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This study relates self-efficacy to retention for online psychology students.
The thought crosses this editor’s mind that self-efficacy is significant in
completion of any learning task in any discipline, whether learning takes place
online or face-to-face.
Self-Efficacy & Motivation Effects on
Online Psychology Student Retention
The Effects of
self-efficacy and level of motivation on retention
for learners in online graduate psychology programs
Online classrooms are considered
the future wave of education. Increase availability of computer technology and
acceptance of adult online professional degrees have fostered this attitude.
Online education requires learners to be self-directed, intrinsically motivated,
and have practical knowledge of computer technology. Influenced by perception of
individual ability, student’s motivation, self-beliefs, and teaching practices
can account for the difference among students completing an online degree.
Bandura (2001) explains the effects of beliefs as reciprocally influencing the
person and the environment in a triadic relationship. Can self-efficacy beliefs
and levels of motivation account for online psychology student retention? The
author will discuss the implications of social cognitive theory concept of
self-efficacy, its relationship to motivation, teaching practices, and online
graduate psychology student retention.
Distant learning can be described
as the educational wave of the future. The acceptance of home school as a valid
form of education and the success shown by the distant learner home schooled
children have influenced the expansion of mode of education to the university
and professional degrees. Increase availability of computer-based technology has
opened the way to increased college educational availability to adults who
otherwise would have not been able to attain a college degree. Exposure to
technology also made possible the use of computers to aid classroom instruction.
Technological advances have facilitated the development of faster Internet
communication, lower technology costs, and more user-friendly computer software.
These advances have enabled the tracking and storage of information needed in an
on-line instructional web based education. Online education has opened a new
world of collaboration and increased availability of information and educational
opportunities (Wang & Newlin, 2000). Psychologists are no exception to the
influx of Internet driven education in their attainment of advance professional
Employment and licensure
opportunities that require advanced graduate degrees motivated psychologists to
continue their education until reaching a professional degree. Even though
online graduate education attracts many psychology students, few research
studies have dealt with the question that can theoretically explain specific
learner’s characteristics that aid the success and completion of an online
professional psychology degree (Wang & Newlin, 2000). Empirical investigation
results could define and become the base line for strategies that increase the
retention of online graduate psychology students.
Sherry (1996) presents distant
learners’ student characteristics and learning styles as well as teaching
techniques that aid this type educational experience. Sherry establishes that
self-directed behavior and an internal locus of control are important
ingredients for distant students. Online learners’ characteristics can present
useful information that could bring light to practices that will increase the
likelihood of degree completion. The use of a theoretical foundation as the
basis for empirical data gathering is an important step to determine and narrow
down characteristics that can contribute to online student retention. The
determination of a theoretical construct that can account for student retention
therefore has to be directly related to academic achievement and resiliency
among online graduate psychology students.
Psychologists and psychology
students can receive a professional degree from a web-based institution, which
results in a costly well-rounded educational experience enhancing the
professional’s own experience learning with others in the field. The
characteristics of these cyber-students is often cited as self-motivated,
self-starter, critical thinker, degree of family support, class content and
personal/career interest, amount and type of feedback with instructors and other
students, accepts responsibility for own learning, organized, and practical
knowledge in the use of computers, (Murphy, 1998). These experiences have
created momentum and positive perception in the attainment of a well-rounded
educational experience. Self-perceptions and confidence in the attainment of
one’s goal also affect the outcome of such an endeavor.
Campbell (1999) describes adult
distant learner characteristics based on the andragogy model. The andragogy
model states that adults have come to the psychological stage of life where they
are responsible for their well being and can execute self-directed activities
(p. 1). This coincides with Thompson (1998) findings witch states that adult
distant learners are older, more mature, married, employed, and female (p.2).
