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Leveraging Social Cognition to Improve Student Learning

Todd Zakrajsek, ITLC Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning

Key Statement: Self-efficacy and self-regulation are social processes that are critical for successful learning.

Keywords: Self-Efficacy, Self-Regulation, Social Cognition, Success


Although “brain-based” learning has captured the attention of educators for the past two decades, much of what has been discussed and implemented would fit much better into the areas of cognitive and social psychology. How we think about learning and what we think about our ability to learn have a tremendous impact on what we learn, how fast we learn, and the extent to which we recall what we learn. Many students would benefit from structured and specific guidance in how cognitive and social factors impact their learning. At the very least we should make learners aware that such factors exist. Two important areas that could serve as a starting point of such discussions are self-efficacy and self-regulation.

Photo by Prateek Katyla. Unsplash.


Self-efficacy is the belief that we can successfully complete a desired task (Akhtar, 2008). If a person does not believe they can achieve something, they are rarely successful in doing so. Effective coaches and teachers devote time to convincing students they are capable of amazing levels of performance, often at levels students had not thought themselves capable of achieving. There are relatively easy ways for you to positively impact your students’ level of self-efficacy. Albert Bandura (1977), the psychologist who coined the term, noted four factors affecting self-efficacy.

The first, and most important, factor in setting a level of self-efficacy is prior experience. Successes cause increased self-efficacy, and failures cause decreases. If a student takes a challenging course and does well in the course, their self-efficacy for taking any similar challenging course increases; they feel confident in themselves and their ability to learn and perform at that level. However, when a student fails an exam or an entire course, it may reduce self-efficacy for any future course in that area, or course from that instructor, or even at that school. When we fail, we look for a reason we fail and then often lose self-efficacy relative to that reason. Failing the first exam in a course may well lead a student to question their ability to successfully complete the course. That is why “weed-out courses” are typically effective in dropping enrollment. That which results in failure does not need to be related to the ability of the student in order to reduce their self-efficacy—they just need to fail. An unreasonably challenging first exam or selecting a very challenging textbook is often, unfortunately, very effective in lowering self-efficacy.

Second, modeling can impact self-efficacy. When a person sees someone succeed, self-efficacy rises. Conversely, witnessing a failure can lower self-efficacy. The impact is largest if the observer relates to the person being observed. If a person who you consider to be like you fails a test in your class, your self-efficacy takes a hit.

A third factor is social persuasion. Social persuasion happens when a person tells you they believe you can do something (increased self-efficacy) or that they think you cannot succeed (decreased self-efficacy). This direct encouragement or discouragement is particularly impactful if the learner respects the opinion of the person providing feedback. As a faculty member, anything you say to a student has the potential to impact their self-efficacy. You can boost self-efficacy, and as a result potential success, simply by saying, “Based on the impressive work you have produced thus far in this class, I know you can do this.”

The fourth and final factor is the psychological interpretation of a physiological response to a situation. If a student is feeling anxious just before a big presentation and thinks, “I bet this is how football players feel just before a big game. I’m nervous, but prepared, and psyched up to do well,” then their self-efficacy will increase. If, however, they think, “Why am I so nervous? I must not know the material as well as I should,” their self-efficacy will likely drop. You can frame physical responses in a positive way to influence self-efficacy. On the day of a big exam say, “I often got nervous before a big exam, but it is also exciting when you see what you can do.”

Self-efficacy is an important part of learning that is established and maintained by how we interpret the world around us and the behaviors of others as a comparison. This is all social psychology and social cognition, and it has a large impact on learning. Whereas self-efficacy was the belief in one’s ability to successfully complete a goal the concept of self-regulation pertains to a strategy for achieving a goal. They are certainly interrelated concepts, but the distinction is important.


Self-regulation is essentially controlling oneself (see The Scholarly Teacher's recent Buzzword; Zakrajsek & Nilson, 2023;). This is particularly important for first-year students who, perhaps for the first time in their life, have full control over what they do. Faced with making their own choices, college students will, with varying degrees of success, regulate their own behavior. It is the foundation for doing what needs to be done rather than what one wants to do. Baumeister (2014) identified four components to self-regulation: standards of desirable behavior, motivation to meet standards, monitoring situations and thoughts that occur just before a standard is broken, and willpower. A student may feel like skipping a class, but go because they know it will help them to learn critical aspects of the content. Some students skip assignments that are worth just a few points, because they don’t realize the importance of completing all work. There are many resources to assist students with developing self-regulation, and as a faculty member, there are things you can do to help students to make wise choices.

One example to help students develop a stronger level of self-regulation is for you to be a good role model. If you expect students to turn papers in on time, make sure you return graded papers when promised. Be open to change. Check in with the class periodically; if learners have a good suggestion for improving the class, give it some consideration. Keep calm in class when frustrated to model self-regulation of emotion. Create many low-stakes assignments rather than one or two high-stakes exams or papers. Create a community of learners that support one another. Also, let students know that you encourage them to ask you for assistance if they become frustrated with the course. Finally, note that making healthy food choices and exercising regularly helps maintain a positive affect.


Helping students better understand the social processes that impact their learning will help them to do better in your courses and every course after. There is little in education that will have a larger impact on students than how they see themselves. Unfortunately, far too many students, and faculty, do not know about this critical area, and therefore do not know of the potential impact, both positive and, unfortunately, negative.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think of something for which you have very high self-efficacy and something for which your self-efficacy is relatively low. For each, why do you think your self-efficacy is what it is?

  2. Describe one way that you can increase the self-efficacy of the students in your course within the next few weeks.

  3. What is one behavior you can model for students to help them improve in the area of self-regulation? Describe what you would do, what you would tell students about what you are doing, and your desired student outcome.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2): 191–215.

Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and inhibition.

Neuropsychologia, 65, 313–319.


Zakrajsek, T., & Nilson, L. (2023). Teaching at its best, 5th ed. Jossey-Bass.

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