Morris, 2021).
Supporting Self-Efficacy: “I show up for the kids differently when I’m feeling supported.”
One thread that ran through teachers’ stories about their self-efficacy was the support they received (or did not receive) from members of their networks, which included other teachers, school administrators, university faculty, Noyce program staff, and their personal circles of family and friends. Beginning (first-year teachers), novice (2-3 years’ experience), and career teachers (4+ years’ experience) all identified support from other teachers more often than administrators, and beginning and novice teachers were especially likely to reference support from other teachers when describing factors that increased self-efficacy.
Although it was interesting to note patterns in who teachers of varying experience levels identified as supporters, we found that simply looking at the frequency with which teachers identify support from different sources didn’t tell the whole story. When we looked at the content of written responses and interview data, more nuanced stories about teacher support emerged. For example, we found that teachers particularly valued support from other teachers and administrators who “had their back” when working through difficult situations. In the following interview excerpt, one teacher described how a lack of support during difficult times can affect how she is able to “show up” for her students.
Similarly, as in the following example, a number of teachers described how emotional support from administrators and other teachers who were “in the same boat” helped them maintain confidence in spite of challenges.
Interestingly, experienced teachers reflected both on recent events as well as formative episodes from their first years in the classroom. In both survey responses and interviews, experienced teachers recalled, sometimes in vivid detail, how interactions taking place early in their teaching careers influenced their confidence for years to come. Although teachers shared both particularly positive and negative early teaching experiences, descriptions of early negative experiences were more prevalent in the data. For example, one teacher with over 6 years of experience shared how an incident from his first year of teaching, in which an instructional coach required using teaching techniques that “did not mesh well” with his personality, lowered his confidence, adding that “it took me a long time to recover from the emotional toll this took on me.” The staying power of these early experiences reminds us that the messages teachers receive in the formative years of their careers can leave an indelible mark on their self-efficacy.
The Trustworthiness of Feedback: “When somebody like that says you’re good, you definitely appreciate it.”
Teachers often cited receiving positive or negative feedback on their teaching (social persuasions) as a factor influencing self-efficacy. However, just as Bandura (1997) theorized, not all feedback was considered equal when it came to its influence on self-efficacy. In fact, teachers were often discerning regarding which feedback they “took in” and which they disregarded. Teachers tended to trust feedback from colleagues or administrators with a similar background with regard to experience and subject-matter knowledge. Similarly, many teachers reported boosted confidence after receiving positive feedback from a mentor they admired. One teacher shared that he knew he had “figured this teaching thing out” when a veteran teacher he admired complimented his teaching, adding “when somebody like that says you’re good, you definitely appreciate it.” Conversely, teachers discounted “empty” praise or feedback based on what they perceived to be insufficient information. For example, one teacher shared, “I trust feedback from people or coaches that have been regularly watching me, and I guess just been with me through a journey. I do not trust feedback from an observation that was five minutes long.”
Finally, many teachers highlighted feedback from students as some of the most meaningful feedback they receive. Several participants pointed out that because they spend the most time with teachers, students have more information on which to base their opinions than anyone else observing their teaching. Teachers’ descriptions of mastery experiences were replete with examples of students sharing feedback. Teachers knew they were successful not only because they thought a lesson went well, but also because their students told them so.
Based on our study, we can offer a few suggestions for fostering positive teaching self-efficacy along with implications for research design:
Teaching self-efficacy beliefs are complex, multi-faceted, and dynamic, making them a challenge for researchers to study and, perhaps to an even greater degree, for teacher educators to cultivate. Although our exploratory study does not provide definitive conclusions about best practices for cultivating self-efficacy, our study design featuring a multi-phase, mixed methods approach generated new insights into the sources of Noyce teachers’ self-efficacy. The interconnections among the sources described by teachers in our study suggests that mastery experiences may be most powerful in the context of a community of practice that provides a context for other sources of self-efficacy, such as receiving feedback from trusted colleagues (social persuasions) or observation of teaching in similar circumstances (vicarious experiences). Based on our experience with this study, we encourage researchers to consider going beyond simply measuring self-efficacy to use qualitative and mixed methods research designs that account for the complexity of self-efficacy beliefs. Future studies can add to our understanding of self-efficacy beliefs by further exploring how contextual factors and the types of support teachers receive influence appraisals of teaching ability and how the sources may have a differential impact over the course of teachers’ careers. Indeed, the narratives we gathered from teachers underscore the importance of scratching the surface of teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs to take a look at the sources that lie beneath.