Research attempts to establish a relationship between online graduate student
retention and demographical characteristics has been inconclusive and
contradictory (Thompson, 1998). Assuming that distant learner’s characteristics
are applicable to online learners, Thompson and Campbell’s lack of specificity
only accounted for overall characteristics. Specificity and determination of a
valid theoretical foundation constitute a deficiency in the empirical data of
online graduate psychology student characteristics. Wang & Newlin (2000)
established that current research determining online student characteristics
relies on anecdotal evidence (p. 137).
The individual characteristics of
each participant are important factors in the completion of educational goals.
These educational goals have to match the individuals’ preparedness and
willingness to engage in such a program. Web-based distant learning provides
learners with the opportunity to maintain their life-style, interact with other
students from remote places, the ability to plan a study schedule around other
activities, cut down in travel to have more time to search for resources,
benefit from an array of resources and from diverse faculty interest. The
combination of experiences and the facilitation of an experienced professor
provide the ideal learning experience for an array of students seeking a
professional degree in psychology. Each individual’s characteristics,
motivations, and experiences are accounted for during the course of learning.
Different from traditional education, each individual is solely responsible for
his or her own learning.
Faculty also presents an important
piece of the paradigm of individual student learning by becoming the resource in
which the learning takes place. An online distant learning professor’s
creativity and level of planning influence the specific interactive nature of
this type of instruction. McKeachie (2002) explains the difference in the
process of teaching a distant course as, “Distant teaching is an extended act of
imagination.” (p. 258). Professors have to process the course sequence, guide
instructional activities, looking ahead to the need of the students.
Encouraging, motivating, guiding, are descriptors of the online web-base
For students to be successful, an
array of conditions are found to contribute to the retention of graduate
psychology students using the web-based education to fulfill their academic
goals. Motivational factors contribute to the retention of students. Bandura’s
social cognitive theory provides a framework that can account for differences in
the retention of students. In addition, motivational factors, internal and
external influences captivate the individual’s ability to complete an online
graduate psychology degree using a distant learning program. Bandura’s social
cognitive theory presents the reciprocal influences of three areas of learning.
Behavior, personal (cognitive, affective, biological) events, environmental and
behavioral conditions affect student motivation (Schunk & Pajares, 2001). The
concept of self-efficacy can account for the differences between graduate
psychology students completing their degree or withdrawing from such a program.
In addition, self-efficacy provides the root of the motivational process that
affects the individual attainment of educational goals.
The formulation of concepts
regarding the characteristics of web-based distant learning psychology programs
and degree completion will be addressed by taking in consideration the following
questions: Is the completion rate directly related to the level of motivation
and self-efficacy of those seeking to complete a distant learning program? What
differences are there among those students that complete a distant learning
web-based psychology program?
The search for such information
will determine the possible need to stimulate research in this area. Caution
should be given when attempting to encapsulate individual characteristics with
degree completion. Many other variables can account and influence such a result.
This essay will attempt to explain retention of distant on-line graduate
psychology program students using Bandura’s social cognitive theory
self-efficacy and level of motivation.
Social Cognitive Theory
Social cognitive theory
establishes that human behavior is influenced and affected by the individual,
behavior, and environment. Each person affects as well as it is affected by this
triadic relationship. The theory establishes that each individual possesses the
capacity to symbolize, develop self-directed forethought, and learn from his or
her and others individual experiences (Schunk & Pajares, 2001). According to
social-cognitive theory, each individual possesses a self-regulating system that
affects motivation and learner differentiation. This self-regulating system
represents a process that is affected by a bi-directional and interdependent
relationship between behavior, personal experiences, and environment (Bandura,
2001). This relationship becomes a triadic interrelation that influences
motivation and self-beliefs. The self-system is a part self-regulatory system
that each individual possess. The self-regulatory system aids in the development
of beliefs and behavior that will enable or discount actions. Research
has shown that self-regulatory behavior can account for academic achievement (Pajares
1996; 2001a; 2001b; 2002; Pajares & Schunk, 2001). As part of this
self-regulatory system, Bandura introduced the concept of self-efficacy. He
defines self-efficacy as an essential part of the human functioning reciprocally
motivating and perpetuating the individual’s behavior (Bandura, 2001). The
concept of self-efficacy can be considered as the theoretical foundation to
determine the individual differences that account for the retention of online
psychology graduate students.
