Time on task and self-efficacy

Learning comes from the time students spend ‘on task’. Time on task is needed to learn things and it can lead to learner immersion and a change the learner’s perception of themselves. This change in identity, or sense of ‘becoming’, leads to self-belief and fluency. The teacher has a role in fostering immersion and flow and to help students make this sort of commitment.
Learning should be challenging and students need to aspire to becoming expert or to achieve ‘the next level’. They need to be aware of what is expected of them and what is within reach – with or without some help.
Defining standards for or with students and discussing associated values and expectations with students helps them to create a picture of ‘being professional’; a picture they can compare themselves to as they progress.
Part of that picture is likely to involve themselves as having a social and responsible role.
The learner should be able to enjoy the sense of being professional by being autonomous, motivated and self-regulated (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). An engaged student is one who does not need to be told how well they are behaving and how well they are achieving because they operate to a code they have devised for themselves that connects their personal world with their academic world in a meaningful way (Mercer, 2007).

Self theories

The idea of ‘self’ is a recurring thread in literature on learning.

  • Self-belief and self-efficacy – People need to believe that they are capable of producing their desired outcomes in order to act and persevere as learners. Zepke and Leach (2010) identify the need to foster self-belief as the basis for improving student engagement;
  • Self-esteem – a description of one’s disposition or outlook, people with high self-esteem are positive and focus on growth, while those with low self-esteem can become anxious about making mistakes. The healthy learning mind sits between the extremes, having energy and enthusiasm to consider possibilities, while at the same time being able to critically evaluate situations and how they engage with them. Macaskill and Denovan (2013) found that presenting students with their top psychological strengths in order to enhance their self-efficacy and self-esteem developed their confidence and increased their engagement as autonomous learners. Feeling competent, confident, motivated and in control are all valuable to learner autonomy and achievement. Fazey and Fazey (2000) say that “Students arrive at university with the potential to be autonomous in their learning. It is the responsibility of those who structure the learning environment to nurture undergraduate potential.”
  • Self-actualisation – Maslow’s work on personality and motivation from 1954 describes a hierarchy of needs made up of five levels (1970). Self-actualisation describes the ideal state of the learner in higher education, however, the individual will focus on lower physiological needs for safety if lower levels of the hierarchy are not met. The five levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are:
    • Self-actualisation – personal growth and fulfilment;
    • Esteem – achievement, status, respect of others, self-esteem;
    • Belonging – love, friendship, family;
    • Safety needs – health, security, employment, etc.;
    • Physiological needs – air, food and water, shelter, sleep, etc.

Self-actualisation, then, is the ability of an individual to socially regulate themselves without losing their integrity or sense of independence; they can critically and productively situate themselves within a norm as they explore possibilities. Developing confidence and dexterity becomes necessary in situations which require trust and openness. This pragmatic humanist view of ‘self’ is evident in academic innovators, for example, and it is key to positive humanistic theories of learning which underpin thinking about the development of graduate capability.

  • Self-regulation – to be successful the learner needs agency to regulate their learning. Zimmerman (2000) proposes three stages to self-regulation:
    • preparation in terms of forethought of prior experience of learning;
    • acting and performing;
    • role of reflection to evaluate and develop learning.


Chickering, A.W. and Gamson, Z.F. (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Online at: http://www.uis.edu/liberalstudies/students/documents/sevenprinciples.pdf

Fazey, D.M., and J.A Fazey. 2000. The potential for autonomy in learning: perceptions of competence, motivation, and locus of control in first-year undergraduate students. Studies in Higher Education 26 (3): 345-361.

Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: potential of the concept, state of evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, pp.59-109.

Macaskill, A. & Denovan, A. (2013). Developing autonomous learning in first year university students using perspectives from positive psychology. Studies in Higher Education, 38(1), p. 104 – 123.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Bros.

Mercer, J. (2007). Re-negotiating the self through educational development: mature students’ experiences. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 12, pp.19 – 32.

Zepke, N. &Leach, L.(2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(3), pp.167-177

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-regulatory cycles of learning. In G. A. Straka (ed) “Conceptions of self-directed learning, theoretical and conceptual considerations.” New York, Waxman p. 221-234.