SELF-BELIEFS AND SCHOOL SUCCESS:
Frank Pajares and Dale H. Schunk
Chapter in R. Riding & S. Rayner (Eds.), (2001)
SELF-EFFICACY, SELF-CONCEPT, AND SCHOOL ACHIEVEMENT
Perception (pp. 239-266). London: Ablex Publishing.
At the turn of the 20th century, when American psychology began to take its place among the other academic
disciplines, there was much interest in the role that self-beliefs play in human conduct. When William James (1890/1981a;
1890/1881b) wrote the Principles of Psychology, his chapter on "The Consciousness of Self" was the longest in the two volumes.
Also critical to the quest for understanding self-processes were the writings of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Carl
Jung, who framed the self as the regulating center of an individual's personality and shed light on self-processes under the guise
of id, ego, and superego functioning. Erik Erikson later focused on critical aspects of self to trace adolescents' development of
their ego identity.
Notwithstanding the efforts of James, the psychoanalysts, and other proponents of self-study, psychologists espousing
a behaviorist orientation swelled their ranks by pointing out that only a person's tangible, observable, and measurable behavior
was fit for scientific inquiry. When the smoke cleared, the behaviorism of John Watson and later B. F. Skinner carried the day.
Psychology was redirected, attention was turned to observable stimuli and responses, and the inner life of the individual was
labeled as beyond the scope of scientific psychology.
Coinciding with the zenith of behavioristic influence came what is now often referred to as the "humanistic revolt" in
psychology. Apprehensive about what they considered the narrow and passive view of human functioning that behaviorism
represented, a group of psychologists called for renewed attention to inner experience, to internal processes, and to self-beliefs
(e.g., Maslow, 1954). During the 1960s and 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in self-beliefs, most notably an effort by
many educators and psychologists to promote an emphasis on the importance of a healthy and positive self-esteem. Also born
in American schools at about this time was the self-enhancement view of academic functioning, that is, the view that, because
a child's self-esteem is the critical ingredient and primary cause of academic achievement, teacher practices and academic
strategies should be aimed at fostering students' self-esteem.
Through the years, American schools have followed the prescriptions of psychologists. After all, teachers are trained
in the universities that spawn these psychological movements. It was unavoidable that when American psychology lost interest
in self-beliefs from early to mid-century so did American education. It was also unavoidable that when humanistic psychology
reclaimed the self and began a crusade of sorts that emphasized promoting self-esteem as the primary vehicle toward personal
growth, education also followed suit.
But the humanistic crusade had profoundly uneven results, and many laudable but misguided efforts to nurture the self-esteem of children fell prey to excesses and, ultimately, ridicule (see Beane, 1991; Kohn, 1994). Adding to these uneven results
was the troublesome fact that research on the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement either was
inconclusive or provided unsettling results. One analysis of self-esteem studies revealed that correlations between self-esteem
and academic achievement ran the gamut from a positive .96 to a negative .77 (Hansford & Hattie, 1982), which is to say that
in some studies low self-esteem was actually associated with higher achievement. What followed was not only a reduced interest
in self-research in education but a backlash against the "self-esteem movement" itself.
During the 1980s, educators shifted their interest in motivation toward cognitive processes and information-processing
views of human functioning. This "cognitive revolution," as it has come to be called, was influenced by technological advances
and by the advent of the computer, which served as the movement's signature metaphor and model of mind. In education, this
new wave of theorists and researchers emphasized internal, mental events, but the emphasis was primarily on cognitive tasks
rather than on exploring issues related to the influence of students' self-beliefs in schooling. Again, schools followed suit.
Alarmed by what they perceived to be plummeting academic standards and fueled by comparative studies that erroneously made
it appear as if American children graduated from high school practically illiterate (see Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Bracey, 1994),
parents and educators demanded a back to basics approach to curriculum and practice. Research on students' self-beliefs in
education did not merely wane; it was viewed as antithetical to sound educational understandings (as a type of "psychology-lite"
undertaking). In the back-to-basics national mood, students' emotional concerns were regarded as irrelevant to their academic
achievement. Reforms were accompanied by an effort to dictate curricular practices according to their success in raising
achievement test results.
