Believing and Achieving: Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Seminars

Believing and Achieving: Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Seminars

Rory O’Neill Schmitt
Arizona State University
Dale-Ellen O’Neill
University of New Orleans

“My University Success class helped me realize just how important these first few years in college are. I feel like a lot of freshmen do not realize this until it is too late and they cannot change the situations they’ve got themselves in.” Jennifer 1, Age 18

In the twenty-first century, attending college has become more accessible than ever before. However, current students face challenges in progressing through college to attain degrees. As professionals in higher education, we have a responsibility to not only provide access to college, but also to create an environment that provides students with the tools they need to succeed.

How can we teach college students to create goals, work to achieve them, and persist during challenging times? While there is not a single answer, integrating self-efficacy theory into first-year seminars can promote student achievement. In this article, we will share tips that first year seminar instructors can use to enhance student success.

Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Success Courses

First-year seminars have become the norm at a majority of four-year American colleges and universities. These classes have been shown to have a positive effect on students’ integration into campus, both academically and socially (Tinto, 1993). Many first year seminars focus on academic skills, identity development, career exploration, campus resources, diversity, and the mission of the college or university.

At Arizona State University and the University of New Orleans, teams of instructors within both universities collaborated to create curricula for first-year seminar courses. They concentrated on self-efficacy as a tool to meet the needs of students. Program directors at these universities provided support and guidance to these instructors in order to assist them in meeting course objectives.

Albert Bandura (1997) described academic self-efficacy as a student’s confidence in his or her ability to complete a course of action that leads to a desired outcome. Students with heightened self-efficacy set their own attainable goals, rather than comparing themselves to others. They view stressors as challenges, rather than threats, and persist in order to accomplish their goals.

Instructors can capitalize on the full potential of first-year seminars by fostering the self-efficacy of their students. They can do this by incorporating Bandura’s (1997) four sources of self-efficacy into the curriculum:

  • Mastery experiences: When students reflect on past accomplishments, they become motivated to achieve.
  • Vicarious experiences: When students observe peers completing a task, they may be more likely to believe in their own abilities.
  • Verbal persuasion: When instructors provide students with encouragement and feedback, students recognize the value of their continual efforts.
  • Emotional state: When students learn in a supportive environment, they gain a positive outlook.

Mastery Experiences: Remember when you achieved your goal?

We incorporated mastery experiences into our first-year seminars by encouraging students to reflect on past academic accomplishments. Students used these reflections as motivation to tackle new challenges, thus nurturing their self-efficacy.

Instructors can incorporate mastery experiences into their classes in a variety of ways. For example, they can direct students to write one-page reflections describing a time that they studied and did well on a test in a difficult subject area. Through this exercise, students are able to identify the specific approaches that they used to help them achieve their academic goals. They can also verbalize how they will use these tactics again. Awareness of their optimal learning strategies can enable them to benefit in the future.

Later, in a large group setting, instructors can lead students in discussing their reflections. This open conversation allows students to share what has been successful for them, while also providing advice to their peers on different ways to achieve. This dialogue builds a sense of camaraderie in the classroom. Thus, instructors can support students’ self-efficacy by leading students in reflecting on past successful experiences, creating an action plan for future success and verbalizing their plan to their peers.

Vicarious Experiences: Now, let’s hear about how your friends achieved their goals.

Vicarious experience refers to students’ observation of others successfully completing tasks. These experiences build students’ self-efficacy by fostering motivation and self-confidence. We implemented vicarious experiences into our curricula by including peer mentoring. Peer mentors in our first-year seminar courses included upperclass students. We invited these students, who had experienced challenges and successes in college, to be guest speakers in our first-year seminars. They shared with students their advice in choosing a major and becoming active in campus life. Instructors can involve peer mentors by selecting upperclass students to co-lead group discussions, activities and presentations. By sharing tips for college survival, peer mentors help to build a community where students motivate each other and empathize with each other’s challenges.

Several students eagerly asked questions when one junior student shared his experience of exploring different majors of study and when a senior student shared her experiences of studying abroad in Chile. The students’ inquiries centered on gathering information that they would need to make changes in their lives, such as switching majors or researching the process for studying abroad. In response to these activities, a student, Shannon, shared with us, “The class helps students decide which careers they are interested in and which majors can prepare them.”

