Self-efficacy-a belief in one’s abilities-is critical to student success in
mathematics. Researchers have found that the number one reason why some students
don’t pursue math classes in high school is low self-efficacy (Stevens, Lan, and
Tallent-Runnels, 2004). This agrees with my experience at Red Lake Middle

Bad habits
In my math classes, students who believe in
their math abilities consistently put forth the effort necessary to succeed. The
others-those lacking a sense of efficacy-often experience frustration and
failure. Most of my students who have a low sense of self-efficacy have
developed several bad habits, including feigning illness, creating diversionary
behavior problems, writing very carelessly, or putting very little work on
paper. These bad habits get in the way of what they need most: academic

Middle-school students’ belief systems are still forming and
moldable. In spite of their many problems, this malleability allows me to help
provide my struggling students one of the most effective tools for learning and
achieving: a belief in one’s ability.

Effort and success
As a
result of my research on how teachers can help students change negative beliefs
about their academic abilities, I focused on two ways to improve student
self-efficacy in my classroom.

  1. Build mastery experiences (Bandura and Bussey, 1999)
    success breeds more success; experiences of failure reinforce a feeling of
  2. Regular emphasis on effort (Margolis and McCabe, 2003)
    Students can learn
    to operate under a belief system that links effort and success. I know this is
    true because I saw it happen in my classroom last year!

Bandura and Bussey also found that self-efficacy can increase through:

  • Modeling (watching others succeed and analyzing how they achieved
  • Social persuasion (expressing faith in students’ ability to succeed, and
    teaching them strategies for attaining the level of effort required);
  • Reducing student stress and depression, which can be a physiological
    response to low self-efficacy.

Possibility of mastery
I wanted to be sure that mastery was a possibility.

Properly leveled
learning materials are a precondition for mastery experiences. In previous years
my lessons were too difficult for many of my students, and in the daily hustle
of running my classroom, I hadn’t taken the time to alter the content in a
systematic way. This year, I pretested all my students early on, found their
levels, and carefully altered my lesson plans so that mastery of daily
assignments could happen.

Building on success
Additionally, to
support students’ capacity for mastery, I linked new work to previous successes,
taught needed learning strategies, stressed peer modeling, and helped them
create goals of personal importance (Margolis and McCabe,

According to Margolis and McCabe, students with low self-efficacy,
assignments should be moderately challenging, doable with moderate effort. My
lessons were designed to challenge, but to avoid frustration. I stacked the deck
for success!

We started class by reviewing what we had learned the
previous day to connect it to new learning. In addition, I shortened and
sometimes simplified assignments; and I kept to a teaching strategy that
sequenced tasks from “easily completed” to “more difficult.” I remembered how
often I had lost my students in previous years by starting class with a problem
or concept that was too difficult. They would shut down right away, lost in low
self-efficacy. Never again! I improved my sequencing, and their attention shot

An effort rubric
Second, I wanted to emphasize the
importance of effort. I taught my students how to make daily, short-term goals,
and to predict the amount of effort necessary to meet these goals. To keep the
link between effort and success at the forefront of my students’ thoughts, we
ended each work session by assessing effort. In addition, I engaged students in
discussions about persistence, and I tried to help them develop this quality
through learning strategies that increase problem-solving

Value of fun
The process of developing an “effort
rubric” was fun for my students and me. We had a great time developing
representations for each level of effort. And the fun increased the actual
effort they made during work time! Contextualizing the scale (creating a rubric
and attaching a meaningful, understandable metaphor for the various levels of
it) was what made it memorable. Here are two examples of contextualized effort
rubrics we came up with:

Example 1: Boat Motors
You work hard until the task is finished. You
keep working even when you struggle and cannot find the answer on the first try.
You ask questions that help you solve problems. You consider problems as
opportunities to learn more.

You work
on the task until you finish it. You continue to try, even if you are not
successful the first time.

You try
to do the task but you stop working when you run into problems.

You do not try very hard.

Example 2: Basketball
(descriptors for each level are identical to those above)
360-degree Slam Dunk
7 Jump Shot from the Free-throw Line
6 Layup

We came up with the outboard-motor theme
in the fall and switched to the basketball theme after winter ice formed on the
lake. Interestingly, students had much more to say when we evaluated effort on
days when their effort level was either very high (“I’m even beyond a 360-degree
slam dunk; I’m a 720, baby!!”) or very low (“The battery’s dead on the ol’
trollin’ motor, Mr. Merhar.”).

I was surprised by how honest they were
when they assessed themselves. I made it part of my routine to remind them about
our effort rubric at the beginning of each work session, which helped them
remember our goal: to try.

Good intentions
As time passed and
use of the effort rubric became second nature to most students, an interesting
pattern began to emerge. Many students would not only write their assignment on
their goal sheet at the beginning of a work session, but they would also fill in
the effort rubric (a step usually taken at the session’s end). When I questioned
students about this, many said it didn’t matter when they filled out the effort
rubric anymore because their effort would match what they predicted, regardless
of when they filled it out. I found this to be true. This demonstrated that for
them the intent to put forth a good effort was directly correlated to the
actual effort put forth.

Tracking effort using contextualized rubrics
turned out to be one of the best ways to motivate my students. I surveyed them
about the effectiveness of the rubrics, and found that 22% found the practice to
be highly motivating, 59% found it “kinda” motivating and 10% found it not at
all motivating.

Encouraging results
Achievement results were
encouraging. Evaluating daily assignment completion and performance on unit
tests, those who recorded a growing sense of self-efficacy through daily use of
effort rubrics were considerably more successful than those who didn’t, just as
researchers predicted. No matter the level of the students at the start of the
year, those whose self-efficacy didn’t improve almost invariably continued to

What impact does daily tracking of student effort have on
student success in mathematics? After an extended period during which effort was
emphasized, I found that students with low self-efficacy learned to change their
beliefs about themselves, increasing self-efficacy and, in turn, increasing
academic success.

Bussey, K, & Bandera, A.
1999. Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation.
Psychological Review 106: 676-713.

Margolis, H, & McCabe, P.P.
2003. Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners.
Preventing School Failure 47: 162.

Stevens, T., Olivarez, A., Lan,
W. Tallent-Runnels, M. 2004. Role of mathematics self-efficacy and motivation in
mathematics performance across ethnicity. The Journal of Educational
97 (March-April): 208-222.

Charlie Merhar teaches 7th
grade math at Red Lake Middle School in Red Lake MN.

Published September 2007