Self-efficacy – the most neglected motivational factor in foreign language instruction


In secondary schools, in England, it is common to hear teachers complain about the motivational levels of their students. The reasons commonly put forward for the low levels of student interest are usually that English adolescents (a) do not see the relevance of foreign language learning to their future careers ; (b) since most people around the world speak English, they do not feel the urgency to learn it; (c) see foreign languages as some kind of hobby, that you do in your free time or before a trip to get by in the country you are travelling to; (d) do not feel culturally close to the target language civilizations.

In order to enhance students’ motivation UK teachers put considerable effort into ‘making lessons ‘more fun’ through games and latest technologies. They attempt to arouse their extrinsic motivation through morale-boosting reward systems or by enhancing their understanding of the career-related benefits of learning a language. They set up exchanges with target-language speakers in order to give rise to cultural empathy. In some cases they even go to the extent of choosing examination boards that are perceived as more accessible to their learners and of lowering their academic expectations. Many of the above initiatives do work. I will never forget, for instance how, in my current school, we trebled – in one year – the numbers of students who took French GCSE by staging an MFL awards evening at the end of the last term, tied with overall performance throughout the year.

However, what has become more and more evident to me over the years is how one important component of motivation is often NOT addressed by educational establishments when attempting to enhance student interest, intentionality and resilience in MFL learning: Self-efficacy, a construct first elaborated by psychologist Albert Bandura. This ‘gap’ has always baffled me, as a substantial body of research shows that self-efficacy beliefs can influence one’s decisions, expended effort and perseverance, resilience to adversity, thought processes, affective states, and, most importantly, accomplishments. Schunk (1991) even contends that self-efficacy beliefs may better forecast success than prior achievements, skills, or knowledge! In other words, the higher a learner’s levels of self-efficacy, the higher his/her likelihood to succeed in the accomplishment of a task seems to be.

One of the reasons why this construct is not widely known or tapped into by language educators is that the concept of Self-efficacy is relatively new and in foreign language research is almost exclusively associated with Learner training (Learning-to-learn) research and instruction. But what is Self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is defined as the “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997: 3). In other words, Self-efficacy refers to expectancy of success: the extent to which, for instance, one believes one is going to win a tennis match, pass a driving test, get an A* at an exam. Bandura (1997: 19) claims that self-efficacy beliefs “affect almost everything [people] do; how they think, motivate themselves, feel, and behave”. What is remarkable is that, as already hinted above, a solid body of research shows that people with high levels of expectancy of success do better at tasks, evidently with very positive consequences for their motivation.

The implication for foreign language teaching and learning is obvious: if we focus our efforts consciously and consistently on enhancing MFL students’ self-efficacy across the four language skills we may be able to increase their motivation, too. But how do we raise learner self-efficacy? Well, it is no easy task, obviously.

In my experience, the following tactics help:

1. At the early stages of learning teachers should emphasize ‘horizontal’ progression in their lessons

What I mean by this is that often teachers believe that they have to get – to use the old National Curriculum Levels as benchmarks – from level 3 to 5 in a given lesson, for example. I remember being told off by one of my supervisors as a teacher trainee for ‘lingering’ at level 4 ‘way too long’ in a Year 9 lesson on the environment, because I wanted to make sure my students had consolidated the vocabulary as much as possible before engaging in more linguistically demanding tasks.

Progression is not only measured in terms of easier to complex; but also in terms of (a) the extent to which the target vocabulary / grammar / pronunciation is being practised  (what I call ‘horizontal progression) and (b) depth of processing (how strongly the target stimuli are being associated with pre-existing foreign language items in Long-term memory).

Far too often, in British schools I have seen and still see lessons and schemes of work in which teachers, for the sake of vertical progression at all costs do not plan for sufficient consolidation of the target material – sometimes due to lack of resources or because of time constraints dictated by the syllabus (the two-chapters-per-term syndrome, as I call it). Consolidation through short-, medium- and long-term recycling is crucial considering that 60% of the materials taught in any given lesson is lost within the next 48 hours.

2. Teachers should plan carefully for self-efficacy, especially at the early stages of instructions and with less able learners.

