Pedagogy podcast with Spencer Frost

Aisling Tierney talks to Spencer Frost a lecturer in Academic Development about the work of Albert Bandura and how self-efficacy can be embedded in teaching and learning practice to build student confidence.  

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Hello, welcome to the Pedagogy podcast brought to you by the Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching. Each week we look at a different piece of the pedagogy pie and see how we can inspire exciting new practice at the University of Bristol. We hope you enjoy this slice of teaching and learning engagement.

I’m Aisling Tierney, and I’m joined this morning by Spencer Frost. This week we’re going to look at another piece of reading and see what takeaways we have. So what have you brought in for us to discuss today, Spencer?

So I brought with me today basically The Theory of Self-efficacy by Albert Bandura. When you asked me to think about something I could bring, I did a bit of reflection on my own experiences and whether innovation is what we do, I don’t know. But certainly, I try to be consistent in what I do, and self-efficacy and self-confidence of students, I think, is a really important aspect of what we do and being effective in the classroom really.

OK, so if you had someone who never heard of this paper before, never heard of this work, how would you summarize the key messages of the paper?

OK, so the original paper would be 1977, and his theory basically says that there is a thing called self-efficacy, which is situation-specific self-confidence. It is domain specific, so someone can have confidence in one domain, for instance, English, but not in another, maths, for instance.

So differentiate it from self-confidence, where self-confidence is more of a global personality trait really. And it, therefore, has a couple of functions. One is it’s motivational. So if someone has a high level of self-efficacy, they’re more likely to actually engage in an activity. They won’t avoid it. When they’re engaging, they’ll provide more effort, and they’re more likely to be persistent as well if problems occur.

And then, conversely related to that but also is the fact that it has a– research would show that it has a positive impact on performance. It sounds quite commonsense, but it certainly provides a framework in how we can, for instance, generate and facilitate the building of self-efficacy, self-confidence in our students.

So he identifies some approaches, which involve performance accomplishment, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. And these are a framework in which we can then engage in some activities and plan our practice around these things.

OK, so you read this paper. Where was the point where you thought, oh, here’s my pedagogic leap where I want to do this in my practice? I want to bring it into my practice. What drove you to that?

Yeah, so a couple of factors really, I think. So I’ve got a sports background. I taught sports initially for third education level and then into higher education. I lead in a sports science degree program. And I’ve also played sport all my life. I follow– I still play a little bit now as I’m getting older.

But I play golf now. I did play cricket for 30 years– I was coaching cricket last night– and football as well. But I love rugby, all manner of sports, American sports, everything really. And the golden elixir, I think, in sport of elite performance or just effective performance is confidence.

You can see athletes that have all the physical attributes, technical, tactical. They’re at the peak of their game. But if they don’t have confidence, then they can’t deliver that. So that was one thought about how can we be really effective and reach that optimal performance?

And then another was, when I started teaching in further education students, so I was teaching level two and level three students, and tutoring and teaching them. And I just had this realization that there’s not a lot between them in terms of their academic abilities, but the level two students, just generally, seemed to have less confidence in the classroom environment.

And so, when you speak to them one to one, they knew exactly the answers. But when they’re in that classroom environment, they won’t potentially try a question. They won’t put their hand up. And if this perpetuates over a period of time, it leads to a lower level of academic outcome essentially.

So these two things combined, think OK, confidence is really important in performance in a classroom. What theories are there that can enable us to develop confidence in our students? And I was familiar with Albert Bandura through my own undergraduate studies in passing. It was one of the things I studied. And then, going back to it thinking, OK, yeah, this actually resonates with me. And it provides a bit of a framework towards how I can then apply it to my teaching.

So just the final bit on that is this realization– it was probably a critical mass of experiences, come to the point where I realized that actually we need to create the environment for students to reach their optimum and perform.

And if we don’t do that, teaching the level two students, if they aren’t ready to learn, if the environment isn’t ready for them, then it’s pointless for me wasting my time trying to teach them content because they’re not going to engage with it. They’re not going to work with it. And I think that applies to higher education. I think that applies to teaching adults. I think we have to get the appropriate environment.

And therefore, my approach is to really think about the students now. Student centered, I know, probably to the point now where I’ve been teaching for a while that I’m not conscious of that. But I’m always putting myself in their shoes. Empathy for a student, how are they going to feel in this experience? But also humble enough to know that I don’t know all the answers to those questions. And we’re going to get it wrong sometimes as well.

It’s really interesting that you say that this realization comes to you after a period of experience, that it’s the sum of all your parts in a way, that it’s come together and you can see all those different strands, and that reflection that sometimes we don’t know where we’re going on the journey. And then we get to a point where we can reflect and look back and say, aha, I’ve got this Eureka moment. And now I can see this person’s work that I encountered before how I can apply it in these new contexts.