Today the notion of building healthy self-perceptions in individuals is mired in "the self-esteem controversy" that has
been the subject of intense dialogue and much ridicule (see McMillan, Singh, & Simonetta, 1994). Fortunately, prominent voices
in educational psychology have signaled a shift in focus as regards the issues critical to human functioning, and students' self-beliefs have once again become the subject of research on academic motivation. The shift has been so successful that, after a
thorough analysis of the state of knowledge related to theories and principles of academic motivation for the 1996 Handbook
of Educational Psychology, Sandra Graham and Bernard Weiner observed that "the self is on the verge of dominating the field
of motivation" (p. 77). This focus on a student's sense of self as a principal component of academic motivation is grounded on
the taken-for-granted assumption that the beliefs that students create, develop, and hold to be true about themselves are vital
forces in their success or failure in school. In important ways, however, current conceptions of academic self-beliefs represent
a marked departure from previous ones related to self-esteem.
Two types of self-beliefs have been especially dominant in motivation researchself-efficacy and self-concept beliefs.
In this chapter, we will clarify the defining characteristics of these constructs, synthesize major findings on the relation between
these self-beliefs and achievement, and discuss the practical implications that flow from the findings we present. Motivation
researchers are divided on the question of the causal interplay between self-concept beliefs and academic achievement.
Investigators with a self-enhancement orientation have argued that, because self-concept beliefs are a primary cause of student
achievement, teacher practices and academic strategies should be aimed at fostering students' self-esteem. Conversely,
researchers with a "skill development" orientation contend that self-concept beliefs are a consequence rather than a cause of
academic achievement, and they maintain that educational efforts should be aimed at increasing students' academic competence
rather than focusing on altering self-beliefs. Our synthesis will include a discussion of this controversy.
Self-Efficacy and Self-ConceptDefining Characteristics
When learning theorists first proposed views of social learning that rejected behaviorist notions of associationism in
favor of drive reduction principles, they did not take into account the creation of novel responses or the processes of delayed
and nonreinforced imitations. Bandura and Walters (1963) broadened the frontiers of social learning theory with the now
familiar principles of observational learning and vicarious reinforcement. Rejecting the behaviorists' indifference to self-processes, Bandura (1977) later argued that individuals create and develop self-perceptions of capability that become
instrumental to the goals they pursue and to the control they exercise over their environments. With the publication of Social
Foundations of Thought and Action, Bandura (1986) proposed a view of human functioning that emphasized the role of
self-referent beliefs. In this sociocognitive perspective, individuals are viewed as proactive and self-regulating rather than as
reactive and controlled by biological or environmental forces. Also in this view, individuals are understood to possess self-beliefs that enable them to exercise a measure of control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. In all, Bandura painted a
portrait of human behavior and motivation in which the beliefs that people have about their capabilities are critical elements.
In fact, according to Bandura, how people behave can often be better predicted by the beliefs they hold about their capabilities,
which he called self-efficacy beliefs, than by what they are actually capable of accomplishing, for these self-perceptions help
determine what individuals do with the knowledge and skills they have.
According to Bandura's social cognitive theory, self-efficacy beliefs influence the choices people make and the courses
of action they pursue. Individuals tend to engage in tasks about which they feel competent and confident and avoid those in
which they do not. Efficacy beliefs also help determine how much effort people will expend on an activity, how long they will
persevere when confronting obstacles, and how resilient they will be in the face of adverse situations (Schunk, 1981; Schunk
& Hanson, 1985; Schunk, Hanson, & Cox, 1987). The higher the sense of efficacy, the greater the effort, persistence, and
resilience. Efficacy beliefs also influence the amount of stress and anxiety individuals experience as they engage in an activity
(Pajares & Miller, 1994). As a consequence, self-efficacy beliefs exercise a powerful influence on the level of accomplishment
that individuals ultimately realize.
