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Self-efficacy and social action

Written by: Christopher Baker
5 min read
Chris Baker, Professional Development Lead, Cabot Learning Federation, UK

Self-efficacy is defined as ‘one’s beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments’ (Bandura, 1997, p. 3). Although his theories around self-efficacy are not uncontested (Marzillier and Eastman, 1984), efficacy beliefs are often considered to predict a person’s emotions, thoughts, choices and levels of effort. For example, individuals with higher levels of self-efficacy tend to be more inclined to accept challenges, demonstrate intrinsic interest and deep engagement with activities and show resilience during difficult tasks.

Levels of self-efficacy are developed over time and are intensely specific and dynamically changeable. An example would be a student who has differing levels of efficacy for different parts of the maths curriculum which fluctuate frequently based on a range of factors.

Self-efficacy appraisals

Efficacy beliefs are constructed through an often-subconscious process of appraisal, where the individual uses a range of information to arrive at a perceived level of task confidence (self-efficacy) for that specific task. Bandura (1977) proposed four categories of efficacy information used in appraisals: past experiences, vicarious influences, verbal persuasion and physiological and emotional states.

Past experiences

Past experiences have been shown to be the most influential source of efficacy information, with experiences viewed as successful serving to increase confidence and the contrasting attribution of failure serving to reduce it (Bandura, 1977). The influence of past experiences is, however, complex (Feltz, 2008).

Vicarious influences

Observing others can have a powerful influence on self-efficacy beliefs, providing comparisons against one’s own performances along with the message that skills are learnable and that difficult tasks are surmountable. Vicarious experiences are most powerful when observers see similarities between the model and themselves (e.g. age, knowledge, skill level) and therefore assume that the model’s performance is diagnostic of their own capability.

Social persuasion

Individuals also develop self-efficacy beliefs from the social messages that they receive from others, typically in the form of persuasion, feedback and appraisal. Social persuasion’s impact is strongly influenced by the perceived prestige, credibility, expertise and trustworthiness of the persuader (Bandura, 1977). Self-talk is another form of verbal persuasion, defined as an individual’s ability to regulate their own thought processes and, in efficacy terms, convince themselves that they can achieve a task.

Physiological and emotional states

Physiological and emotional states provide additional information for efficacy appraisals; emotional states such as joy, pride and inspiration serve to increase levels of confidence, with states of anxiety, fear and sadness having the opposite effect. However, it’s worth remembering that sources of physiological and emotional states are easily misattributed!

The individual’s level of self-efficacy for a task, based on these sources of information, subsequently affects their emotions, levels of motivation, choices and effort, which directly impacts on their performance. The outcome of that performance then feeds back into the cycle as information for future self-efficacy appraisals.

Student self-efficacy

There has been much self-efficacy research conducted within academic settings and it has been recognised that the beliefs that students hold about their capabilities can play an important role in their motivation to achieve. Over the past three decades, self-efficacy has emerged as an effective predictor of student’s motivation and learning (Zimmerman, 2000). Self-efficacy studies have shown links to improved self-regulation, cognitive engagement, effort and persistence, memory and academic performance.

Students with strong self-efficacy are more likely to take on challenging tasks, be intrinsically motivated, apply high degrees of effort, attribute failure to things within their control and recover quickly from setbacks. Self-efficacious students have been shown to demonstrate more resilience during problem-solving tasks and engage in more effective self-regulatory strategies. Schunk (1989) found that highly self-efficacious students monitor their work time more effectively, solve problems more efficiently, work harder, evaluate their progress more frequently and engage in more self-regulatory strategies. The positive link between self-efficacy and motivation is not however unanimously supported and researchers such as Vancouver and Kendall (2006) have suggested a negative link when it relates to resource allocation (time, energy).

Strategies for unlocking student self-efficacy:

  • Structure tasks so that success is experienced early and challenge builds progressively
  • Create environments where challenge is welcomed, effort celebrated and failure valued
  • Use students to model successful practice to their peers
  • Be mindful of negative self-talk and purposefully counter with positive messages
  • Coach students to attribute failure to controllable factors such as effort or time.

Self-efficacy and social action

Youth social action refers to activities that young people take part in to make a positive difference to others and their environment, and its characteristics are often seen as providing much of the aforementioned information required for self-efficacy development (Morton and Montgomery, 2013). Self-esteem and self-efficacy are frequently highlighted as targets of psychosocial change in youth development initiatives and research (Anderson and Sandmann, 2009); the combination of moral purpose and challenge within a social environment associated with social action projects provides useful self-efficacy information.

Successful involvement in projects or project elements provides experience, which can be drawn upon in the future when similar challenges arise. The collaborative nature of social action provides multiple opportunities for the observation of successful practice by others and positive vicarious influence. Peer and inter-generational interaction during projects facilitates the provision of social persuasion and the enhancement of self-efficacy beliefs through encouragement and positive feedback. The positive emotions often felt during activities of high moral purpose create emotional states, which in turn support efficacy development.

School-driven social action

Within my organisation, the Cabot Learning Federation, we leverage the benefits of social action for self-efficacy through the CLF Reliance programme, a set of initiatives aimed at promoting students’ mental and physical health, self-agency and impact on the community. The programme aligns with the DfE’s guidance on character education (2019) and Ofsted’s experiences of social action in schools (2016). The ‘big events’ that make up the programme include trips, exhibitions, competitions and community projects, encompassing students across our 3–19 academies. Students involved in the projects speak about ‘being pushed to achieve more than they thought possible’, ‘helping others to build confidence’, ‘improving social skills by making new friends’ and ‘developing new interests and dreams’. Initiatives such as the CLF Resilience programme are becoming more commonplace as schools and federations become increasingly aware of the benefits that they offer to personal development and character education.

What is clear from the literature is that self-efficacy is an attribute worth developing and can have wide-reaching implications for student development and school improvement. What is also clear is the beneficial impact that social action can have on the self-efficacy and wider character development of young people. The challenge that lies ahead of us now is how to make these connections clear within our schools and how to take advantage of the national and local social action initiatives and research that exist.


Anderson KS and Sandmann L (2009) Toward a model of empowering practices in youth–adult partnerships. Journal of Extension 47: 1–8.

Arthur J, Harrison T and Taylor E (2014) Building character through youth social action. The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues; University of Birmingham. Available at: (accessed 7 January 2020).

Bandura A (1977) Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura A (1997) Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Character education framework. Available at: (accessed 7 January 2020).

Feltz DL , Short S and Sullivan PJ (2008). Self-efficacy in sport. New York: Human Kinetics.

Marzillier J and Eastman C (1984). Continuing problems with self-efficacy theory: A reply to Bandura. Cogn Ther Res 8: 257–262

Morton MH and Montgomery P (2013) Youth empowerment programs for improving adolescents’ self-efficacy and self-esteem: A systematic review. Research on Social Work Practice 23(1): 22–23.

Ofsted (2016) Social action: Good examples from schools and colleges. Available at: (accessed 7 January 2020).

Schunk H (1989) Self-efficacy and achievement behaviours. Educational Psychology Review 1(3): 173–208.

Vancouver JB and Kendall LN (2006) When Self-Efficacy Negatively Relates to Motivation and Performance in a Learning Context, Journal of applied psychology, vol. 91, no. 5, pp. 1146-1153.

Zimmerman BJ (2000) Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25(1): 82–91.


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