So coming back and looking back at authors and looking back at practice that we might have encountered in the past and applying it anew could possibly have some value there. So when you were applying the practice, how did that go? And what kind of barriers did you encounter?

Yeah, so I think allowing to those three of the sources of self-efficacy, if you like, that he identifies. In terms of performance accomplishment, I would [? embed ?] that with the use of formative assessment, I think, assessment for and as learning. And so really that’s the case of– active learning is the driver of that, really, again, that realization. That can come through formative assessment, which is continually included in work practice wherever possible, informally, formally.

And there needs to be scaffolded appropriately. And I think this idea of recognizing that there’s different needs of the students, if you think about the novice to the expert and everywhere in between. The novice is going to need a lot of structure. They’re going to need some modeling. They’re going to need worked examples in advance because they’re going to get overloaded otherwise, and they won’t be able to make progress.

Whereas, the expert more likely we can give them some challenges, some real-world challenges without much scaffolding because, if we give them scaffolding, it’s going to overload them. So this idea of really recognizing how we scaffold appropriately in these formative assessments.

So formative, I guess, is a real big thing of what we do. The vicarious experience is the idea of modeling. So that links into how we set up a formative assessments. But modeling can be peer assessments, peer modeling, or observing peers. I was teaching sports coaching, teaching pedagogy, so people do micro teachers, get them to observe each other, those type of things.

And also, I think the use of video is really useful because you can video yourself doing it and watch back and reflect upon it. So I think those things are really useful. And in verbal persuasion, this idea of teacher feedback, so how and what feedback we give, that relates to these formative assessments.

But every part of the teaching experience, are we continually thinking about the student, providing those little quiet words as Johnny leaves the class. Johnny, that was a really great effort today. [INAUDIBLE] to say. Those type of things I think just build up over time as well as the more formalized and structured feedback.

And then getting the students to develop their own internal verbal persuasion. So through then reflecting on their own reflection as a process or a formal process, [? journaling, ?] if they want to engage with that. But things like self-talk and imagery visualization, these are skills in themselves. But at least thinking about what are they telling themselves about their ability to perform and how are they visualizing their performance?

I do it before I teach a session. I’ll go through the PowerPoint and I visualize how that’s going to look, where I might even move in the classroom, what questions might be thrown at me, what are the curveballs I’m going to have to dodge, and how we’re going to manage that?

So that would be how I would manifest that. I think the challenges are structurally, when you think about formative assessment time. Is there enough time to do these because there’s time to plan it and time to deliver it. And I appreciate with large cohorts as well that can be a challenge.

The feedback that’s going to come on the back of that, how are we going to manage that from a time perspective? And I think there’s ways we can do it informally. Peer assessment can manage that.

Resources, again, the space to do more active learning if we want that. And a challenge could be an early career teacher who doesn’t want to give control over. [INAUDIBLE] control of the session. That can be a challenge in their head [INAUDIBLE].

Yeah, letting students rule the room, having a bit of student autonomy can be quite daunting the first time we try it.

Absolutely, because you’re not in control of the message. You don’t know what they’re going to throw at you. And that imposter syndrome comes into that as well.

And then, I guess, culturally, there’s expectations. Our students expect them to come to a session just to sit passively and receive the information. And therefore, we need to break that down perhaps. And do they engage with it? So it is a formative assessment. It’s not a credit bearing. I’m not going to do it.

Adult learners they might be doing a degree apprenticeship, and it’s like, well, I’ve got [INAUDIBLE] for my employer says, I’m just going to sit here, do me time, then I’m out the door. And I’m not going to engage you anything. I’ve worked with colleagues who’ve had these challenges. And I think those can really be a challenge.

And also, when self-efficacy is so low that students don’t want to engage with the activity, I think that can be a real challenge. And I think ways to get around those is just set the bar low. It’s like when I encourage people to go to the gym. It’s like start training. It’s like, what’s the lowest thing you can do? One day I could walk up some stairs. Right, let’s do that for a week. And do the next thing.

So when you think about that in terms of formative assessment and these approaches, it’s like, what’s the one thing that they will engage with?

So don’t jump in too hard too soon. Take it really slow at the beginning. And would that work really well on a programmatic basis then if you had, say, a three-year degree where you start very easy in that first year?

Yeah, 100%. Yeah, I certainly think programmatically of summative assessment, performative assessment as well, mapping that out. How does that– what are these formative assessments? And then, again, thinking about them in an informal way.