Planning for self-efficacy means scaffolding success, that is providing as many opportunities for the learners to do well at the tasks they engage in. This not only requires pitching the learning materials/activities to the right level of the class and of individual students (through effective differentiation), but also ‘gearing up’ the students adequately before each task whose outcome is graded. Before a reading comprehension activity, for example, one should ensure that students are familiar with the words in the target text (e.g. by playing vocab games or quizzes) until one is sure that they will be able to identify the vast majority of the key words necessary to get the answers right.

While I do not believe in using the ‘easy wins’ tactic, too often, it does not do any harm to deploy it every now and then when we feel students’ sense of self-efficacy is on the low.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge in planning for self-efficacy is to strike a balance between providing sufficient opportunities for success whilst not lowering the expectations too much. It is not easy; it requires great cognitive and affective empathy with the students, being strategic in one’s input and learning expectations and, finally, choosing the right summative tasks, not simply the ones available in the textbook.

3. From the very early stages of instruction model effective learning strategies.

Research indicates that equipping struggling learners with more effective learning strategies seems to enhance their perceived self-efficacy. The rationale is obvious; if a student perceives memorizing new words challenging, training them in effective memory techniques and showing them tangibly that they work will reduce their anxiety and enhance their self-confidence (which will feed into their sense of self-efficacy).

I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand during my own PhD research: by modelling and providing extensive practice to my subjects in editing strategies all of them reported higher level of self-confidence and expectancy of success in L2-Italian essay-writing. In another study carried out in Oxford Comprehensive schools (Macaro, 2001) I imparted metacognitive and cognitive strategy training to year 10 students of French aimed at improving writing accuracy; the results in terms of self-efficacy and engagement were impressive.

However, simple forms of strategic instruction, such as modelling basic memory strategies, do not require a lot of specialized knowledge and if the activities staged to practise them are stimulating, enjoyable and productive, they will have a positive impact on the students’ sense of self-efficacy. Macaro’s (2001) book describes a wide range of such strategies and activities some of which have been successfully trialled in a number of secondary school settings. Some strategies will be imparted to the class as a whole, where the teacher feels that every student will benefit from adopting them; others will be taught to small groups or individual students where specific learning deficits have been identified.

4. Give the learners a sense of ownership over the learning process through formative feedback.

The students should have a say as to the pace teachers are going at in delivering the curriculum. I have often heard students go to teacher Y to complain about teacher X going too fast. Why is it that they do not feel comfortable enough to tell teacher X in the first place? Every single student in the class should feel listened to and able to ask the teacher to go over a specific point whether individually or in small groups. A feeling of not having enough time to learn the target material will engender learner anxiety, which in turn will undermine self-efficacy.

By the same token, one should, where possible, consult with the students as to their readiness to sit the traditional summative test, if there is one, at the end of a unit.

5. Assess students using tasks they are familiar with

Teachers should ensure that whatever assessment they carry out involves tasks the students have had previous practice with. This must be categorically the case with beginners and less able learners. Lack of task familiarity can seriously hinder performance. An example: a colleague of mine found that on a Level 3 reading task his pre-intermediate students performed less well than on a level 5 one containing more difficult vocabulary. The reason? The level 3 task consisted of a split-sentences matching task where the vocabulary was easy but ‘small’ grammar subtleties (to do with prepositions, agreement, word-order etc.), that many pre-intermediate students are not highly conversant with, made some of the seemingly plausible matches impossible. The students were not familiar with that type of task, consequently they did not focus sufficiently on grammatical/syntactic details and based their matches solely on perceived meaning.

When we test students on tasks they are not familiar with, we increase their risk of failing. This threat to self-efficacy must be controlled. I personally make sure that students, a week prior each end-of-unit assessment receive intensive practice with task similar to the ones they are going to grapple with in the exam. It requires a little extra work, but it really pays off in the end.

6. Assessments’ construct validity

A test is valid when it measures what it purports to measure. The fact that a student knows most of the key vocabulary in a test, does not mean that s/he has learnt how to deploy the reading comprehension strategies necessary to infer the ones s/he does NOT know. A test requiring effective inference strategies is fair when the teacher has explicitly modelled and provided sufficient practice in those strategies prior to the test. In other words, we need to ensure that we are testing the students only on skills and linguistic items we have prepared them to cope effectively with.

