Motivation Challenge 5: The Student Lacks Confidence that He or She Can Do the Work

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: The student has a low sense of self-efficacy in a subject area, activity, or academic task and that lack of confidence reduces the student’s motivation to apply his or her best effort. NOTE: Self-efficacy is the student’s view of his or her own abilities specific to a particular academic area (e.g., mathematics) and should not be confused with self-esteem, which represents the student’s global view of his or her self-worth.   


What the Research Says: Students who believe that they have the ability to complete a particular academic task (self-efficacy) do better and have higher levels of motivation (Jacobs et al., 2002). Yet students often sabotage their academic performance by engaging in negative self-talk about their abilities and by making faulty attributions to explain poor academic performance (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002).


How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: Teachers can tap students’ impressions of self-efficacy by asking them to ‘think aloud’ about their abilities in the academic area of interest. Instructors will find the information that they have collected to be most useful if students are encouraged to: 

talk about their perceived strengths and weaknesses as learners in particular subject areas

  • give examples (with details) about specific successes and failures that they have experienced on academic assignments
  • discuss how they complete a range of common academic tasks (e.g., undertaking a term paper, completing a chemistry lab exercise, doing homework)
  • disclose their routine for preparing for quizzes and tests.

As the teacher evaluates the student’s comments, the instructor may conclude that the student’s attributions/explanations are unrealistically negative and do not adequately acknowledge the role of effort or other controllable factors in improving that student’s academic skills or performance.


How to Fix This Motivation Problem:


Challenge Faulty Student Attributions about Ability. As a student articulates attitudes toward learning and describes techniques that he or she uses as an independent learner, the teacher can use this information to identify whether a low sense of academic self-efficacy may be holding the student back.

A useful framework for analyzing student views about their academic abilities is presented by Linnenbrink & Pintrich (2002). The authors analyze student attributions along three dimensions: internal/external; stable/unstable; and controllable/uncontrollable. As explained below, the teacher can use this framework to analyze and challenge a student’s faulty attributions about self-efficacy and help the student to reframe those attributions in a more optimistic (and motivating) light.

  • Internal/External. The student may view the explanation for his or her poor academic performance as internal (tied to aspects of the student’s own personality, abilities, or other personal factors) or external (linked to factors other than the student, such as teacher behavior, school policies, state curriculum requirements, etc.). When listening to student explanations about his or her academic standing, the teacher considers whether the student should reframe that explanation to acknowledge internal factors that may have been overlooked.

    For example, when a student blames the teacher for giving unannounced quizzes that catch the student unprepared (external explanation of the problem), the instructor can point out that the student has the option to review course content regularly and thus always be prepared for quizzes (shifting the focus by tying the internal explanation of student preparation to the goal of improving academic performance).

  • Stable/Unstable. The student may view the situation relating to poor academic performance as stable (likely to last for a long time) or unstable (likely to change soon). The teacher evaluates whether the student is realistic in estimating the stability of the situation.

    For example, when a student laments to her math teacher that her difficulty in grasping concepts relating to negative numbers shows that she ‘will never get a good grade in math’ (a view that the problem is long-term and therefore stable), the teacher can help the student to reframe the problem as unstable and likely to improve soon by noting that many students struggle with negative-number concepts but that the student should find upcoming math instructional modules to be much easier to comprehend.

  • Controllable/Uncontrollable. The student may see him or herself as having substantial control over the factors relating to academic performance or instead view the situation as beyond personal control. When listening to student explanations of academic problems, the teacher considers whether the student may be overlooking or minimizing his or her own influence and responsibility.

    For example, a teacher may point out to a student who complains about the requirements of a particular course as arbitrary and unfair (uncontrollable) that the student was given a syllabus at the start of the semester spelling out all academic requirements to be used as a roadmap for the course, that the syllabus will allow the student to complete assignments ahead of time if he wishes, and that furthermore the student is welcome to seek help from the teacher whenever he chooses (controllable factors).


  • Jacobs, J. E., Lanza, S., Osgood, D. W., Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Changes in children’s self-competence and values: Gender and domain differences across grades one through twelve. Child Development, 73, 509-527.
  • Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2002). Motivation as an enabler for academic success. School Psychology Review, 31, 313-327.