Beliefs of personal competence also help determine the outcomes one expects. Individuals who are confident anticipate
successful outcomes. Students confident in their writing capabilities anticipate high marks on writing assignments and expect
the quality of their work to reap academic benefits. Conversely, students who doubt their writing ability envision low marks
before they even begin to write. The expected results of these imagined performances will be differently envisioned: academic
success and greater options for the former, academic failure and curtailed possibilities for the latter.
A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and well-being in countless ways. Confident individuals
approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They have greater interest and deep
engrossment in activities, set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them, and heighten and sustain
their efforts in the face of failure. They more quickly recover their confidence after failures or setbacks, and attribute failure to
insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. High self-efficacy helps create feelings of serenity
in approaching difficult tasks and activities. Conversely, people who doubt their capabilities may believe that things are tougher
than they really are, a belief that fosters stress, depression, and a narrow vision of how best to solve a problem. Not surprisingly,
confidence in one's academic capability is a critical component of school success.
When individuals are familiar with the demands of a task or activity, they are likely to call on the self-efficacy beliefs
that have been developed as a result of previous experience with similar tasks. In these cases, confidence judgments are called
self-efficacy for performance because the efficacy beliefs correspond directly with the performance toward which they are aimed.
When people are unfamiliar with the task that confronts them, however, they are not clear on precisely which skills will be
required, and so their confidence cannot be based on past experiences with similar tasks. Self-beliefs must be inferred from past
attainments in situations perceived as similar to the new one. These confidence judgments are called self-efficacy for learning
because they are, in essence, inferences made about one's capability to learn what is required to successfully accomplish the task
(see Schunk, 1996b; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992).
Current interest in self-beliefs has also been characterized by renewed research into self-concept, a construct with a
long ancestry. William James (1890/1981a) was one of the first writers to use the term self-esteem, which he described as a self-feeling that "in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do" (p. 310 ). He even provided a formula for
self-esteem showing that how individuals feel about themselves depends on the success with which they accomplish those things
they wish to accomplish. Self-esteem may be raised, James argued, either by succeeding in endeavors or, in the face of failure,
by lowering one's sights and surrendering certain aims.
Self-concept has typically been defined in terms of the cognitive appraisal one makes of the expectations, descriptions,
and prescriptions that one holds about one's self (see Hattie, 1992). Coopersmith and Feldman (1974) described the self-concept
as consisting of "beliefs, hypotheses, and assumptions that the individual has about himself. It is the person's view of himself
as conceived and organized from his inner vantage [and] includes the person's ideas of the kind of person he is, the
characteristics that he possesses, and his most important and striking traits" (p. 199) As such, one's self-concept provides
structure, coherence, and meaning to one's personal existence. Recent definitions have been informed by William James's
conception that the self-concept is an individual's representation of all of his or her self-knowledge. Combs (1962) argued that
an individual's self-concept is, in essence, "what an individual believes he is" (p. 62).
Cooley (1902) used the metaphor of the self as mirror, or looking-glass self, to illustrate the idea that individuals' sense of self is primarily formed as a result of their perceptions of how others perceive them. That is, the appraisals of others act as
mirror reflections that provide the information that individuals use to define their own sense of self. This conception of self
brought to the forefront of psychological thought an emphasis on the importance of social comparisons in the development of
self-beliefs. As Coopersmith (1967) wrote, "each person's self-concept, to a considerable extent, is a mirror reflection of how
he has been (and is) seen by others who are important to him" (p. 201).
Theorists have often drawn a distinction between self-concept, the totality of self-knowledge that one possesses about
oneself, and self-esteem, which is considered the evaluative component of the self-concept. According to Coopersmith (1967),
self-esteem involves an attitude of approval or disapproval and "indicates the extent to which the individual believes himself
to be capable, significant, successful, and worth. In short, self-esteem is a personal judgment of worthiness that is expressed in
the attitudes the individual holds toward himself" (pp. 4-5). However, various researchers have concluded that descriptive and
evaluative perceptions of self have not been empirically separated in research studies and may not be empirically separable
(Shavelson & Bolus, 1982). Primarily for this reason, researchers typically use the terms interchangeably, although most current
authors prefer the term self-concept.
