Personal interests are not the only factors that drive educational and career choices and can be trumped by family expectations or other external influences. But interests are “strong motivational drivers of the choices that students make in their educational and career lives,” said Robert W. Lent, professor of counseling and personnel services at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Lent described his work on applying SCCT to the issue of expanding the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline, noting that it serves as a template with which to view and develop interventions designed to encourage minorities to enter research careers. SCCT draws heavily from the more general social cognitive theory of the Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura. The key construct in Bandura’s work is the concept of self-efficacy—people’s beliefs about their ability to perform specific behaviors or actions. In particular, it refers to domain-specific confidence in particular situations, not to self-confidence as a general trait. In the context of science and mathematics, said Lent, self-efficacy addresses “the fundamental question: Can I do this thing? Can I, for example, do well in math and science courses in middle or high school? Can I do well in a science or engineering-related major in college?”
Self-efficacy beliefs, in turn, derive largely from four sources, according to Bandura’s theory. The first and most important is prior performance—the levels of mastery or failure that people have experienced. “If I have done well in the past at a particular academic subject, for example, I am likely to expect in the future that I can do well in it as well,” said Lent. “Conversely, if I’ve not done so well, my self-efficacy beliefs are going to drop.”
The three other sources of self-efficacy beliefs are also important. One is observations of others’ learning or the experience of models, especially models that one perceives as being similar to oneself. “For example, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and so forth, viewing our models as being efficacious at things we want to do is a good way of raising self-efficacy—or lowering it, depending on the nature of the model,” Lent said.
Another source of self-efficacy beliefs is the social messages that encourage or discourage participation in an activity. Students receive many messages from others and from the mass media that can influence their confidence about a particular activity. “But talk is cheap,” Lent reminded the workshop participants. “Sometimes, if we try to convince people that they are good at things that we are not so sure they are—or that their own performance experiences