“I can do well in school.”

Academic Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to accomplish a task and the understanding that actions one takes will influence a task’s outcome. Academic self-efficacy—the belief in one’s ability to perform an academic task—is particularly important for success in school.

An individual’s sense of academic self-efficacy influences the level of effort they put forth, their persistence and perseverance when confronted with challenges, and their resilience in the face of obstacles. Research finds that children’s sense of academic self-efficacy can differ across subjects and even across specific tasks within subjects. Children who have strong academic self-efficacy believe that they can successfully complete their work, based on their abilities and prior experience.

It is important to note the probable relationship between academic self-efficacy and mastery orientation in elementary school. Mastery orientation helps elementary school students persevere when faced with challenges. It may thus be important in developing and reinforcing academic self-efficacy, which in turn supports academic success.

The Research on Academic Self-Efficacy

Substantial evidence demonstrates that academic self-efficacy is associated with important academic and social outcomes. Research shows, for instance, that students with high academic self-efficacy exhibit better learning strategies and better tracking of their own outcomes than students with low academic self-efficacy (Zimmerman, 1989). Children with high academic self-efficacy in first and second grade have been found to have higher literacy and math achievement than children with low academic self-efficacy (Liew, et al., 2008).

Other studies have linked academic self-efficacy with longer-term academic success. For instance, academic self-efficacy in second grade has been positively correlated with math and reading outcomes in third grade. Another longitudinal study found that fifth and sixth graders’ math and science self-efficacy were predictive of math and science achievement ten months later Phan (2012). Results also showed that a trajectory of increasing science self-efficacy during the school year was associated with success in science learning.

Academic self-efficacy is important in later phases of development as well. Adolescents with strong academic self-efficacy have been found to have higher achievement in school, both independently and as a function of high academic aspirations, more positive social behavior, and reduced vulnerability to feelings of futility and depression (Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C., 1996). Other studies have found that they are more likely to accomplish self-set academic goals (Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M., 1992), achieve good academic progress, and have high educational aspirations (Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli. C., 2001).

For college students, academic self-efficacy has been associated with better first-year GPAs, more accumulated credits, and better retention in school after the first year (Zajacova, A., Lynch, S. M., Espenshade, T. J., 2005). Another study found that college students with high academic self-efficacy not only had stronger academic performance but were also better adjusted personally (Chemers, M. M., Hu, L., & Garcia, B. F., 2001).  

For a detailed summary of the research and a bibliography from Child Trends' working paper, please see our Reports & Tools page.

Strategies for Improving Academic Self-Efficacy

Research has documented a number of strategies that are effective for improving academic self-efficacy:

  • Assisting children with goal setting, particularly in the short-term. Focusing on specific, immediate, and somewhat challenging goals is essential, because it helps children demonstrate that they can complete a particular task and then internalize the belief that they can do it again the next time.
  • Engaging in self-assessment, which is typically done with adult assistance and then eventually by the child himself. This helps the child understand the steps needed to successfully reach a goal and develop a sense of “making progress.”

Learn about the three other essential life skills



Mastery Orientation

Social Competence