Researchers have identified seven features critical to a definition of self-concept: that it is organized, multifaceted,
hierarchical, stable, developmental, evaluative, and differentiable (Marsh & Shavelson, 1985; Shavelson & Marsh, 1986). The
hierarchical feature has received the most attention. Marsh and Shavelson (1985) differentiated between the self-perceptions
that one has about oneself as an individual and that involve the totality of one's self-knowledge and the self-perceptions that one
has in regards to specific areas or domains in one's life. General self-perceptions comprise the global self-concept, whereas the
more bounded self-perception can comprise self-concepts about academic, social, emotional, or physical facets of the self. The
hierarchy progressively narrows into more discreet types of self-concepts. Academic self-concepts can be subject-specific, such
as language arts, history, mathematics, science, art, or music self-concepts; social self-concepts can include self-perceptions
regarding family, peers, or significant others. People become increasingly aware of their differing domain-specific self-concepts
as they grow older.
The hierarchical nature of self-concept is rooted in the observation that, when an individual makes a self-appraisal, this
appraisal is contextually bounded. Whereas theorists once defined and operationalized self-concept in broad terms as global
perceptions of self-worth, modern authors contend that how individuals perceive themselves in one area of their life may be
unrelated to how they perceive themselves in another. For example, how Becky perceives herself as a student may differ
markedly from how she perceives herself as a daughter, sister, or girlfriend. Even as a student, she may perceive herself quite
differently in differing academic areas. She may view herself positively in math but negatively in reading. This is not to argue
that self-concept beliefs do not generalize and influence each other, nor does it mean that one does not possess a general view
of oneself. Rather, it means that self-conceptions can differ across differing domains of functioning, and it is the self-views in
discrete and specific areas of one's life that are most likely to guide and inform behavior in those areas. Numerous studies have
provided support for this hierarchical model (see Bong & Clark, 1999; Marsh, 1993).
How Self-Efficacy and Self-Concept Beliefs Differ
The conceptual and empirical differences between self-efficacy and self-concept are not always clear to researchers
or in research studies. Some authors use the terms synonymously; others describe self-concept as a generalized form of self-efficacy; still others argue that self-efficacy is simply a part, or a kind, of self-concept. But the difference between self-efficacy
and self-esteem beliefs is not cosmetic. Self-efficacy is a judgment of the confidence that one has in one's abilities; self-concept
is a description of one's own perceived self accompanied by an evaluative judgment of self-worth. Because self-concept beliefs
involve evaluations of self-worth, self-concept is particularly dependent on how a culture or social structure values the attributes
on which the individual bases those feelings of self-worth. Self-efficacy beliefs are not as tightly bounded by cultural
Self-efficacy and self-concept represent different views of oneself. When individuals tap into their self-efficacy or their
self-concept beliefs, they must ask themselves quite different types of questions. Self-efficacy beliefs revolve around questions
of "can" (Can I write well? Can I drive a car? Can I solve this problem?), whereas self-concept beliefs reflect questions of
"being" and "feeling" (Who am I? Do I like myself? How do I feel about myself as a writer?). The answers to the self-efficacy
questions that individuals pose to themselves reveal whether they possess high or low confidence to accomplish the task or
succeed at the activity in question; the answers to the self-concept questions that individuals pose to themselves reveal how
positively or negatively they view themselves, as well as how they feel, in those areas. As is readily apparent, the typical self-concept item "Mathematics makes me feel inadequate" (Marsh, 1992) differs markedly from a self-efficacy question that may
begin with "How confident are you that you can successfully solve the following problem . . . ?"
