The development of self-efficacy in first year biology students

Louise Ainscough, Kay Colthorpe, Eden Foulis, Kirsten Zimbardi


The transition from high school to higher education introduces a variety of challenges for students (Parker, Hogan, Eastabrook, Oke & Wood, 2006). First year students are often unsure of the expectations of university, and may need to adapt their learning strategies to succeed in this environment. Cognitive dispositions, such as self-efficacy, may play a role in determining the resilience of students as they progress through tertiary education. Self-efficacy encompasses personal judgments regarding one’s ability to perform a task, and is correlated with academic achievement, task persistence, motivation and resilience (Bandura, 1986; Komarraju & Nadler, 2013). Previous research has indicated that most students over-estimate their ability to perform academic tasks (Klassen, 2002). Moderate overconfidence can increase effort and persistence; however, a gross overestimation of one’s abilities can lead students to pursue challenges beyond their capabilities resulting in potential failure (Multon, Brown & Lent, 1991).

This study aimed to evaluate the self-efficacy of first year students studying a general biology course, and to measure changes in self-efficacy between the beginning and end of semester. Six hundred students enrolled in the first year biology course “Cells to Organisms” were given the Biology Self-Efficacy Scale (Baldwin, Ebert-May & Burns, 1999) in weeks two or three and again in weeks twelve and thirteen. The instrument consisted of 21 questions asking students to indicate their confidence in performing various biology-related tasks on a Likert scale from 1 (not at all confident) to 5 (totally confident).

A significant correlation between self-efficacy at the beginning and end of semester was found (r = 0.562; p < 0.05), indicating that students entering the course with a high biology self-efficacy were more likely to have a high self-efficacy at the end of semester. Separating students by final grade demonstrated that all students except those who received a grade of 1 showed significant improvements in their biology self-efficacy (p < 0.05). However, further analysis of the data indicated that there was no significant difference in the end of semester self-efficacy of students who received final grades between 3 and 7. These results indicate that students enrolled in this first year biology course were unable to accurately calibrate their biology self-efficacy based on their performance feedback by the end of semester. When asked specifically about their confidence in achieving a grade of 6 or higher in the course, students were able to more accurately calibrate their self-efficacy with their final performance. When students were separated by degree, there were clear differences in mean final grade, with Science and Dentistry students performing better on average than Human Movement Studies and Pharmacy students. However, the end of semester self-efficacy was not significantly different between Science, Dentistry and Pharmacy students, suggesting that pharmacy students had a disproportionately high self-efficacy. Together, these results indicate that exposure to biological knowledge and skills may improve self-efficacy despite performance measures suggesting that this confidence is misplaced. Further research is required to determine whether this poor self-efficacy calibration is detrimental, and whether calibration improves in later year students.


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Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Klassen, R. (2002). A question of calibration: A review of the self-efficacy beliefs of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 25, 88-102.
Komarraju, M., & Nadler, D. (2013). Self-efficacy and academic achievement: Why do implicit beliefs, goals, and effort regulation matter? Learning and Individual Differences, 25, 67-72.
Multon, K.D., Brown, S.D., & Lent, R.W. (1991). Relation of self-efficacy beliefs to academic outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38(1), 30-38.
Parker, J.D.A., Hogan, M.J., Eastabrook, J.M., Oke, A., & Wood, L.M. (2006). Emotional intelligence and student retention: Predicting the successful transition from high school to university. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(7), 1329-1336.

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