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Drivers of Persistence


All adults have a need to feel competent in key aspects of their lives.  A decision to return to school as an adult bespeaks of adults’ desire to build their competence in domains which more schooling can address, for example reading with their children, navigating life in an English-speaking environment, or getting a better job.  In that process, adults’ beliefs about and realistic assessment of their competence in these specific areas can have a profound effect on their persistence and achievement.  Such beliefs reflect their self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy refers to people’s beliefs in their capabilities to learn or perform specific tasks at designated levels, and to meet specific goals.

Unlike the more general concepts of self-confidence or self-esteem, self-efficacy is context or domain specific. Adult learners, for example, may have a high level of self-efficacy in non-academic domains such as to fix a car, build a house, sew an outfit, play baseball, fix hair and so on, while their self-efficacy in reading or writing English can be low. However, a positive self-concept, i.e. an overall feeling of self-worth aids self-efficacy and vice versa.

A wealth of research findings indicate that self-efficacy correlates with achievement and outcomes and, by extension, persistence (Bandura, 1997; Pajares, 1996; Schunk, 1995).  Albert Bandura, who originally articulated the theory of self-efficacy in the late 1970s, states, “Among the mechanisms of agency, none is more central or pervasive than people’s beliefs of personal efficacy.”  People who have high self-efficacy visualize success whereas those who doubt their efficacy typically visualize failure.  These beliefs affect motivation and the types of aspirations and goals people set for themselves, which in turn, affect persistence and ultimately, academic achievement.  Students with more self-efficacy are more willing to persist in the face of adversity and reach their goals.  The more they are able to build their perception of self-efficacy with the help of teachers, counselors and other program staff, the more motivated they become to persist. 

Even though none of the 18 programs in the New England Learner Persistence Project articulated a specific goal for building self-efficacy or an overall sense of competence, the data is replete with evidence that many strategies, in fact, served that purpose.  According to Bandura (1995), the most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences.  The key persistence strategies used by several programs in the instructional category did just that. They developed students’ study skills and metacognition, which in turn enabled them to achieve a sense of mastery or competence. When Barbara Al-Sabek’s students learned to identify and articulate the specific language learning activities that they felt they would benefit from the most,  they were making “judgments of one's capability to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance” to quote Bandura. When her students took over opening the class or deciding whether new students should be admitted, they demonstrated efficacy as leaders and decision-makers in the classroom.

When RIFLI’s ESOL students began to master independent study skills, and asked for tips for how to study for their own purposes over the summer, they too were making judgments of their personal capabilities to successfully study English on their own.   Key in this process was the “guided mastery” provided by the RIFLI teachers who made sure the material in the take-home reading packets was at a reading level the students could master, modeled the use of the self-study materials, and provided ongoing support and feedback.   Without this kind of scaffolding, the reading packets may well have had an adverse effect on students’ self-efficacy.

The Central Falls Public Library ESOL program found that the self-paced English for All (EFA) computer program gave many students a sense of mastery in learning English that the staff had not observed in the regular classroom setting.  Different features of the EFA program made it an “overwhelmingly positive” experience for the students according to the staff: For shy students, it removed performance pressure; for a student who is hard-of hearing, it boosted her listening skills; and for a dyslexic student, it resulted in “an achievement that an observation of her classroom performance wouldn’t indicate was likely.”

Other programs that found engaging and educationally appropriate uses of computer-based instruction also observed an increased level of mastery in using computers and the Internet. The Second Start staff reported that, “Students who developed better computer skills generally also developed greater confidence, and they said so.”  Such confidence likely translates into self-efficacy around using similar computer programs and tools, such as the Internet and the web. 

The programs that supported students in assuming new roles as peer mentors or “ambassadors” also observed that the mentors were more self-confident.  Staff at Middletown reported that “Through participation in this program, the self-esteem of our mentors was increased.  The mentors were pleased to be involved and have their input valued and respected by the staff.”  It is reasonable to assume that the students who volunteered as mentors already had a healthy level of self-efficacy related to their ability to guide their classmates that was further boosted by the experience of peer mentoring.  As well, the SCALE mentors and mentees completed and discussed a learning styles inventory that included suggestions for best learning strategies.  This type of activity would likely impact both the mentors’ and mentees’ self-efficacy and overall sense of competence.  

Programs that engaged students in conversations and activities about their goals and purposes for learning and helped students set achievable short-term goals tied to long-term aspirations, built self-efficacy through what Bandura calls “social persuasion.” Counselors and teachers tend to be agents of “social persuasion” by helping people believe in their own capacity to learn and meet their goals, and by helping them set achievable goals.

Finally, HERC’s ‘Night to Dream’ activity is a perfect example of the third way to develop self-efficacy through role models or vicarious experiences.  The fact that students realized that their dreams could become attainable goals is evidence of increased self-efficacy.  

In summary, several persistence strategies were consistent with three ways Bandura recommends to create a strong sense of efficacy: 1) through mastery experiences; 2) social persuasion; and 3) vicarious experiences provided by social models.   Helping adult learners improve their self-efficacy is a powerful persistence booster, and feeds the adult need for feeling competent.