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Developing Student Self-Efficacy in a Virtual Environment: A Key to Success

Developing Student Self-Efficacy in a Virtual Environment: A Key to Success

In a previous blog post, we explored the largely debunked theories of learning styles and multiple intelligences. While assigning auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile preferences as learning styles is not helpful, there are some practical steps teachers can take to capitalize on learners’ multidimensionality in the classroom.

One key step to unlocking learners’ potential is to approach all students knowing they have multiple dimensions of intelligence and learning preferences that vary between tasks. With enough practice and expert instruction, learners can demonstrate proficiency on almost anything. When educators adopt this mindset, rather than assigning static labels to students, they create space for students to build self-efficacy. In this post, we’ll look at the educational research base behind self-efficacy, its impact in the classroom, and intentional strategies to develop self-efficacy in a virtual learning environment. 

What Does the Research Say?

As we consider what research-based strategies for the classroom, one study that provides a hierarchy of techniques is John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers. In his Visible Learning series, Hattie ranks instructional techniques by effect sizes. In social sciences, effect sizes help us understand the degree of impact a treatment has on other variables. The greater the effect size, the more larger the impact. In Hattie’s list of over 250 influences on achievement, feedback has a large effect size, while school size has a moderate effect size. Self-efficacy is near the top of the list, with a very large effect size.

The Basics of Self-Efficacy

Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as students’ beliefs that they can be successful on a task in front of them by producing a certain result, and researchers have explored how that belief is domain- and task-specific. Better yet, self-efficacy has been shown to have a direct (rather than indirect) impact on academic achievement and can be positively correlated to students’ self-regulated learning strategies. This means that self-efficacy helps students do things like plan their work, manage their time, apply sustained effort, persevere through challenging tasks, and think metacognitively. Self-efficacy is a learned behavior. In Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Albert Bandura identifies four ways that learners build self-efficacy:

  • Mastery experiences: learners were successful on a similar task in the past; therefore, they believe that they can be successful on the task in the present

  • Verbal persuasion: another person convinces learners that they can be successful on a task, which is most effective when they have a reason to believe that person

  • Vicarious experiences: learners watch someone else have success on the task and use that model to believe that they will also be successful

  • Physiological responses: emotions such as anxiety or excitement cause learners to believe that they will be successful

Self-Efficacy in the Classroom

Bandura’s principles are not new to teachers; all teachers want their students to be successful and use these four methods in the classroom.

It is easy to imagine several day-to-day examples:
  • Mastery experiences: guided practice, celebration of exceptional work, warm-ups, scaffolded questions moving from simple to complex

  • Verbal persuasion: feedback on assignments (yes, even constructive feedback!), positive affirmation and encouragement, normalization of cognitive struggle, and statements of belief in students as many times as they need to hear it

  • Vicarious experiences: teacher modeling, mixed-ability groupings, student demonstrations for the class

  • Physiological responses: class pump-ups before tests, celebratory rituals, and class stretching exercises

The bulleted list above is not exhaustive, but you likely recognize some techniques you have used before. These strategies often take place in classroom routines, conferences, grading/returning assignments, whole-class instruction, and group/independent work. On closer examination, however, you might notice that most of these techniques involve an interaction between teacher and student or between students. This presents a problem in digital learning, especially in the COVID-19 era, because interpersonal interactions happen less frequently in an online environment. Because digital environments shape the ways teachers and students interact, new tools are needed to build self-efficacy in students learning digitally.

Self-Efficacy in a Virtual Environment

To begin, it is helpful to understand the concept of transactional distance. Transactional distance is how close to—or how far from—other humans students feel in a digital environment. Students respond to online learning differently. Some feel very little transactional distance because they are tech savvy and native to forming relationships in an online space. On the other hand, students who struggle with technology or who do not feel a connection to other users in the program are likely to feel more transactional distance. In general, the lower the transactional distance, the more students feel connected to others and the greater the ability to develop self-efficacy.

If you are teaching virtually or in a hybrid setting, here are some practical recommendations to help decrease transactional distance and promote student self-efficacy:

1. Provide students with training on technology
  • Guide students step by step through how to use programs and devices being used in the classroom, and reteach until they are proficient

  • Create how-to videos for software and devices for them to reference later

  • Utilize visuals during live instruction; it is helpful to have visuals for students to reference as they navigate platforms (e.g., print and display a picture of a “mute” button if you are going to ask them to mute themselves)

  • If students have trouble typing, direct them to voice-to-text software

2. Provide students with personalized feedback
  • Find ways to help students know what they are doing well and where they can improve, such as commenting on digital assignments, leaving voice recordings, creating digital rubrics for assignments, or using email feedback templates

  • Help students understand technology-enhanced items; although personalized, targeted feedback can improve students’ self-efficacy, simply giving grades or correct/incorrect does not

  • While you may not be able to grade everything, find strategic ways to help students understand how they are performing and how to improve

3. Show students their progress
  • Take time to show students when they are growing, and celebrate growth as a community

  • Show past work compared to current work, including pictures

  • Set attainable goals with students, and help them become aware of their successes

  • Plainly display how far they have gone in a course and how much they have left to complete

4. Plan for mastery experiences
  • Provide clear directions and expectations for online assignments so that students can be successful

  • Provide warm-up problems and guided practice to show students that they can master material

  • Begin assignments with less complex tasks, and build tasks up over time

  • Plan to meet virtually with students who struggle with concepts and to provide targeted support

5. Use video to model and connect
  • Use video for interaction to help students connect to their teacher and peers; most devices now come with front-facing cameras

  • When teaching the whole class, provide a video of your face and a video of the materials students will need to see on their own desktop, such as texts, worksheets, or simulations

  • Allow students time in breakout rooms to collaborate and share learning


Self-efficacy increases student success in both face-to-face and online learning environments. Students increase their self-efficacy primarily through interpersonal interactions, which can be difficult when learning online. By decreasing transactional distance and focusing on building self-efficacy, virtual and hybrid teachers can increase student achievement.

Edmentum’s digital programs can help teachers build self-efficacy in several ways. Exact Path’s individualized learning provides students with mastery experiences. Clarifying Big Ideas mini lessons in Courseware create vicarious modeling experiences. Progress dashboards in all of Edmentum’s programs help students understand how they are progressing, and EdOptions Academy offers live teaching and grading services to provide students with expert feedback. Edmentum is committed to building school around students wherever learning happens and to building students’ self-efficacy in digital environments as a key element to that success.