A clarification of the meaning of ‘self-efficacy’

This post is a response the Andrew Davis’s healthy scepticism about the concept of self-efficacy. This was in response to a recent post:


So what I intend to do here is clarify its origins and meaning drawing on the work of Albert Bandura .

Andrew’s first question suggests that self-efficacy is equivalent to a pupil believing they will be successful in a test. That the pupil’s ‘beliefs’ may be inaccurate. I responded by saying that this illustrates the difference between confidence and self-efficacy.  On this Bandura says the following:

It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term “confidence.” Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self-efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system. Advances in a field are best achieved by constructs that fully reflect the phenomena of interest and are rooted in a theory that specifies their determinants, mediating processes, and multiple effects. Theory-based constructs pay dividends in understanding and operational guidance. The terms used to characterize personal agency, therefore, represent more than merely lexical preferences .

This makes an important point about the meaning of self-efficacy – “it is a construct embedded in a theoretical system” in contrast with confidence as a “colloquial term” which refers to the strength of belief without necessarily identifying the nature of the task. However, this was not quite the point that Andrew was making. The question he raises is, should mathematics self-efficacy be defined as the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems?

To respond to this, to address the distinction between the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems and mathematics self-efficacy. Bandura defines self-efficacy as follows:

Percieved slef-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments 

On the face of it, given Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy, they would appear to be equivalent. But there are subtle differences. Andrew’s definition refers to outcomes alone, whereas Bandura refers to beliefs about personal capability. This is a subtle difference but important and probably best elucidated by looking at the underlying theory.

Origins of self-efficacy: agency and control

The problem that Bandura is addressing in the introduction of self-efficacy is concerned with human agency and control. Agency is concerned with the power, knowledge and disposition an individual has in exercising the right to chose the way to act. Control is related to this, it is the motivation and drive a person has to have agency in their lives.

The striving for control over life circumstances permeates almost everything people do throughout the life course because it provides innumerable personal and social benefits. Uncertainty in important matters is highly unsettling .

Approaching this from social science disciplines other than psychology this might not seem such a big deal. Sociology readily constructs agency and control, it is implicit within the field to consider the impact of the social word on personal freedom. Similarly in anthropology where the effects of culture and society and a key part of theory in this discipline. Yet in psychology, agency, in reference to the social world, is given little attention. B. F. Skinner, for example, considered the individual as having limited agency, behaviours are responses to environmental responses. In behaviourism, there is an absence of ‘self’ or ‘control’.

Another important idea underpinning self-efficacy is the notion of ‘intentionality’: people generate courses of action to suit given purposes .

Intentionality and agency raise the fundamental question of how people actuate the cerebral processes that characterize the exercise of agency and lead to the realization of particular intentions  .

So we can see in this how the concept of self-efficacy is different from a self-assessment of how well the individual will perform. Self-efficacy is concerned with agentic action and the construction of a course of action in response to situations.

…the making of choices is aided by reflective thought, through which self-influence is largely exercised. People exert some influence over what they do by the alternatives they consider .

The multidimensionality of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy represents the deliberative processes preceding action. It involves the consideration of alternatives courses of action and decisions about how to proceed. Going beyond this, Bandura locates self-efficacy as a self-concept as a self-assessment. But “self-efficacy beliefs are not simply inert predictors of future performance” . What distinguishes self-efficacy from the ‘inert’ predictor or perceived capability is the multidimensionality of self-efficacy belief systems.

Efficacy beliefs should be measured in terms of particularized judgements of capability that may vary across realms of activity, under different levels of task demands within a given activity demand, and under different situational circumstances .

In attempting to measure self-efficacy, we are not simply asking whether the individual is going to be successful in a particular activity. It requires careful assessment using gradations of task demands within the domain of concern. It also requires a clear definition of the domain of activity and a careful conceptual analysis of the aspects, knowledge, skills and dispositions required.

I hope, I have illustrated here some the key differences between perceived capability in respect to performance in a particular context and the multidimensional multi-faceted concept of self-efficacy. When measured appropriately, self-efficacy is a strong predictor of performance but is not a specifically an assessment of personal capability.


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

Recent research in cultural differences in the development of mathematics self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is a conceptualisation of self-belief, developed by Albert Bandura . It is the belief an individual has in their capacity to be successful in a domain. It is a self-assessment of skills, knowledge and dispositions in a context. It is domain specific in that self-efficacy is contextualised, with demanding but related sets of challenges. The activities cannot be so trivial that the action required is relatively routine or straightforward. We are talking about problem solving in contexts, where there are complex decisions which may have multiple solutions and multiple means by which outcomes might be achieved.