7. Attitude to error

At the early stages of instruction, teachers should only correct the most serious mistakes, i.e. the ones that are made before the whole class and the ones that seriously impede meaning. Moreover, corrections should not be perceived as judgemental by the student, in order to prevent learner anxiety.

8. Structure tasks vs unstructured tasks

At the early stages of foreign language learning students should not be involved in unstructured tasks that make them work beyond their existing level of competence, as this usually leads to numerous grammatical/lexical ‘glitches’. Although this seems self-evident, often beginner/pre-intermediate students are asked to produce artifacts, posters, power points, iMovies, etc, in which they are encouraged to be as ‘creative’ as possible. If we do not correct the mistakes in the students’ output, there is no harm done. However, if we do decide to correct all or most of the errors we may risk impacting their levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

In conclusion, self-efficacy is a powerful catalyst of learner motivation and resilience and high levels of it are usually predictors of success. I have outlined above some of the tactics that teachers can deploy in MFL instruction to enhance self-efficacy or to control for the factors that may undermine it. Teachers, in my view, should reflect long and hard on their practice vis-à-vis this crucial component of motivation and I strongly advise them to familiarize themselves with Bandura’s research on self-efficacy as it has important implication not only for their students’ learning but also for their own professional and personal development.

5 thoughts on “Self-efficacy – the most neglected motivational factor in foreign language instruction

  1. Really interesting post. I have just launched a review of our MFL department, looking at what we can do to build motivation in our students and I really think that self-efficacy is at the heart of it. I’m reading up like mad now so was glad to see this post!

  2. This is beautiful! You have just validated my teaching practice!

    #1 Teach students to beat their personal best. Teach them to compete against the self and not the friend or the standard. When I have a student who is achieving at a level 1, (in Ontario, that is about a 55%) I say, “Lets beat that personal best and get you to a level 2!) I learned this from my own children when they competed in track events. They would go to a track competition knowing they would not win. they went every time to beat their own personal best. I teach this to my students. Strive for progress, not perfection! This is especially important for me as a FSL teacher and a #aimlang teacher.

    #2 Scaffolding as a basis for self efficacy! Early in my career as a French teacher, I wasn’t sure how to do this! No one ever taught me. Until I saw #aimlang. With the Pared Down Language, gestures to teach the PDL, the contextualization of PDL in a play, drama, dance and song, Teacher-Led Self expression, use of groups to empower student learning and more, I effectively learned how to teach students how to use what was in their heads to listen for understanding, to speak, to read and to write. Essentially with #aimlang strategies, students develop a schema that is readily available in their heads so they are not dependent on vocab lists and pages upon pages of reference sheets to build language. Student move from the whole to the part and not visa versa. Teach them to rely on themselves and not a text book.

    #3 In Ontario, we are encouraged to take Additional Qualification courses. Special education training is so important for assisting all learners and many of the strategies taught in these types of courses are applicable to all learners. It is called Universal Design and means that learning strategies originally designed for special education students can and should be used to assist all learners. A good example is the use of spell correct, which of course we all see now on all our devices! This was originally designed for use in Special Education! I like to refer to the teaching of learning strategies as simply “Best Practices”

    #4 Formative feedback-is so important. Mine is done daily, orally. It does not always have to be done formally on a piece of paper! When I do it on a piece of paper, I use a grid with student names and make anecdotal notes which I can refer to later during teacher/parent conferencing, or student/teacher conferences. I also have a checklist I use during Teacher-led activities to track student active engagement in the 10 minute block of active #aimlang speaking activities. If a student is not speaking, the checklist is tangible, formative feedback. I show the student the checklist and ask him to count his checkmarks. If he has 3 and there was a possibility for 10 in a given time, I ask the student to tell me what he sees, what it means and how he can fix it. I also ask how I can help him fix it! I use this system for over 120 students!

    #5 Yes students should never go into a task cold. We wouldn’t take them to the gym to do a physical education class without warming them up first. They should not go into a test cold or a culminating activity cold, unless of course we want to evaluate their application of knowledge. But application of what is being learned can be evaluated in many different ways and does not always have to be through a summative task. #5 is an inherent part of the AIM philosophy and strategy. When we assess using tasks that they are familiar with, we also reduce the affective filter, the fear that comes with learning.

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