Emory Report

February 14, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 21

First Person:

Frank Pajares on Nurturing academic confidence

It was disheartening to read the article "Seniors' Last Word" in the recent issue of Academic Exchange (Feb/March 2000). According to that article, a poll of 992 of Emory's 1,136 graduating seniors revealed that 97 percent felt that Emory professors provided them with intellectual challenge and stimulation. Nearly 70 percent said this challenge and stimulation was provided frequently.

Only 20 percent, however, said they received frequent emotional support and encouragement. Sadly, more than 30 percent said they never received emotional support or encouragement from their professors.

We would all agree that the beliefs students hold to be true about themselves are vital forces in their success or failure in school. All parents know well that the beliefs kids get in their heads become the rules that govern their actions.

Unfortunately, the educational aim of building healthy self-perceptions in students is deeply mired in the "self-esteem controversy" that has been the subject of intense dialogue and much ridicule during the last two decades. And there is ample reason to be concerned about the self-esteem "movement."

Critics have railed against the problems that can result from an unbridled self-oriented emphasis in education. It can be a short voyage from self-enhancement to self-absorption. Children taught that the gratification of their sense of self is the prime directive of their own personal and social development do not easily learn to nurture others, to maintain lasting and mutually satisfying relationships, or to defer or postpone their own perceived needs.

But providing emotional support and encouragement to students can be viewed from a perspective that differs quite markedly from the one that has come to characterize the self-esteem movement, one that overrelies on knee-jerk praise and empty inspirational homilies. A new wave of educational psychologists are calling for attention to students' self-beliefs related to their academic pursuits. These self-efficacy beliefs represent one's perceptions of one's own competence.

The difference between self-efficacy and self-esteem beliefs is not cosmetic. Self-efficacy is the confidence that one has in one's abilities, whereas self-esteem is a judgment of one's own personal and social value. Students' judgments of their academic competence differ from their judgments of self-worth, just as the question "Can I do that task?" differs from "How do I feel about myself?"

Because the most influential source of academic self-efficacy beliefs is the interpreted result of one's own performance, self-efficacy theorists place the acquisition of skills and the mastery of academic material at the core of efforts to build and develop confidence. For this reason, teachers are wise to take as a central responsibility the task of providing intellectual challenge.

But confidence is also built as a result of the messages received from others, as well as by the vicarious experience of the effects produced by the actions of others. As so many of us have personally experienced, the actions of significant individuals--perhaps a teacher who came our way at just the right time--help instill self-beliefs that influence the course and direction our lives take.

Indeed, the emotional support and encouragement others provide can be very powerful. I recall one discussion with a doctoral student who was struggling with a portion of her dissertation. At a particularly difficult juncture she said to me, "You know, Professor, I've come to the realization that, although it is important for me to believe that I can do this, it seems equally important for me to believe that you believe I can do this."

Nearly two decades of research has revealed that self-efficacy beliefs are strong determinants and predictors of academic accomplishment. How students perform can often be better predicted by their beliefs about their own capabilities than by what they are actually capable of accomplishing. Findings also suggest that the efficacy beliefs of teachers are related to their instructional practices and to their students' achievement and psychological well-being. Efficacious teachers create classroom climates in which academic rigor and intellectual challenge are accompanied by the emotional support and encouragement necessary to meet that challenge.

All teachers do well to take seriously their share of responsibility in nurturing the self-beliefs of their pupils, for it is clear that these self-beliefs can have beneficial or destructive influences. College professors who view as their singular obligation the cultivation of their students' cognitive skills, or who believe that nurturing their students' often-fragile egos is beyond their purview, would similarly do well to reflect on the nature of their role as educators of youth.

Moreover, a focus on students' intellectual development is not incompatible with concern for their psychological well-being. As Albert Bandura has argued, "educational practices should be gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use but also by what they do to [students'] beliefs about their capabilities, which affects how they approach the future. Students who develop a strong sense of self-efficacy are well equipped to educate themselves when they have to rely on their own initiative."

Jerome Bruner suggested that the ordinary practices of schooling must be examined with a view to the contributions they make to the ingredients crucial to a student's sense of self-ingredients such as agency, confidence and purpose. It would be similarly beneficial to examine our own ordinary practices as college professors, with a view to the contribution these practices make toward maximizing not only our students' intellect and scholarship but also their confidence in the very academic excellence we wish them to cultivate.

Educational philosopher Nel Noddings observed that the ultimate aim of education should be to nurture the "ethical self" to produce "competent, caring, loving and lovable people." One need only cast a casual glance at the American landscape to see that attending to the personal, social and psychological concerns of students is both a noble and necessary enterprise. We can aid our students by helping them develop the habit of excellence in scholarship while at the same time nurturing the self-beliefs necessary to maintain that excellence throughout their adult lives. This will require not only frequent intellectual challenge and stimulation but frequent emotional support and encouragement.

Frank Pajares is associate professor of educational studies. This essay was adapted from a Great Teachers Lecture he delivered on Jan. 27, 2000.

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