I think one thing that underpins all of this is this idea of building relationships with your students. I think, again, a challenge in large groups. But I think you can build a relationship with a large group in terms of their perception of you as someone who’s approachable and organized and does what they say you’re going to do. That’s one way of doing it.

But certainly, if you have a smaller cohort, you can get to know people. When you know exactly where they’re at, so you know how to appropriately scaffold things because you know what level of challenge we need to provide these individuals, when you know what motivates them. Is it an arm on shoulder or kick on the backside or whatever it might be. What type of activity motivates them?

And also, if you’ve got a relationship with them, you’ll get buy-in. So when you try something that’s a bit out there, a little bit innovative, a little bit different, it’s a bit challenging, they’re more likely to go with it and feel that there’s a safe, supportive environment.

So I think these specific things, and then this underlying thing is building relationships. And for years, I’ve felt that is the– when I’ve gone in and worked with members of staff mentoring, and I’ve been called in [INAUDIBLE] there’s been an issue. Some student feedback [? spur ?] just go and just see what’s going on. And you just see immediately in the classroom when there’s a breakdown between relationship between the staff and the students.

And I think if that can be addressed from the outset, it allows you to do all these other things I think.

And that might be something that we could look at in terms of the quote unquote “return to normal” as we’re transitioning back into more face-to-face teaching– almost exclusively were doing now at the moment– where there might have been some of those communication breaks or change of engagement levels for our students.

So you talked a lot about the various benefits, including the benefits to staff for this and that kind of building trust and how rewarding that could be as an individual. And it seemed to me the self-efficacy was very much about confidence building, which links then to confidence to engage more with the curriculum, which might help with the well-being side of things with the meaning making, and just as a personal reflection feeling more confident in one’s ability to take things on and engage. How would you articulate those student benefits from this practice?

Yeah, yeah, I think it’s self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating. And there’s a confidence in the knowledge and the skills that we’re developing but then the confidence to actually try it and know that actually I can answer a

question in front of a class, or I can speak in front of a class, or whatever it might be. I can do that test. And I think it just builds, and it’s a virtuous cycle, essentially.

I think there’s recognition that formative assessments and some of these things that learning is hard. It’s an unpleasant experience in some [? ways ?] because it’s challenging. We’re doing something beyond what we can already do if we’re teaching appropriately, like I said, if we’re challenging our students. So it’s recognizing that.

So I guess building that environment where it’s a safe space is really, really important for students to engage with that. And again, perhaps go back a little bit to my [INAUDIBLE] education days. But there were some students who had some real diverse needs and things with Asperger’s and things. Just confidence was on the floor.

No reason, just they’ve just not had the experiences, the positive experiences. And it’s really, again, going back to stage one. What’s the first thing you can do? When you ask someone a question in the class and they don’t want to respond. I had some walk out of the class when I ask them a question, they’re that anxious.

But then further down the line it was a case of I’d start with a yes/no answer, and they know the answer. I know they know the answer. And they just, oh, yes, a contribution. And then that builds from there that they can take confidence, that we reflect on the back end of it in terms of a tutorial and things like that.

So yeah, I think it’s fundamental, really, to what we’re trying to do, really, I guess.

OK, that’s fantastic. Is there anything else that you feel that we should take away from this example of practice? Or is there one big takeaway for you?

Yeah, I guess the idea that to be student centered is so vital that we think about the student’s perspective. And I think everybody does– I don’t know if everybody does that. I think a lot of people do that, and that’s certainly the direction of travel over a number of years in terms of what we’re doing in education. But I think that’s really important.

I think just removing the barrier that we can’t do it in your mind’s eye. I can’t do this. I can’t– can’t [INAUDIBLE]. I think you can. Let’s not try to [? bore ?] the ocean. You can’t [? bore ?] the ocean, but you can– it’s not feasible. But just start with something small. That’s a real the first step you need to make.

And I think this stuff, much as I was teach in sports, so I was quite active anyway. Practice pedagogy where we are asking people to do some practical activities. I think it applies to all manner of subjects. I think that even in the STEM subjects, in mathematics, for instance, I think there’s real opportunities to engage in active approaches that build people’s confidence in what they’re trying to do. I think it just applies to everybody really.

That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, and I think there are so many takeaways for different people in different stages of their career, for people coming in new, for people who are looking to try something new in their curriculum, and really something that’s going to apply across the board to all of our degree programs and solve a lot of those issues, especially for students who– and we can see it– who are lacking self-confidence, who need that confidence when it comes to engaging with their degree and hopefully building some well-being focused meaning making from their learning. So thank you very much, Spencer, for today. And goodbye from BILT.

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