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Operational Definition: What is Self-Efficacy?

Self-Efficacy refers to an individual’s belief that they will be successful in college. Much like Goal Commitment, Self-Efficacy (or similar concepts) is a critical component of many prevalent motivational theories. 


First, expectancy-value theory (EVT) frames human behavior as being driven by two perceptions. The “value” aspect deals with an individual’s perceived importance of that behavior (related to Goal Commitment in the ISSAQ framework). “Expectancy” refers to an individual’s belief (or expectation) that they are likely to successfully perform that behavior (see Wigfield, Tonks, & Klauda, 2009), which is closely tied to Self-Efficacy. Barron and Hulleman (2015), in discussing academic motivations, add perceived cost as an additional aspect of EVT, which is also addressed by several ISSAQ items.


Another foundational psychological theory that relates to Self-Efficacy is the Theory of Planned Behavior (TpB; Ajzen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; also referred to as the “Theory of Reasoned Action”). According to TpB, behavior is best predicted by intention, which is in turn predicted by three factors: attitudes, norms, and efficacy. Attitudes refer to positive/negative evaluations of the behavior, and are closely related to Goal Commitment. Efficacy, like expectancy, deals with one’s perceived ability to perform the behavior, and, again is directly tied to Self-Efficacy in the ISSAQ framework. Finally, norms refer to the perceived social acceptance or endorsement of the behavior and relate to several items addressed by Sense of Belonging in the ISSAQ framework.


TpB has been widely studied and applied in a wide array of settings. Perhaps most importantly, a meta-analysis of behavioral change interventions based on TpB found them to have significant impacts (Steinmetz et al., 2016)


A final note on defining Self-Efficacy: “Confidence” is a term that is popularly used to describe behavior. However, noted psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) described confidence as a “nondescript” belief, rather than a specific expectation. Others have referred to confidence as an emotional state (feeling good about something), whereas efficacy is a cognitive one (believing it is likely to happen).


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Among large-scale and meta-analytic studies, self-efficacy is continually found to be one of the strongest predictors of student success, regardless of the outcome. Two meta-analyses (Richardson, Abraham, & Bond, 2012; Robbins et al., 2004) found measures of self-efficacy to be among the strongest predictors of academic success in higher education, rivaling the predictive strength of high school GPA and ACT/SAT scores. Robbins et al. also found self-efficacy to be among the strongest predictors of retention. Additionally, Markle et al. (2013) found academic self-efficacy to be significantly predictive of first-semester grades and retention, as well as grades in entry-level English courses, though not predictive of grades in entry-level math courses.

Practical Relationship to Success

As noted, self-efficacy is generally defined as a belief related toward a behavior. One of the challenges in measuring such dispositions in relation to college is the wide array of behaviors that are included in college success. In ISSAQ, Self-Efficacy is targeted toward finishing college, though this is hardly a specific behavior (as is smoking, exercise, etc.). Pajares (1996) noted that measures of self-efficacy that are too general or poorly defined have historically been a challenge in observing the true effects of the construct.


It is also important to remember that Self-Efficacy is intertwined with a host of other factors. In nearly every theoretical model, self-efficacy is related to previous experience, perceived support, and attitudes toward the outcome (e.g., perceived value). Thus, Self-Efficacy is as much an outcome of these other factors as it is a predictor of future success.


Given all this, Self-Efficacy works differently than many other factors when it comes to intervention. The first step to working with a student with low Self-Efficacy is to understand why. Is it because of challenges in the past, a doubt in their own ability, or a perceived lack of support? 


Next, “interventions” will likely not be as direct as with some other constructs. When a student has low Organization, there are tools, strategies, and resources the student can use to improve those skills. No such “direct-to-student” interventions are likely to have the same impact on Self-Efficacy. Given its complexity, improving Self-Efficacy is likely to come through a combination of coaching, messaging, and modifying task structure.


How do I help students improve in Self-Efficacy?

Self-Efficacy is a Framing Factor.

This means that Self-Efficacy informs the ways in which we work with students, but is less impacted by direct interventions.

Margolis and McCabe (2006) provided four general tips for working with students with low self-efficacy. Note that these are not direct interventions to the student, but rather guidelines for those working with students (a central tenet of Framing Factors in the ISSAQ framework):

Plan moderately challenging tasks that are not too difficult, but provide a sense of accomplishment. For example, set a list of to-dos for the first week of class.

Have students observe or be mentored by others, especially those that they perceive to be similar. Formal peer mentoring programs can be a great resource.

Promote learning and success strategies, such as Organization, Engagement, and Goal Commitment, to give them tangible tools for success.

Stress successes whenever possible. Consistent attendance or timeliness, assignment completion, or other early benchmarks can not only support self-efficacy, but also help build rapport.




Ajzen, J. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–221.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Barron, K. E., & Hulleman, C. S. (2015). Expectancy-value-cost model of motivation. Psychology, 84, 261-271.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, J. (1975). Beliefs, attitudes, intention and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.


Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in school and clinic, 41(4), 218-227.


Markle, R., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. ETS Research Report (No. RR-13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Review of educational research, 66(4), 543-578.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353-387.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

Steinmetz, H., Knappstein, M., Ajzen, I., Schmidt, P., & Kabst, R. (2016). How effective are behavior change interventions based on the theory of planned behavior?. Zeitschrift für Psychologie.

Wigfield, A., Tonks, S., & Klauda, S. L. (2009). Expectancy-Value Theory. In Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 69-90). Routledge.