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Critical Issue: Working Toward Student Self-Direction and Personal Efficacy as Educational Goals

Critical Issue: Working Toward Student Self-Direction and Personal Efficacy as Educational Goals

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ISSUE: Because learning in schools is traditionally dominated and controlled by adults, students seldom make decisions about their own learning (Goodlad, 1984). Even though our philosophies of education purport to graduating students who are responsible citizens capable of participating thoughtfully in a democracy, our educational practices have a tendency to foster dependence, passivity and a "tell me what to do and think" attitude.

OVERVIEW: A touchstone of effective learning is that students are in charge of their own learning; essentially, they direct their own learning processes. In a discussion of indicators of engaged, effective learning, Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, and Rasmussen (1995) describe characteristics of students who are responsible for their own learning. One characteristic is a student's ability to shape and manage change, in other words, self-directed. Covey (1989) recognizes the importance of self-directedness, which he calls proactivity, by including it as one of the habits characterizing highly-effective individuals: "It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen" (p. 71).

We as educators can nurture student self-direction and personal efficacy by providing students with opportunities before, during and after instruction to exercise some control of their own learning. This does not mean students make all the decisions and it does not mean reverting to a curriculum of "personal relevance" of the '60s or the "child centered curriculum" of years ago. An emphasis on student self-direction and efficacy means that we teach and engage students in specific strategies that offer them opportunities to make decisions and solve problems on their own without being told what to do at all times. It means we provide them with strategies designed to help them process information effectively and to be self-confident, believing that they have the abilities to succeed. And perhaps most important, we help students become more reflective about their thinking and learning processes.

Specific strategies we can provide include encouraging students to set their own goals for personal development and instructional improvement, and planning ways to achieve these goals. According to Hom and Murphy (1983):

From the world of business we know that people who achieve success are those who engage in planning, identifying specific goals, and designing strategies to work toward them (Peters & Waterman, 1982). To reach goals they have set, students can benefit from learning a variety of problem-solving strategies. Research (Perkins, 1992; Pressley, 1992) indicates that there are many strategies that all of us as learners can use while engaged in thinking through complex problems: (1) talking ourselves through problems; (2) asking what we know and need to find out; (3) posing questions; (4) visualizing relationships with existing knowledge; and (5) drawing our own conclusions. The importance of identifying the nature of the problem and planning strategies to solve it is emphasized by Sternberg (1985) who notes, "Better reasoners tend to spend more time encoding the terms of a problem than do poorer reasoners"(p.104).

When we help students develop an awareness about their own thinking and learning processes, we are helping them think about the effectiveness of the strategies they use in reaching the goals they have set. Essentially, they are "thinking about thinking," a process known as metacognition. In general, use of a long-term metacognitive strategy of planning what is to be done, monitoring our progress, and evaluating the results is an effective way of helping students take more control of their own thought and feeling processes (Barell, 1985).

Research helps us understand the important role played by self-confidence and a feeling of being in control. For example, research suggests that students perform at higher levels if they have confidence in themselves (Pressley, 1987) and that personal efficacy is a matter of internal locus of control. Students with more internal locus of control attribute their success to their own abilities and not to luck or chance, as do persons with an external locus of control (Thomas, 1980). When students realize that their thoughts control their actions (i.e., their locus of control is internal), they can positively affect their own beliefs, motivations, and academic performance (McCombs, 1991).

Marge DaweMarge Dawe, a teacher at Richard Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan, describes how she works to build personal confidence in the minds of her students. [Audio file, 162k] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #7, Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century (NCREL, 1992).

In some situations, students may require extra guidance from teachers in order to self-direct their learning. Types of guidance include helping students develop an awareness of their beliefs about their abilities and about their role in choosing to learn or choosing not to learn.

The implications for assessment in classrooms where students are self-directed are obvious. In both the during and after stages of instruction, students continuously monitor and evaluate their own learning processes. Self-regulation and efficacy imply that students begin to share more in their own self-evaluation (Costa,1991; Wiggins, 1993; Barell, 1995) and not leave all assessment to their teachers.


ACTION OPTIONS: Teachers design instruction where students have multiple opportunities to engage in the following:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: In traditional classrooms the teacher is seen as the information giver; knowledge flows only one way from teacher to student. In contrast, the methods used in a collaborative classroom emphasize shared knowledge and decision making. The teacher has the knowledge of content, skills, and instruction but values the contribution students can make. The personal experiences, prior knowledge, and cultural background they bring to the learning experience are used as a basis for instruction. Collaborative teaching requires teachers to share authority with students allowing them a voice in setting goals, deciding on activities, etc.

Teachers may have a great deal of difficulty learning how to share control of instruction with students. Teachers are taught to make the decisions in the classroom and helping students make their own decisions will conflict with some teachers' learned experiences as well as their feelings about being in charge. The reorientation towards a student-owned classroom requires not only a cognitive but an affective reorientation as well. For some teachers this is a most difficult challenge. Finding time for planning collaborative instruction is another problem.

Similarly, students who are used to relying on teachers to give them so much structure, direction and information will have to learn to start asking themselves, "What can I do before I ask an adult?"

And, finally, it will be easier for some schools to discuss and work toward self-direction for students than it will be for them to implement similar strategies for all the adults within the building.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some psychologists point out that fostering self-determination and personal efficacy can conflict with our goals for collaborative work (Sigel) unless we find ways to mold both goals into our instructional programs. Overemphasis upon self-direction strategies may result in perpetuating competition as the norm within classrooms (Kohn, 1986).

Other educators will note that efficacy and self-direction can refer not only to the individual but to a group, a class of students, that decides upon goals, designs strategies and collaboratively evaluates progress on a group basis. As Vygotsky (1978) notes, learning to think occurs within a social context; group speech gradually becomes internalized as personal self-talk about confronting life's difficult, complex situations.

Finally, personal efficacy means taking control of one's destiny. This concept has very strong implications for school restructuring and change, for students' engaging in their own self-assessment, and a complete reorientation of our thinking about who controls the educational processes for whose benefit and why. (See Apple, 1979; Anyon, 1979). Schools are generally controlled by adults for reasons that meet the needs of adults or the needs of society as perceived by adults. Some critics (Apple, 1979) suggest that schools help students reproduce knowledge of a dominant social, economic class, and not engage in producing for their own knowledge.

Further, many parents are concerned that a reorientation toward student self-direction and personal efficacy will diminish the influence of home and school and inadequately prepare students for the work force.


Jeff Howard and "Efficacy Project"

Lake Okoboji High School, Milford, Iowa: A Sense of Place Project


Efficacy Institute
128 Spring St.
Lexington, MA 02173
(617) 862-4390; fax (617) 862-2580
Contact: Jeff Howard

Maryland Assessment Consortium
10350 Whitewasher Way
Columbia, MD 21044
(301) 694-1337; fax (301) 694-1800
Contact: Jay McTighe, Director


This Critical Issue Summary was researched and written by John Barell, professor of education at Monclair State University and former director of the ASCD Network on Teaching Thinking. He conducts workshops across the country on teaching for thoughtfulness.

Date posted: 1995
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