Sunday, 15 February 2015

Self-efficacy in the Adult ESL Literacy classroom: my teaching puzzle!

As an Adult ESL Literacy instructor, I have noticed that our learners are often reluctant to get promoted to the next level and try to postpone that promotion for as long as possible. I have looked into the theory of self-efficacy to better understand this issue. In this post, I’d like to share some of my findings with you.

Self-efficacy is a key part of the social cognitive theory, which hypothesizes that human achievement depends on the reciprocal influences between our actions (e.g., task performance), personal factors (e.g., our thoughts and beliefs about our ability to perform on a certain task) and the environment (e.g., the classroom) (Schunk, 2010: 160). People ‘form beliefs about what they can do’ and anticipate the likely consequences of their actions (Bandura, 1991: 248). These beliefs are responsible for our desire to proceed with a certain endeavor (Ibid., 257) and may have a self-enhancing or self-debilitating influence. 

 In learning, self-efficacy is not the only influence on learner success; other important factors are the ability, knowledge, skills, and attitude (Schunk, 1996: 5). However, the individual sense of self-efficacy is still of substance since it motivates the learner to improve (Ibid.). According to Albert Bandura (2010: 119), ‘personal accomplishments require not only skills but self-beliefs of efficacy to use them well’. When learning occurs, both skills and self-efficacy are changing. Learners’ beliefs in self-efficacy enhance when learners are able to perceive the progress that they make in class (Schunk, 1996: 6). However, the majority of the adult ESL learners without previous formal education develop their reading and writing skills slowly, and their incremental progress may not always be obvious to them. Consequently, not being able to appraise their progress, learners gradually become less self-efficacious and demotivated.

 Albert Bandura (2010: 135) states that we are the product of our own environment and the beliefs about our capabilities affect the course of our lives. Learners with high self-efficacy are likely to visualize scenarios of success (Ibid., 118) and therefore are excited to learn new skills, accomplish new tasks, or get promoted to the next level, whereas learners with low self-efficacy tend to anticipate failure for themselves and naturally try to avoid situations which they think may reveal their shortcomings (Ibid.). It seems that my ‘promotion reluctant learners’ choose to paly safe and stay in their current class in order to minimize the risk of exposing their learning difficulties in an unfamiliar situation. 

Unfortunately, it is often a choice made at the expense of the advancement in the learner’s language skills and competencies (Ibid., 120). In this regard my concern is that adult Literacy learners with low self-efficacy beliefs are most likely not to pursue the opportunities that present themselves ‘because they judge they lack the capabilities’ (Ibid., 130). One of my learners has been complaining of his current job due to heavy lifting. Knowing him as a responsible individual and an experienced driver, I was convinced that with a little help from our employment team he would find a better job. Initially, the learner expressed a great interest in meeting with the employment counselor, however, after discussing the openings he returned to class in distress. The learner told me that he did not want a driving job since he was afraid of not being able to read the pick-up and drop-off addresses. In other words, this learner anticipated failure due to his poor reading skills. The case described above illustrates a situation in which I perceived my learner as capable for the task, whereas he did not believe in his success and attributed his failure to his reading difficulties.

There are at least three apparent sources of information that influence learners’ self-efficacy beliefs in the classroom environment: teacher’s feedback (Bandura, 2010: 123), social comparisons with other learners (Ibid., 122), and self-observation (Bandura, 1991: 251). It is important to know that all the sources under certain conditions can either enhance or undermine one’s perception of self-efficacy. In the area such as adult literacy it is difficult for learners to perceive how much they are improving and therefore the teacher will have a significant role in setting the conditions to enable learners to appraise their self-efficacy more or less accurately. (To be continued...)