In addition, peer mentoring occurred when students within first-year seminars shared their experiences and guided each other. Peer mentoring can strengthen the classroom community within a traditional setting, as well as within the cyber world. In the course’s Blackboard™ website, instructors can assign students to research co-curricular activities and then post this information to a discussion thread. This forum permits students to share their interests, educate their classmates about campus opportunities, and establish connections. In response to activities like this, a student, Kendra shared that:

The University Success class has had a tremendous effect on me as a first-year student. Not only has the class informed me of the great opportunities on campus, but it has challenged me to become actively involved in the many different activities.

Verbal Persuasion :You can do it!

Verbal persuasion refers to instructors providing students with feedback and support. This builds self-efficacy by aiding students in becoming more aware of the importance of their constant efforts. We incorporated verbal persuasion into our courses through one-on-one meetings and class discussions, which supported students in creating action plans based on realistic self-appraisals. In one assignment, students created three short-term goals and three long-term goals in their action plans, which were specific, measurable, attainable, and time sensitive. Students then deconstructed their goals into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. This goal setting activity supported students’ self-efficacy, as instructors provided students with positive support and acknowledged students’ strengths and past accomplishments.

Instructors can include verbal persuasion strategies in their courses by meeting with students individually to create specific short-term goals. Throughout the course, they can refer back to each student’s goals, discuss their progress, and recommend resources that are available. During an individual student meeting, Justin, a first-generation college student, expressed feeling overwhelmed by his academic struggles and was given information about the tutoring center. Following the completion of the course, he stayed in contact with his teacher and shared:

My class showed me all the resources on campus for me as a student. I would have never known about the tutoring centers or the career services on campus. It made the transition from high school to college much smoother for me.

Emotional State: We’re all in this together.

By creating an inclusive and caring learning environment, instructors can support students’ positive emotional states in order to cultivate self-efficacy. In our experience as instructors, we realized that it was essential to create a space where students were supported in expressing their hopes and managing their fears. A student, Chandra, stated, “My teacher was able to provide a learning environment that has positively altered my college experience.”

When reviewing the syllabus, first-year seminar instructors can emphasize a supportive learning environment that should be the core of the course. Instructors can include students’ interests and hobbies in the class to create such an environment. In addition, they can also share successes and challenges of their own college experiences, such as how they successfully transitioned into college life.


Integrating self-efficacy theory into first-year seminars involves strategies that include sources of mastery and vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional state. These recommended approaches provide instructors tools to create a goal-oriented environment where students are supported and encouraged to persist amidst challenges. Such a classroom culture motivates students and aids them in creating action plans and strategies for college success. Utilizing practices that enhance self-efficacy can enable instructors to support students in achieving their goals in college and beyond. Through promoting self-efficacy in first-year seminars, instructors can support students in believing in and achieving their dreams.

Discussion Questions:

  • What challenges do first-year college students typically encounter today?
  • What do you think hinders first-year students from asking for help?
  • What sorts of collaborative learning experiences do you think can foster community in the classroom?
  • Self-efficacy theory is based on mastery and vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and positive emotional states. What other actions do you think could support students in identifying and achieving their goals?
  • How can you promote self-efficacy in your college courses?
  • How can you promote self-efficacy in your co-curricular programs?


Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. New York: Academic Press, 71-81.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd Ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1. In order to exclude any information that may make students identifiable, we have used pseudonyms.

About the Authors

Rory O’Neill Schmitt is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction Studies at Arizona State University. She serves as the Executive Editor of ASU’s journal, Current Issues in Education. She wishes to thank her mentors, Dr. Mary Erickson and Dr. Mary Dawes.

Please e-mail inquiries to Rory O’Neill.

Dale-Ellen O’Neill is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at the University of New Orleans, where she is also the Coordinator of Leadership and Community Service Programs. She wishes to thank Susan Danielson and Brian McDonald for their leadership and support.

Please e-mail inquiries to Dale-Ellen O’Neill.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Staff Office.

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