The Stories Learners Tell Themselves (and How We Can Shape Them)

Guest Post by Josh Ecker

“I’m not good enough.” “I’ll never be as good at X as they are.” “If only I could learn like they do.” Being a middle school teacher, I can see these kinds of thoughts are present in the minds of many learners, who struggle to see their own capabilities, who tell themselves limiting stories. For learners who are adjusting to personalized learning contexts, this negative self-talk can be an especially pervasive problem. Unfortunately, a learner’s negative beliefs often guide their actions, leading to outcomes that reinforce these beliefs, creating a vicious cycle. This reality speaks to the fact that so much of our capability as learners is tied to our self-image, our identity.

The Role of Self-Efficacy in a Learner’s identity

As noted elsewhere, identity is the key factor leading to learner empowerment, through the process of self-understanding, self-belonging, and self-discovery. Particularly in adolescence, navigating one’s identity can be an arduous process. So, how do we support learners through this process of identity navigation? How do we help them discover and define the potential in themselves and empower them to take ownership over their learning processes? One key aspect of one’s identity is their self-efficacy for learning tasks.

A concept originally constructed by famed research psychologist Alfred Bandura, self-efficacy can be understood as an individual’s domain-specific belief in their ability to achieve a desired goal. In educational contexts, we can see how self-efficacy plays a major role in learners’ identity navigation, impacting their thoughts and actions. This is evident in the personal experiences of teachers, as well as research publications, such as Transcend’s Designing for Learning Primer, which highlights the importance of considering learner self-efficacy when designing learning environments. 

As an example, a learner might have high self-efficacy for effectively completing a lab activity in their chemistry class, but low-self efficacy for writing a five page argumentative essay. For this reason, they focus on the lab writeup, procrastinating on the essay until the night before and turning in work below their capabilities. In turn, the low grade they receive on the rushed essay reinforces their belief that they are not good at argumentative writing, starting the next round of this cycle.

Cultivating Self-Efficacy in Learners

The power of one’s self-efficacy beliefs is clear, so what can we do to help learners develop a positive self-image, one in which they understand the vastness of their own capabilities to self-direct their learning? Within self-efficacy theory, Bandura identifies four sources of self-efficacy, four kinds of experiences that can cultivate or hinder one’s belief in themselves: physiological responses, verbal persuasion, vicarious experiences, and mastery experiences. 

Physiological responses are the physiological and emotional responses we have to different experiences. Our example learner above likely had a positive response to the lab activity and a negative one to the argumentative essay, reinforcing their limiting beliefs about their writing. Verbal persuasion refers to words of encouragement from individuals that the learner trusts and respects. For our learner who is struggling with their essay, some positive reinforcement about their writing abilities from a trusted friend or teacher might be what they need to stop putting off the writing, giving themselves the time and confidence they need to produce high quality work. Vicarious experiences are observations of others the individual sees as similar to them successfully completing the desired task. If our learner sees their friends as similar to them, and their friends are successfully writing their own essays, this will help the learner do the same. Lastly, mastery experiences are direct experiences of the individual successfully completing a desired task. Once our learner has their first experience writing a strong argumentative essay, they will be more likely to perceive their capability for doing so in the future. These four sources of self-efficacy can be harnessed in personalized learning environments to help learners develop more positive self images and exercise their agency as learners.

Create a classroom culture that builds trust, removes fear of failure.

There are many ways these sources of self-efficacy can be used to guide the design of personalized learning spaces. One way is by creating a classroom culture that removes the fear of failure. In doing so, learners will have more positive physiological responses when things don’t go their way, feeling less stress related to their classroom performance and giving them the peace of mind needed to develop more positive self-images. 

Some strategies we can use to cultivate this kind of culture include an Epic Fail Board and active celebration of failures. The fail board is a place for learners to write down the projects and activities that didn’t go as planned on sticky notes and post them on the wall for all to see. Being able to observe others’ challenges and share a laugh with them about it releases so much of the performance anxiety learners feel in schools. For situations in which a fail board won’t work or doesn’t make sense, educators can create this culture by asking learners to share their “fails” with the class in the moment. After sharing, the class can celebrate by giving the learner a round of applause..

Another way to cultivate self-efficacy in learners is by creating a classroom culture in which the learner trusts those around them, unlocking the potential for verbal persuasion so learners will accept positive reinforcement from classmates and teachers. As educators, we can cultivate trusting environments by demonstrating trust in our own interactions with learners. This includes listening to the opinions of learners without rebuking them when we disagree, as well as giving them opportunities to make decisions that they might not always get to make in school, such as having the freedom to choose their seat. Though these actions might appear insignificant to some, they serve as a bridge to the trusting classroom culture that needs to exist for learners to internalize the positive reinforcement directed towards them.

Creating a culture in which we build trust and remove the fear of failure also paves the way to help learners engage in meaningful, vicarious and mastery learning experiences.

The ETL Profile – Designed to Improve Self-Efficacy

The Empower the Learner Profile

To cultivate vicarious experiences in a personalized learning context, it’s important we highlight the successes of learners. For example, a learner who has successfully created their Empower the Learner (ETL) Profile in BookCreator can share their finished product, as well as the process involved in creating it, with their classmates. It’s essential, in this example, that the learner shares both their successes and struggles during the creation process, again reinforcing the idea that overcoming challenges is an inherent part of learning, and not something that indicates limited capabilities.

Mastery experiences, or firsthand success for a learner completing a task, need to be approached gradually, preventing overwhelm and maximizing the potential for success. The same learners who found early success navigating the personalized learning environment can play a pivotal role by acting as coaches for their peers. They could, for example, provide tips and constructive feedback for classmates who are in the process of crafting their ETL Profiles. These mastery experiences can also be cultivated through smart instructional planning. Though we, as educators, might view the development of an ETL Profile as fairly straightforward, there is a lot to unpack for learners who aren’t used to exercising agency in their learning. To break this activity down into manageable pieces, a teacher might provide some front loading on core ideas and activities, such as spending an entire class period helping learners navigate the process of identifying their strengths.

As you can see, self-efficacy, as part of our broader understanding of learner identity, is a powerful frame of reference for guiding the development of these experiences. By implementing these and other strategies to support the development of self-directed, confident learners, we can create more effective and engaging personalized learning experiences for them.

Combined with tools of personalized learning, such as the ETL profile, we can move closer to our goal of having all learners believe in themselves, empowering them to take ownership of their identity and their learning, telling themselves the kinds of stories that highlight and cultivate their limitless potential.

Josh Ecker

Josh Ecker is an educator in the Salisbury Township School District and an Ed.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University. He believes schools have the potential to do more to engage all learners and prepare them for modern life, and his mission is to support the development of learner-centered innovations to make that belief a reality. When he’s not learning, teaching, cooking, marathoning TV shows, or spending time with loved ones, he’s sharing ideas on Twitter and his blog.



Empower the Learner (ETL) Profile is a trademark of Empower the Learner, LLC. All rights reserved.


One Comment

Kelli Suding

Impactful & truthful read…thanks for sharing these words. I LOVE the Empower The Learner Profile also! ?


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