Read Part 1.
In what feels like an exciting new way to create the learning experiences everyone wants, will enjoy, and feels exactly tailored to them, we also want to be practical. As this series of blogs on Instructional Design 3.0 develops, we will not be taking something of a utopian theoretical stance, imagining perfection regardless of the cost and effort as well as requiring technology not yet available and suitable for the average author. No, we’re going to look for practical means. But first, we continue to analyze the shortcomings and missed opportunities in today’s work, and then we’ll define solutions.
So what have we been missing? Let’s turn first to self-efficacy.
How often in our learning experience design work do we concern ourselves with self-efficacy? I’m not saying we don’t usually make some efforts to encourage learners, to give helpful feedback rather than just judgments, and to reward successful efforts. But in our basic design work, could we do more, and would it be worth it? Let’s see.
Self-efficacy is similar to self-confidence, but whereas self-confidence is typically thought of as a belief in the strength of one’s general skills across a broad spectrum, self-efficacy is defined more narrowly.
Self-efficacy is a belief in one’s capabilities to perform specific tasks or, somewhat more generally, specific types of tasks. (Bandura 1986)
Beginning quite some time ago, Albert Bandura’s work (1977) focused on how learner feelings affected learning. Volumes of research have followed (Pajares, P. 1996, 2004), but little seems to be directing the thoughts and methodologies in practice today despite the promise it holds for making learning experiences more engaging and effective (Artino 2012).
In Bandura’s theory, optimal performance, whether in learning or on the job, derives from self-efficacy that hovers close to or perhaps just slightly higher than actual competency. If a person’s self-efficacy (again, belief in one’s ability to perform a task successfully) is low, that person is unlikely to even approach the task if it can be avoided. If it’s mandatory, low self-efficacy can turn to fear of failure, which in turn, and with sufficient strength, inhibits clear thinking and even motor control.
What seems surprising at first is that self-efficacy that’s much higher than actual competency results in outcomes much like those of low self-efficacy. Learners with exaggerated self-efficacy are likely not to focus on training, but rather assume they can do things they can’t and to make errors in performance. Somewhat elevated self-efficacy actually energizes participation and is helpful in learning, but as the discrepancy between actual competency and beliefs of competency rises, the gap becomes a barrier to successful performance.
Influences on Self-efficacy
We know motivation is essential to learning, and we don’t have to just accept whatever levels of learning motivation our learners walk in the door with; we can pump up their motivation and thereby enhance learning outcomes (Allen, 2003). Is the same true with self-efficacy? If self-efficacy has such a powerful influence on learning and performance, we need to know if we can influence it and how.
The belief of one’s abilities and likelihood to succeed is, of course, based primarily on past experiences. Successes raise those beliefs while failures lower them. We naturally work in interactive learning to be sure learners experience successes. Other factors influence them as well. Consider these:
It seems like a good thing to demonstrate how a task can be done, so we do this often in training. It has well-researched beneficial effects and can encourage learners who have sufficient self-efficacy (see, for example, the Demonstration Principle in Merrill, 2013).
But self-efficacy can rise superficially by watching someone else who makes it look easy to perform a task. We tend to be susceptible to thinking we’re “good to go,” when we aren’t. Research confirms we tend to overestimate our capabilities (See Avoid Illusions of Knowing in Brown, et al. 2018).
At Allen Interactions we’ve learned this firsthand and found we had to change our instructional design practices in some profound ways. Here’s what happened. Our company used to be in the business of teaching learners in a classroom to use software applications. We would demonstrate, with the use of a video projector connected to a computer, how to complete tasks with students following along using their individual computers. We’d answer questions and then ask students if they felt ready to perform the same task on their own. When they felt ready, we’d ask them to do it.
That’s when the most fundamental questions erupted: “Could you show us again?” Learners consistently and confidently overestimated their readiness to perform tasks. It looked so easy when done with guidance, but learners quickly found out they had gained no ability on their own. That’s when we changed our practices and found a much more effective approach—an approach I’ll be sharing with you in the stream of blogs.
By telling stories, reminding learners of capabilities they’ve already acquired, asking what’s the worst that could happen, and other means of reassurance, we can help learners elevate their beliefs and, temporarily at least, their self-efficacy. Verbal assurances can backfire, of course. Again, it’s important that the readiness of the learner is within reasonable range of success. If an instructor assures students they will readily learn to perform the tasks at hand and students fail, not only will their self-efficacy suffer, but so will the instructor’s credibility and ability to effectively reassure learners again.
We’re viewing self-efficacy as a narrowly focused belief in success, but clearly, we also have broader traits of confidence. We may, for example, have developed skills in mathematics and therefore feel we are likely to do well in a variety of somewhat related tasks such as accounting, whereas if we have never developed much of a sense of rhythm, it would take some work to raise the self-efficacy to take piano or singing lessons. Relating specific tasks to a general class of tasks in which learners have gained proficiency can help give them a higher level of initial self-efficacy as they approach the related tasks.
Does It Matter?
Many theories and research findings suggest the importance of evaluating the self-efficacy of individual learners if we are to optimize learning success. It matters if we care, as we should, about the learners’ time and if we care about successful performance outcomes from our training.
Learner time is not refundable. If a learner spends all the time required to complete training and finds they are neither competent at the end nor having sufficient self-efficacy to perform what they’ve learned, there is no mechanism to get their time refunded and available for other, hopefully more beneficial, uses. And we have failed to produce the willing & able person we set all our time and efforts to.
Our new approach in Instructional Design 3.0 is to explicitly recognize self-efficacy as a learning and performance success factor and to design the learning journey in ways that are sensitive to this factor and take steps to enhance it throughout the journey.
In following installments, we will look at other attributes of the learner—attributes that are typically ignored—which interact with experiences in the Learner’s Journey to produce positive and negative learning outcomes. After establishing the effects these attributes can have, we will then examine practical instructional designs that super-charge learning experiences for maximum effectiveness.
It’s quite a different approach to instructional design, and I hope you’ll stay with me.
Read Part 3.
Allen, M. W. (2016). Michael Allen's guide to e-learning: Building interactive, fun, and effective learning programs for any company. Chapters 9-10. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Bandura A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2018). Make It Stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Harvard.
Merrill, M. D. (2013). First principles of instruction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Pajares F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Rev Educ Res. 66:543–578.
Pajares F. (2004). Albert Bandura: Biographical sketch. Retrieved Jan. 31, 2021 from https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/bandurabio.html