Self-efficacy beliefs are especially sensitive to contextual variation in a particular task or activity. Our driving
self-efficacy, for example, may change depending on whether we are driving through a country lane or maneuvering through
heavy city traffic, or whether we are driving an automatic transmission or a 5-gear stick shift, an automobile or a recreational
vehicle. In school, a student's writing self-efficacy may vary depending on whether she is asked to write an essay, a poem, or
a creative short-story. Moreover, confidence can shift depending on what one is asked to do, and people can gauge their own
confidence even about quite specific behaviors. Some excellent and confident writers will readily admit that they have no faith
in their ability to spell or to correctly use commas or to identify grammatical structure. Although self-concept beliefs can be
domain-specific (e.g., mathematics self-concept, social self-concept regarding peers), in current research these beliefs are not
assessed at task-specific levels. Perhaps the primary reason for this is that it is unlikely that individuals invest judgments of self-worth on most discreet tasks and activities. Nonetheless, teasing out the different levels at which self-efficacy and self-concept
beliefs can be operationalized and measured is an active area of research, and much has yet to be decided on this score (see Bong
& Clark, 1999; Skaalvik & Rankin, 1996).
Self-efficacy and self-concept theorists have each emphasized the need to keep the contextual nature of these self-beliefs in mind when conducting investigations. Bandura (1997) argued that, to predict academic outcomes from students'
efficacy beliefs, "self-efficacy beliefs should be measured in terms of particularized judgments of capability that may vary
across realms of activity, different levels of task demands within a given activity domain, and under different situational
circumstances" (p. 6). In a similar vein, Marsh (1993) cautioned that "research clearly demonstrates that self-concept and its
relation to other variables cannot be adequately understood if its multidimensional, domain-specific nature is ignored" (p. 92)
And both have cautioned that the self-beliefs assessed should always be consistent with the achievement index with which they
are compared. In other words, the influence of these self-beliefs on academic achievement should be assessed with measures
of academic self-concept and academic self-efficacy rather than with global measures. Scores provided by global instruments
are of limited value in predicting discrete academic outcomes. Self-concept researchers similarly argue that general self-conceptno matter how it is inferredmay not be a particularly useful construct (Marsh, 1993). In addition, achievement in
a particular subject-area should be predicted with scales tailored to that same area (math self-concept and math achievement,
Because there is no fixed relationship between one's beliefs about what one can or cannot do and whether one feels
positively or negatively about oneself, self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs need not be related. Some students may approach
mathematics with confidence but without the corresponding positive feelings of self-worth, in part because they may take no
pride in accomplishments in this area. More dramatically, one could surmise that skilled soldiers in war may possess strong
efficacy beliefs about their professional capabilities but take no pride in performing them well, plagued as they may be by the
emotional distress that accompanies the rendition of their skills. Conversely, students may readily admit to dismal self-efficacy
when it comes to mathematics but suffer no loss of self-value on that account, in part because they do not invest their
self-concept in this activity. There are many things that individuals do poorly but that have no influence on how they feel about
Because confidence is considered an integral component of an individual's self-concept, self-efficacy beliefs are often
viewed as requisite judgments necessary to the creation of self-concept beliefs. Clearly, judgments of confidence are a critical
component of an individual's sense of self, as are judgments of self-worth. Indeed, one's self-concept encompasses the totality
of self-beliefs that an individual holds. As we have outlined, however, judgments of confidence and judgments of self-worth
perform quite different functions and, to disclose them to ourselves, we must ask ourselves markedly different questions.
Some researchers explain the distinction between self-efficacy and self-concept as a difference in the source of an
individual's judgment (see Marsh, Walker, & Debus, 1991). They argue that self-concept judgments are based on social- and
self-comparisons. By comparing one's own performance with those of others ("I am a better math student than most of my
friends") and also one's own performance in related areas ("I am better at math than at English"), an individual develops a self-concept. Self-efficacy judgments, they contend, focus on the specific ability to accomplish a particular task; hence, comparative
information does not play a prominent role. Self-efficacy theorists contend that self-efficacy judgments are also heavily
influenced by social comparisons. Although previous mastery experience is in general the best source of information for the
creation and maintenance of self-efficacy beliefs, social comparative information is also critical to the development of
confidence, particularly when one is developing self-efficacy beliefs about unfamiliar tasks. In these cases, watching how
models or peers succeed or fail at these tasks provides just the sort of information that helps create self-efficacy beliefs (Schunk,
1981, 1983a, 1987; Schunk & Gunn, 1985; Schunk & Hanson, 1985).
