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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment in postsecondary education declined by 4.1% from spring of 2021 to spring of 2022.
Overall, colleges have lost 1.3 million students since 2020. Because college graduates out-earn high school graduates by a significant margin, this trend is worrisome.
Surprisingly, the decision not to pursue higher education seems to be a judgment as much about the potential learner as about the school or its cost. A 2022 study by Edge Research and HCM Strategists found that 38% of high school graduates cited affordability as a key issue in their decision not to pursue, or continue with, higher education. But the second most frequently cited reason (27%) was that college was “too stressful” or “too much pressure.” In other words, a significant number of people avoid further education because of their anxiety about their own abilities. Unfortunately for these learners, one of the most affordable higher education options, online learning, requires even more from an independent learner in terms of confidence, persistence, and strong study skills.
To meet the challenge of boosting learners’ confidence and ability to succeed, researchers have dedicated time to learning about self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a psychological term that refers to a person’s confidence about their ability to execute certain behaviors that will lead to a desired outcome.
Self-efficacy relates to confidence in a particular area, not to a person’s general sense of self-confidence. For example, you have low self-efficacy when you doubt your ability to host a successful dinner party. In learning, self-efficacy refers a learner’s belief that they can succeed in a particular course. People with low self-efficacy in an academic domain work less and give up more easily in the face of difficulties. They might even choose to avoid the challenge of pursuing higher education entirely.
Various factors contribute to a learner’s self-efficacy in a particular domain, but—no surprise—the strongest one is the experience of having mastered similar challenges in the past. If you have successfully served food to friends in your home, you’ll be more likely to feel you can up your game to a full-blown dinner party. Similarly, experience studying for math tests, and then succeeding, leads to a learner’s sense that they are ready to tackle the next math course. Such a feeling may well lead to enrollment in a math course.
What is surprising is the effect self-efficacy has on learning outcomes: some studies suggest that this confidence is more important than specific skills and knowledge in whether a student succeeds.
For this reason, instructors and instructional designers should focus on giving students authentic mastery experiences early in a course to increase confidence. Other strategies for increasing self-efficacy include:
- Help students set specific, realistic, and proximate goals and provide them with a roadmap for how to reach those goals. Having a clear and specific goal increases students’ sense that they can achieve it. A goal that can be achieved relatively quickly boosts confidence, which sets up learners for harder goals in the future.
- Provide honest, explicit, and task-related feedback. This advice may seem counterintuitive because students with low self-efficacy struggle with negative feedback, but honesty is important. Specific feedback can point students towards future success, while task-related feedback directs students’ attention toward learning skills or content, and away from their own performance.
Self-efficacy is the first step towards self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to the process learners undertake to achieve success. A self-regulating student plans for a task, monitors their performance on it, and reflects on the outcome, revising their learning process if called for. While self-efficacy is the confidence that enables a learner to take on a challenge, self-regulation is the process that enables them to meet that challenge.
For example, a learner studies hard for the first assessment in a course but performs poorly. If they have strong self-efficacy, they will be able to take this failure in stride and turn their attention to analyzing what happened (self-regulation). Perhaps they had memorized the definitions of key terms, but had difficulty recognizing the terms in real-life situations. In preparation for the next assessment, that learner might pay particular attention to the examples given in the learning content and prepare to paraphrase rather than repeat a definition verbatim. Self-regulation is smart studying.
Self-efficacy and self-regulation are key to succeeding in any learning environment, but they are particularly important in online learning, which requires greater independence. The more attention instructors pay to this facet of learning, the more they will help many students overcome a significant barrier to their further education.
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