Mathematics self-efficacy is the belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems. It is a belief that they can achieve a level of success when undertaking maths-related work. Mathematics self-efficacy correlates with mathematics performance. Mathematics self-efficacy is an important predictor of mathematics performance .

According to Bandura, there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states. I will explain each of these in turn:

Enactive mastery experience

Self-efficacy is developed through experience, through working on and solving problems; if we we are to limit our discussion to mathematics self-efficacy. This can be easily understood from our own experience, if we practice and get positive results, i.e. we are successful, then we become more confident. However, Bandura, takes a more profound view of success, a broader view, and allows the possibility of acquisition of self-efficacy even when we fail.

Mathematical self-efficacy is developed not just as a consequence of getting questions right or simply by finding solutions to problems. Self-efficacy is developed through reference to the strategy that we took in solving problems. Effectively, we assess the the approach we took and how it led to the outcome. In developing self-efficacy, we do not assess the outcome in absence of the method we used. This explains why, even though our final result might be wrong, we can develop self-efficacy. The essence is in being be able to connect our actions to the outcome and understand, rationally, how that led to the result.

Vicarious experience

A second but weaker source of self-efficacy is through vicarious experience. We can develop self-efficacy by observing others carry out activities. If the modelled behaviour is self-efficacious then it can provides a source of self-efficacy for the observer. This is especially true if the observer identifies with the individual modelling the behaviour. If, as observer, we see ourselves as similarly, having similar capacities and potentialities, then we are likely to improve our self-efficacy by observing them model actions, and in mathematics, by modelling mathematical problem solving.

If the observer perceives the person modelling the action as considerably different – they might feel that they are more intelligent or more able – then it is less likely that the observer will develop self-efficacy vicariously.

Verbal pursuasion

A third, but still weaker source of self-efficacy, is verbal pursuasion. We can use encouragement to persuade learners of their capacity to be successful. If the encouragement is misplaced and we try and persuade learners that they will be successful and they ultimately fail, there is the possibility that self-efficacy will be undermined. Encouragement must be based on accurate assessment of the individual’s capabilities and potential. Furthermore, if the more knowledgeable other is not trusted by the learner, then it is unlikely that self-efficacy will be developed.

Physiological and affective states

Illness, tiredness and stress all undermine self-efficacy. It is important that learners are challenged and are set challenging objectives. But if the demands becomes overwhelming, then there can be negative effects. Equally, if a learner is unwell or if there are external stressors then self-efficacy is undermined and there will be a noticeable effect on mathematical performance.

Cultural differences in the effects of vicarious experience and verbal pursuasion

consider cultural differences in the extent to which the social sources of self-efficacy impact on self-efficacy and mathematical performance overall. It has previously been suggested that social effects are different in cultures that are predominantly individualist, like the US and Western Europe, to cultures that are collectivist, as in South East Asia.

undertook a quantitative study in the US, the Philippines and in Korea.

The important results are as follows:

  • Mathematics self-efficacy has a significant positive correlation with students’ mathematics achievement. This is consistent with previous research, both theoretical and empirical. It also provides evidence that this relationship is independent of culture.
  • Mathematics anxiety is negatively correlated with mathematics self-efficacy. Again this is an expected result and previous research has suggested this also. In more vernacular terms it means that the more confident a learner is in mathematics the less anxious they are.
  • Students in individualistic cultures report stronger mathematics self-efficacy compared with collectivist cultures. This is often in spite of superior performance by learners in collectivist cultures. This could be because people in collectivist cultures refrain from higher ratings because of a cultural desire to express humility.
  • Vicarious sources of self-efficacy tend to be from teachers and verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. 

Concluding remarks

This research confirms the importance of self-efficacy in mathematics learning. It challenges the view that mathematics learning should be predominantly rote learning and practice. Problem solving is necessary to develop self-efficacy. Learners need chance to explore and examine non-routine problems. Importantly they need to develop the capacity to assess the strategies they use, themselves and with the support of teachers and peers.

Not only does self-efficacy correlate with mathematics performance, it is also important in respect to mathematics anxiety. The more self-efficacious the individual the less anxious they become.

Finally, although this research considers self-efficacy sources in different cultures, it draws attention to the importance of social sources and within what contexts this might develop. The research shows vicarious sources tend to be from the teacher, verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. This is important in understanding multiple social roles in learning mathematics.


Ahn, H. S., Usher, E. L., Butz, A., & Bong, M. (2016). Cultural differences in the understanding of modelling and feedback as sources of self‐efficacy information. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 112–136.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.
Pajares, F. (1999). Self-efficacy, motivation constructs, and mathematics performance of entering middle school students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24(2), 124–139. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1998.0991
Pajares, F., & Miller, M. D. (1994). Role of self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs in mathematical problem solving: A path analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 193–203. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.86.2.193