Academic Self-Efficacy in Supporting Scientific Development


DPC Hallmark STU-1

By Krystle Cobian

December 2019


How is academic self-efficacy related to biomedical career outcomes? Stemming from Albert Bandura’s work on self efficacy (1977) and later work on social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1991), self-efficacy was developed to explain how people think, motivate themselves, and ultimately how they behave-- including how long they will persist in the face of obstacles or challenging situations (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Defined as “a person's beliefs concerning his or her ability to successfully perform a given task or behavior” (Bandura, 1977; Betz & Hackett, 1981, p. 400), an individual’s perceived self-efficacy is based on four dimensions: personal mastery experiences (i.e., experiencing successes and failures), vicarious experiences (i.e., observing others succeed such that it strengthens the belief in oneself to also be able to succeed), verbal persuasion (i.e,. feedback and encouragement from others), and emotional state (i.e., level of anxiety and stress).


In the social sciences, self-efficacy has been used to understand the relationship between one’s beliefs about their abilities and their resulting academic achievement (Chemers, Hu, & Garcia, 2001; Honicke & Broadbent, 2016) or career development (Betz & Hackett, 1981; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). Self-efficacy must be domain-specific, meaning that an individual’s perception of self-efficacy will vary across specific spheres of activities. For example, academic self-efficacy is one’s conviction in being able to successfully perform a given academic-related task at a designated level (Schunk, 1991). A meta-analysis found that measures of academic self-efficacy are predictive of academic performance and persistence (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991). For example, higher academic self-efficacy is predictive of college grades, especially when students’ academic self-efficacy is measured later in the academic year after they have had experience and feedback regarding their performance (Gore, 2006).


Studies also point to differences in academic self-efficacy based on social identities such as race, class, and gender (Fife, Bond, & Byars-Winston, 2011; Wilson et al., 2015). For example, a longitudinal study by MacPhee, Farro, and Canetto (2013) found that among undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors at entry into a federally-funded STEM training program, women perceived themselves to be academically weaker compared to their male counterparts despite displaying similar academic performance. Yet, after participation in the program, women’s levels of academic self-efficacy was on par with men by graduation. Additionally, the study found that students with intersecting marginalized identities (i.e., underrepresented racial minority [URM] and low socioeconomic status) had lower scores on every measure of academic performance compared to students with only one marginalized identity at entry into the program. These double-disadvantaged students subsequently saw greater improvement in scores in critical thinking and self-perceived creativity after participation in the STEM training program compared to students with only one identity that was disadvantaged in STEM (MacPhee, et al., 2013). These studies suggest that particularly for marginalized groups in STEM disciplines, interventions can increase students’ academic self-efficacy.


When considering the role that self-efficacy plays for students with scientific career aspirations, especially for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in the biomedical sciences, the literature suggests that self-efficacy is both an outcome of efforts to support students interested in STEM, as well as a driver of future behaviors, such as the decision to enroll in a STEM graduate program or work in a scientific career. Some experiences and activities that are related to increased self-efficacy include, but are not limited to:


Active Learning: Studies have shown that active learning pedagogy in science classrooms-- broadly defined as classroom practices that incorporate interaction and collaborative discussion as opposed to the use of lecture-- increases self-efficacy (Bilgin, Karakuyu, & Ay, 2015). Active learning might be especially important in closing achievement gaps, particularly for URM students. For example, one study found that active learning increased students’ science self-efficacy, which contributed to their improved academic performance (Ballen, Wieman, Salehi, Searle, & Zamudio, 2017).


Research Experiences: Meaningful research experiences can provide opportunities for gaining mastery (one of the dimensions of self-efficacy) by acquiring both laboratory skills and additional scientific knowledge as a supplement to course content. URM students were significantly more likely to persist in a STEM major if they participated in an undergraduate research program (Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014). Carpi, Ronan, Falconer, & Lents (2017) also found evidence of underrepresented students at a minority-serving institution (MSI) increasing their perceived self-efficacy via participation in a structured undergraduate research program. Research self-efficacy is a separate but related domain-specific concept, covered in a separate review (STU-2).


Mentorship: There is a large body of literature on the importance of mentorship for increasing students’ self-efficacy, and ultimately supporting their STEM career persistence (NASEM, 2019; Rittmayer & Beier, 2008). For STEM undergraduates, Estrada, Hernandez, and Schultz (2018) found that quality mentorship and research experiences years were positively related to perceived science self-efficacy, though academic self-efficacy was outside of the study’s focus. More research is needed to understand how, if at all, mentorship is connected to biomedical students’ perceptions of their academic self-efficacy.


Academic self-efficacy is one of the hallmarks of success of the Diversity Program Consortium because of its role in predicting academic success and the likelihood of predicting long-term outcomes such as the persistence into a biomedical major, graduate program, and career. The DPC aims to measure the relationship between institutional STEM education and training programs and academic self-efficacy to examine the types of interventions and quality of those interventions that increase students’ self-efficacy, particularly for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in the biomedical disciplines. A better understanding of what increases the academic self-efficacy, especially for these groups, can provide a blueprint to cultivate high academic self-efficacy of college students with biomedical career aspirations at other colleges and universities.



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Suggested citation

Cobian, K. (2019). Academic Self-Efficacy in Supporting Scientific Development. Literature Brief. Los Angeles, CA: Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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