Bandura (2001) explains the
process of thought and action as regulated by a self-system that enables
individuals to exercise control of their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Pajares (1996) describes the self-system as one that “houses one’s cognitive and
affective structures and includes the ability to symbolize, learn from others,
plan alternative strategies, regulate one’s own behavior, and engage in
self-reflection” (p. 1). The self-system is a self-regulatory subsystem that
mediates the influences of each of the triadic parts of individual’s behavior,
thoughts, feelings, and motivation. Based on the results of the interactions
between environment, personal characteristic, and beliefs, the individual’s
likelihood of similar actions to occur is increased. Each person affects his or
her environment and is influenced by his or her actions. The thoughts resulting
from this interrelationship becomes a mediator between knowledge and behavior
Each person’s experience forms an
important part in the development of self-regulation (Bandura, 2001; Pajares,
1996). The individual is therefore accumulating perception about his or her
performances that influence his or her self-belief. Through this bi-directional
reciprocal process, the individual is in control of his thoughts, environment,
and behavior. The self-system is composed of experiences and beliefs that each
person forms of his or her abilities. According to Bandura (2001), self-efficacy
is the concept by which each person’s experiences, abilities, and thoughts
merges into one road. This concept could account for the online learner level of
motivation, affecting the retention of online psychology graduate student
Self-Efficacy and Motivation
Bandura defines self-efficacy as
“people’s judgment of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of
action required to attain designated types of performances” (p. 2).
Self-efficacy regulates the way in which an individual perceives his or her
competency. This perception influences an individual’s ability to complete a
task and a set, attainable goal (Pajares & Schunk, 2001). This perception also
affects the level of motivation and resilience the individual develops. Each
individual develops a visualization of self, creating what Bandura calls a
self-system. This self-system provides cognitive and affective information basic
to the control of thoughts, feelings, and actions. An individual perception
activates the self-system providing information regarding past experiences,
accomplishments, and failures. These experiences are processed, stored, and used
by the self-efficacy beliefs system, which in turn affects experiences,
thoughts, behavior, and environment. The self-system then forms
conceptualizations of the individual’s abilities. These perceptions become the
motivational drive that accompanies action.
Self-efficacy directly affects the
levels of motivation and actions individuals engage. By determining what
activities they are more likely to accomplish, the adult learner engages in
actions they are more likely to succeed. According to Pajares (2001a), Pajares
(2001b), and Schunk & Pajares (2001), research studies have demonstrated that
self-efficacy affects the level of motivation, learning, and achievement. Social
cognitive theory proposes a bi-directional interrelation between each part of
the individual’s experience, as well as the cognitive summary of the experiences
each individual accumulates through the years. Each individual forms a set of
self-efficacy beliefs that account for his or her motivation and resilience in
completing an activity. Students’ perceptions are based on information obtained
from “actual performances, their vicarious experiences, and the persuasions they
receive from others and their physiological reactions” (p. 2). High
self-efficacy contributes to beliefs in the individual’s capacity to learn,
motivating experiences and the efforts placed on learning.
Self-efficacy is not only a
judgment of an individual’s ability, but also the beliefs that an individual
develops regarding his or her ability to successfully complete a task. The
development of self-efficacy is the result of the triadic interrelationship
between environment, personal characteristics, and behavior. Self-efficacy
influences the will to complete a task, perform an action, or engage in an
activity. This perception of self-efficacy interrelates with the individual’s
ability to complete a task. According to social cognitive theory, each
individual’s motivation is driven by self-efficacy beliefs as well as other
self-regulatory characteristics (e.g. self-esteem). Self-efficacy influences
motivation by the individual’s perception of their ability. An individual can
have a high level of motivation and self-efficacy on a learning task, but his or
her actual experience may affect the individual’s belief of his or her ability
to complete such a task. The learning process is then mediated by self-efficacy,
which motivates and affects the effectiveness of self-directed behavior (Pajares,
1996, p. 7).
