Self-Efficacy and Adult Student Motivation

Good afternoon,


The LINCS Regional Professional Development Center (RPDC) for Region 2 has offered a 3-part webinar/study circle series this summer, Supporting Adult Student Motivation, for practitioners in LINCS Region 2.  This series was facilitated by Cris Smith, an associate professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst.  She specializes in adult literacy and teacher professional development research and courses and previously served as the Deputy Director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL).

The three topics for the series include:

  • Self-Efficacy
  • Goal Setting and Expectations
  • The Learning Environment

This series is based on research reported in the National Academy of Sciences’ recent publication, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research.  (This publication is available via free download from this site:  Chapter 5 (Motivation, Engagement, and Persistence) from that publication integrates findings from several disciplines including psychology, anthropology, and sociology.


Over the next several days, I will share summaries of the 3 webinars. Below are highlights from the first webinar.



Self Efficacy and Adult Student Motivation


The reasons—including desire or willingness--one has for acting or behaving in a particular way

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the willingness to undertake a behavior for its own sake, enjoyment or interest.

External motivation is the willingness to undertake a behavior


In adult literacy, persistence as defined as…

…adults staying in programs for as long as they can, engaging in self-directed study or distance education when they must stop attending services, and returning to program services as soon as the demands of their lives allow.[1]


A student’s belief about his/her ability in a particular domain, the belief that one can be successful when attempting a specific task.


Synonymous concepts:

  1. Expectancy belief
  2. Self-concept of ability


Self-efficacy is not….self-esteem or self-confidence: general beliefs about oneself.

Self-control and autonomy

A student’s belief that a completing a particular task is within his/her control, that s/he has some autonomy in choosing or engaging in a particular task.

Incremental vs. entity views of intelligence

An incremental view of intelligence is that intelligence is “malleable”; it is possible to learn anything.

An entity view of intelligence is that intelligence is fixed; a person cannot learn more than they are inherently or naturally capable of learning.

Zone of proximal development

ZPD is the area between a student’s current skills and the desired skills, where a student can do the skill with assistance but not yet alone. 

Attribution theory

The theory states that we “attribute” success or failure to certain factors, and those factors may be internal or external, controllable or uncontrollable, and/or stable or unstable.  Beliefs about internal and external factors can be either adaptive (positive) or maladaptive (negative). 

Situational vs. personal interest

Personal interest is a sustained interest in a topic or task that a student brings with him or her.

Situational interest is the interest “inspired by a particular event or characteristics of an experience” (e.g., an assignment).

Uploaded image from gailcope

Uploaded image from gailcope

To continue this discussion, I invite you to share the strategies you have used in your programs and classrooms to support adult learner engagement, motivation, and persistence.  I look forward to hearing from you! 


Gail Cope, SME, LINCS Program Management Group

[1] Comings, J.P. (2007). Persistence: Helping Adult Education Students Reach Their Goals.  Chapter 2 in J. Comings, B. Garner, and C. Smith (eds), Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 7, p. 24