The key to academic success

It’s not only about ability, but also about believing that you can do it
Dave Herholz,, CC BY 2.0
Dave Herholz,, CC BY 2.0

No matter when in school it occurs, academic failure can have negative consequences that may persist into adulthood. Academic success, on the other hand, can protect an individual from embarking or continuing on a problematic developmental path. Scholastic difficulties, especially during the high school years, are associated not only with higher dropout rates and problems in college, jobs, and careers, but also with mental health problems.

Given these links, scientists over the past few decades have tried to identify the predictors of academic success in hopes of developing intervention strategies to promote success and combat failure. Academic self-efficacy – the belief in one’s own ability to reach an academic goal – has been shown to be a strong predictor of academic success.

The founder of the theory of self-efficacy is Albert Bandura, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. Bandura’s studies on self-efficacy have shown that people’s actions are strongly influenced by their belief that they are capable of reaching a goal or effectively handling a challenging situation. It is important to remember, however, that while self-efficacy is a predictor of intention – it is unlikely and perhaps even impossible to perform an action if you do not believe that you are capable of doing so – ­self-efficacy beliefs and intention are two separate constructs. Self-efficacy is separate from, but highly related to, the intention and skills associated with the effective performance of a given action.

Academic self-efficacy involves two broad domains: first, students’ perceptions of their ability to successfully master curricular areas (e.g., mathematics, science, or geography), and second, their self-perceived capacity for engaging in self-regulating learning activities, such as planning and organizing their academic activities, structuring environments conducive to learning, and motivating themselves to complete schoolwork. They need to believe, for example, that they are capable of meeting homework deadlines, studying even when more interesting activities beckon, taking notes in class, using the library effectively to collect information for class assignments, or finding a place to study without distractions.

My contribution to this field has been made possible by my collaboration with two of Bandura’s closest collaborators, Gian Vittorio Caprara and Concetta Pastorelli of the Psychology Department at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. From 1988 to 2012, they conducted a longitudinal study in Genzano, a residential community located 30 kilometers from Rome. Genzano represents a socioeconomic microcosm of the larger Italian society.

The study followed a sample of over 600 children from elementary school until they were approximately 30 years old. In terms of occupations and socioeconomic status, their families were representative of Italy’s population. During the children’s school years, their families, teachers, and peers were involved in the study as well.

Interventions should focus on academic self-efficacy

I decided to examine how academic self-efficacy beliefs, personality traits, and self-esteem in 10th grade relate to academic performance at the end of high school. I focused my attention on two personality traits that have been shown to be most closely associated with scholastic performance: conscientiousness and openness. Conscientiousness refers here to a sense of responsibility and the ability to plan, organize, and persist in order to achieve, while openness refers to a positive attitude toward challenging learning experiences.

My work shows that students who are organized, precise, tenacious, and persistent, and who have high levels of self-esteem, tend to believe they are capable of mastering coursework and regulating their motivation and learning activities. In other words, they have higher levels of academic self-efficacy. Consequently, they are likely to perform better in an academic setting than their peers who lack these characteristics.

The take-home message from my study is that academic self-efficacy is a more powerful predictor of academic achievement than are personality traits or self-esteem. Interventions should therefore focus on academic self-efficacy as a way of improving academic performance. Particular attention should be paid to helping teachers and parents find ways to assist students in setting goals, monitor their learning progress, and assess their self-efficacy in the academic domain.

In their efforts to boost their students’ belief in their own capabilities, educators should also be aware of individual personality characteristics and take them into account. By promoting academic self-efficacy, we can promote academic success.


Di Giunta, L., Alessandri, G., Gerbino, M., Luengo Kanacri, P., Zuffianò, A., Caprara, G.V. (2013). “The Determinants of Scholastic Achievement: The Contribution of Personality Traits, Self-Esteem, and Academic Self-Efficacy”. Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 102-108 doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2013.07.006.