Self-efficacy is an essential part
of learning that affects the individual’s belief that it is possible to engage
and complete a task. If self-efficacy can account as a characteristic that
affects the retention of online graduate psychology student, the inclusion of
this concept in the teaching practices of online classroom can enhance and
prevent students withdrawing from their psychology graduate programs.
Self-Efficacy and Teaching Practices
The particularities of online
learning do not include motivational factors based on modeling and or perceptual
similarities. The learning process occurs using the written language found in
online discussions and task completion. Each individual experience constitutes
the foundation in which interactions include new found knowledge. During the
online learning process, each individual is responsible for task completion. The
compilation of knowledge presented in the course, as well as assigned projects
during the length of the class, aid in the process of learning. The organization
of online courses is an important part in the enhancement of the learning
process. The teacher should consider the characteristics of their students in
the process of course design (McKeachie, 2002).
Sherry (1996) describes distant
learning as learning that should be directed toward the needs of the students
and not on inclusion of technology within the learning process. If this is taken
into consideration, the development of teaching strategies should focus on
student characteristics. Self-efficacy can be considered an important
motivational part of student characteristics. Therefore, if self-efficacy can be
increased by teacher-student interactions, then teaching practices could enhance
each student’s belief system, increasing the probability for online graduate
Bandura (2001) explains that human
behavior is an ever-changing process. Interactions and modes of learning are
bi-directional influenced by the self-regulatory system. Lacking the
face-to-face interaction, online graduate learners are more vulnerable to the
self-regulatory system. Drawing from their self-beliefs and self-efficacy
system, the online students depend on validation from the interaction with their
professors. If this influence is considered valid, then teaching techniques used
can enhance the self-efficacy system of an adult student receiving online
graduate education (Debowski, Wood, & Bandura, 2001). Self-efficacy can account
for the heightened retention of students otherwise leaving this non-traditional
form of education.
Considering that self-efficacy
influences the choices people make, the actions they take, the amount of effort
placed on an activity, how quickly the individual recovers from a set back, the
belief that things are tougher that they really are, and many other factors
enhancing motivation; then self-efficacy becomes an important source of
motivation for the online graduate learner. Wang & Newlin (2000) reported that
online web-based education psychology students, when compared with traditional
education students, have a high need for cognition and an internal locus of
control. The investigators studied the cognitive-motivational and demographic
characteristics of psychology students enrolled in an online graduate web-based
psychological statistics course and compared them with students taking a
face-to-face, more traditional course to determine success. The implication of
Wang & Newlin study opens a categorical question regarding empirical information
available to predict the success of students. Self-efficacy may account for the
base line and theoretical construct to investigate the differentiation among
online psychology students seeking a professional degree.
Online education requires the
development of skills necessary to meet course requirements. One important skill
is the ability to utilize the online resources available to the student.
Debowski, Wood, & Bandura (2001) studied the self-regulatory process on the
mechanics and acquisition of information through electronic search. They found
that university students enrolled in an accounting course that were guided
through the exploration of the internet “produced higher levels of perceived
self-efficacy, satisfaction, strategy quality, and performance and lower levels
of wasted effort on electronic search tasks than self-guided, enactive
exploration” (p. 13).
Schunk & Pajares (2001) present
some useful information regarding the development of self-efficacy and possible
instructional strategies. They report that clear goals and expectations enhance
the learning process and contribute to individual self-efficacy beliefs. Pajares
(2002) presents the importance of the self-system, specifically self-efficacy,
as follows: “Unless people believe that their actions will have the desired
consequences, they have little incentive to engage in those actions” (p. 6).
Professors engaged in distant
education know the importance of identifying their audience and visualizing
students’ needs while planning an online course. Distant educators are also
aware of the importance of sequence in the process of course delivery. Research
has found that online education psychology students have a need for guidance in
the process of learning Debowski, Wood, & Bandura, 2001). Wang & Newlin (2000)
found that professors should closely monitor the online interactions of their
students, determining progress and providing feedback.