I believe that PBLA (Portfolio Based Language Assessment) offers rich environment for the language instructors to embed the buildup of the self-efficacy beliefs in their instructional design 'day by day and minute by minute'. I have put together a cheat sheet for myself, a strategy that I have been using to integrate the development of the self-efficacy beliefs in my classroom:

Self-efficacy beliefs

Sources of information
Conditions for success
Classroom ideas
Teacher feedback  
     §  Establishing a continuing dialogue with the learner
     §  Clearly identifying a new skill or competence achieved
     §  Focusing on the change in the ability
     §  Providing self-comparison of progress and personal accomplishments based on prior personal goals
     §  Action oriented

- Engage the learner in a dialogue regarding his or her achievements (What is the most important achievement for you? What achievement are you most proud of? Why?)
- Scaffold setting realistic, proximal, and moderately difficult learning goals
- Facilitate self-evaluation based on the established goals
- Discuss how competencies developed in the classroom are relevant in the real life of the learner
- Provide regular summary of the learner achievements in class to share with the family members in a comprehensible format/language
    §  Systematic
    §  Close in time
    §  Clear evidence of the progress
- A systematic review of the artifacts in the learner portfolio (individually, with a partner, with the instructor)
- Maintain individual learning logs on the work in class
Observing others (vicarious learning)
    §  Providing models that learners can relate to academically and personally
    §  Observing learners who are slightly above in skills (in the zone of proximal development)
    §  Supplement teacher modeling with peer modeling to provide more meaningful and reliable observation experience
    §  Observing solely highly proficient individuals may be either meaningless or may undermine learner’s self-efficacy beliefs
- Use learning partners to provide effective modeling (performing a task or think aloud process)
- Interclass activities with learners from a higher level
- Invite guest speakers from the higher level to share success stories and ease the anxiety
- Recruit class volunteers from higher levels (ESL learners themselves)

For those of you who would like to learn more, please see the list of literature on the topic below:

Bandura, A. (1991) Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 50. p. 248-287.

Bandura, A. (2002) Social cognitive theory in cultural context. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 51 (2). p. 269-290.

Bandura, A. (2010) Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist. 28 (2). p. 117-148.

Bow Valley College (2010) Learning for LIFE: an ESL Literacy handbook. [Online] Calgary: BVC. Available from
[Accessed: 12/14/2014].

Mruk, C.J. (2006) Self-esteem research, theory, and practice: toward a positive psychology of self-esteem. New York: Springer, 3rd Ed.

Schunk, D. H. (1996) Self-efficacy for learning and performance. [Online] ERIC Institute of Education Sciences. Available from [Accessed: 01/08/2015].

Schunk, D. H. (2010) Self-efficacy for reading and writing: influence of modeling, goal setting, and self-evaluation. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. 19:2. p. 159-172.

Stajkovik, A.D. and Luthans, F. (1998) Social cognitive theory and self-efficacy: going beyond traditional motivational and behavioral approaches. Organizational Dynamics. Spring. p. 62-74.


  1. I really am faced with the exact opposite issue in my EAP classes than you: many of my learners often come in with an overestimation of their abilities and this arrogance impedes their ability or desire to learn, despite the fact that they've accepted a year-long program to help them. These particular individuals see my courses merely as a means to an end; I spend a considerable time trying to break this arrogance and raise awareness of the gap in knowledge.

    1. Hi Tyson! Thank you for your comment. I remember well a blog post you wrote about the learners claiming that they belonged in a higher level ( In language for settlement, things can get pretty messy as well. For a long time, LINC has been well known for learners staying in the same level for years (for different reasons). Then, last year I believe, the government introduced a CLB 4 language requirement for the citizenship application. Therefore, all of the sudden, level 3 and 4 have become high stakes. These levels are feared by the majority of our instructors: learners simply do not stay here. They come and go as often as every two weeks or so and demand a higher CLB even if they clearly are not there yet. Majority of our laerners do not realize that after submitting the application they have to pass a test and this is where their real language skills will be revealed. As per my own students, who are years apart from their citizenship application, I have seen that their disbelief in learning capabilities, deprives them from the possibilities that Canada has to offer.

    2. A very interesting comparison (or contrast)...

  2. Thank you for this, Svetlana! I am going to print out your cheat sheet. After reading your ideas, I understand better where my reluctant to move literacy learners are coming from, as well as what I've been failing to do to support them.


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