We expect a lot of students as learners these days. Knowledge acquisition now means more than just receiving information. It involves students in actively constructing knowledge using what they know to make sense of the new content and its application. Learning at its best requires self-regulation, which mandates that students monitor and adjust their learning processes. And students should be learning in concert with others, which moves learning from a private to a public sphere, thereby increasing learners’ vulnerabilities. “Arguably, students can only fulfill these multiple expectations if they have robust academic self-efficacy beliefs about their capabilities” (Dixon et al., 2019, p. 460).
Confidence about their abilities to learn, especially certain kinds of content, is not a trait college students uniformly possess. Many of them harbor strong beliefs about the inadequacy of their abilities. Their low levels of self-efficacy regularly correlate with lower academic performance. Self-efficacy has been described as “a future oriented judgement that has more to do with perception than an actual level of competence” (p. 461). It’s what you believe you can do, not what you can actually accomplish.
Dixon and her colleagues recommend that teachers make “deliberate and substantial attempts to foster competence, confidence, persistence and resilience” in students (p. 460). In fact, learning that accomplishes what students believed to be impossible can be a profound experience. It’s preparation for imagining that control can be exercised over some (in most cases a lot) of what happens in life.
Research evidence documents that efficacy beliefs are most effectively changed by mastery experiences; successfully doing what seemed impossible provides compelling, firsthand evidence. (“You did it, so you can stop telling yourself that you can’t.”) Dixon and colleagues explore the use of exemplars in four related and interconnected instructional practices that develop positive self-efficacy beliefs.
Creating a trusting learning environment: Dialogue plays a key role in the use of exemplars. To be effective, students must discuss them—share opinions, make judgments, and talk about their own work in relationship to the exemplars. Making learning public involves risks, and students need to take those in an environment where their contributions are treated with empathy and respect. Teachers need to help students understand that making mistakes—on papers, problems, and test questions or in skill performances—is inevitable. First attempts are rarely successful, and it is through ongoing effort that work improves. Constructive feedback from the teacher and from peers can motivate persistence and build resilience—essential aspects of self-efficacy.
Selecting exemplars that inspire student confidence: Students respond positively to examples of work done by other students. The trick is finding a balance between building and undermining confidence. If teacher provides only outstanding exemplars, then students without strong self-efficacy beliefs may view those examples as confirmation that they can’t possibly deliver what’s expected. Dixon and colleagues suggest using a range of exemplars. If part of the discussion among students and the teacher focuses on ways to improve those less-than-spectacular examples, that can be very instructive.
Using exemplars to illustrate the magnitude of the task: The argument here is against breaking final products into a set of component parts. Good work doesn’t just have all the necessary parts; it’s made excellent by the relationships that are created between those parts. Students should be looking at exemplars and their own work holistically as well as particularly.
Building and sustaining evaluative and productive competence and confidence: Self-efficacy is “neither uniform nor stable over time or tasks” (Dixon et al., p. 467). Robust self-efficacy does not mean the learner never struggles or experiences self-doubt. What continues to build self-efficacy is the response to self-doubt. If that response is a continued willingness to work, to carry on even in the face of failure and setbacks, learning results and self-efficacy flourishes.
The use of exemplars adds transparency to assessment. The learning goals of assignments are best achieved when students confront them with criteria and examples in hand. But it is important to remember that being able to accurately assess the quality of an example requires a skill set that is “qualitatively different” from the skill set needed to “produce” or “construct” work. That makes it “critical that students are provided with sustained practice-oriented experiences, accompanied by substantive dialog exchanges [with the teacher and peers] which support the creation and amendment of works-in-progress” (p. 467). Or as my best writing teacher regularly announced, “The first time is for getting it down, not getting it right.”
Dixon, H., Hawe, E., & Hamilton, R. (2020). The case for using exemplars to develop academic self-efficacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(3), 460–471. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1666084
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