Self-efficacy proponents recommend
that teachers pay attention to the manner in which students perceive their
skills and confidence in completing a task. Online educators can enhance their
students’ learning experience and motivation by providing feedback that enhances
each student’s perception of competence, without compromising honesty. The
student’s perception of competence can enhance or diminish his or her level of
The applicability of self-efficacy
to teaching practices has to meet the specificity recommended and implied by
Bandura’s theory (Pajares, 1996). Interactions between the online learner and
the instructor will require specificity in the practices that will enable the
investigation of the effects of teaching techniques to specific self-efficacy
beliefs. Determining these conceptual practices will allow the modification and
improvement in the communication and the enhancement of the online learning
experience. The unavailability of empirical information regarding online
teaching practices will invite the use of specificity in theoretical construct
as well as well defined learning relationships among the variables studied.
Rapid growth and availability have
left distant education without sufficient empirical validation that can account
for the retention of students of online graduate psychology programs. Certain
online student characteristics are more conducive to resiliency and higher
levels of motivation. Self-efficacy was found to explain the differences in
students’ academic achievements. The specificity of these student
characteristics can provide the basis for empirical formulations. Bandura (2001)
and Pajares (1996) caution measurements of global self-efficacy and the failure
in the predictive ability of the concept of self-efficacy. Since self-efficacy
is a part of a self-regulatory system, the individuality of such characteristics
can only be measured in specific academic domains. Recommendations are made for
specificity in the constructs of empirical formulations to measure the
predictive ability of the concept of self-efficacy. There has been limited
empirical investigations regarding the applicability of the concept of
self-efficacy to online graduate psychology retention. Nevertheless, the
applicability of the concept to aid in the understanding of online learner
characteristics cannot be discounted.
Teaching strategies that will
enhance and predict online student retention are far from a conceptual
framework. The literature demonstrates that certain processes aid in the online
learning process, but lack the specific techniques that will enhance and promote
retention of online graduate psychology student. Even though self-efficacy
cannot directly account for specific teaching strategies, the importance of
self-efficacy as a conceptual theorem can validate the need for further
empirical investigation. Individual differences can account for levels of
retention in online graduate psychology education. Student characteristics
provide a basis for investigation and the belief that a student can accomplish a
task could determine the difference between retention and not completing an
online psychology graduate degree.
According to the information
presented, self-efficacy affects the beliefs and motivation level of the
individual. If a person believes that he or she can complete a task, the
probability that he or she will engage and become resilience to any obstacles
increases. Of course the belief is accompanied by many components that have been
bi-directionally affected by personal experiences, environment, and actions.
Individuals that have experienced academic success may be more prone to engage
in similar experiences. Their success in completing an online psychology degree
includes variables other than self-efficacy. However, the concept of
self-efficacy can partially account for the resiliency of those that complete
online graduate degrees.
At this time, literature cannot
account for differences in individual characteristics that aid the retention of
online students. Information and empirical evidence has brought light to the
characteristics of online students, with a lack of specificity concerning
This presentation is by no means
has covered all possible information in the subject of online psychology student
retention. Many other possible theoretical constructs that could account for
explanation of learner characteristic are not considered. The author
acknowledges the fact that many other theoretical constructs can be considered
in the conceptualization and explanation of individual differences, which can
account for online psychology student retention. Social cognitive theory present
a more empirically sound concept that can account for student achievement and
online psychology student retention. Undoubtedly the need for research
specifying the difference between online psychology student’s characteristics
and retention remains.
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About the Author
Robert Irizarry is currently
attending Walden University (Minneapolis, MN), Counseling Psychology Ph.D.
program. He holds a B.A. in Psychology, and M.A. in Counseling and Guidance from
the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico.
The author is interested in the
development of empirical information that will increase the knowledge and
effectiveness of retention effort of students registered in online psychology
educational programs. His telephone number is (832)-865-6997 and email address