Self-Concept, Self-Efficacy, and Academic Achievement
There is ample empirical evidence that self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs are each related with and influence
academic achievement. Moreover, they also mediate the influence of other variables that predict academic achievement, which
is to say that they act as a filter between variables such as previous achievement and mental ability on academic achievement.
An analysis of 128 studies conducted up to the late 1970s revealed that researchers had reported relationships between
self-concept and academic achievement that ran the gamut from a strong negative correlation to nearly perfect positive
correspondence (Hansford & Hattie, 1982; and see Byrne, 1984). Over 90% of the studies reported moderate to weak
correlations. In most studies during those years, however, researchers compared general, or global, self-concept with academic
achievement. In studies in which academic self-concept was measured, correlations were moderately positive, a finding that
has been supported by self-concept researchers during the last 20 years (see Bong & Clark, 1999). Assessing global self-concept
and comparing it to academic achievement in early self-concept research had the effect of lowering the statistical relationship
between the two constructs.
Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton (1976) introduced a hierarchical model that differentiated between general, academic,
social, emotional, and physical self-concepts. Academic self-concepts were further differentiated as English, history, science,
and mathematics self-concepts. This conceptualization represented an important step in the study of self-concept. The
hierarchical nature is now widely accepted, and researchers warn that using global indices of self-concept can provide limited
value (Byrne, 1984, 1986; Marsh & Shavelson, 1985; Shavelson & Bolus, 1982; Shavelson & Marsh, 1986).
According to the hierarchical model, subject-specific self-concepts are distinguishable from each other and from
academic and global self-concepts. Relations among self-concept dimensions are themselves hierarchically structured. The
relationship between subject-specific self-concept (e.g., mathematics self-concept) and related performance (mathematics
performance) is stronger than that between academic self-concept and academic achievement, which, in turn, is stronger than
that between global self-concept and achievement (Marsh 1990c; Marsh, Barnes, Cairns, & Tidman, 1984; Marsh, Byrne, &
Shavelson, 1988). Marsh and O'Neill (1984) reported that the math self-concept of high school students was strongly related
to their mathematics achievement. The strength of relationship decreased as mathematics achievement was compared with
academic self-concept, and it decreased even further when compared with verbal self-concept. It is clear that self-concept
becomes more empirically sensitive to, and more predictive of, achievement outcomes the more specifically that it is conceived
When domain-specific self-concept is compared with achievement in the same domain (e.g., math self-concept with
math achievement), the relationship is positive and strong (Marsh, 1993). Marsh (1990c) reported on a number of studies in
which correlations between mathematics self-concept and mathematics achievement indexes ranged from .17 to .66 with a
median of .33. Other studies report higher correlations, generally ranging from .40 to .70 (Byrne & Shavelson, 1986; Marsh,
1992a; Marsh & O'Neill, 1984; Marsh, Relich, & Smith, 1983; Marsh, Smith, & Barnes, 1985; Marsh, Smith, Barnes, & Butler,
1983; Skaalvik & Rankin, 1990). Typical is a study by Marsh et al. (1988), who reported a correlation of .55 between high
school students' mathematics self-concept and their subsequent mathematics grades. Path analyses revealed direct effects of
self-concept on GPA (.60 to .66).
Researchers have also been successful in demonstrating that self-efficacy beliefs are positively related to and influence
academic achievement and that these beliefs mediate the effect of skills, previous experience, mental ability, or other self-beliefs
on subsequent achievement. A meta-analysis of studies published between 1977 and 1988 revealed that efficacy beliefs were
positively related to academic achievement (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991). Self-efficacy beliefs were related to academic
outcomes (ru = .38) and accounted for approximately 14% of the variance. Effects were stronger for high school (d = .41) and college students (d = .35) than for elementary students (d = .21). How the constructs were operationalized also influenced findings. The strongest effects were obtained when achievement indexes were assessed with basic skills measures (d = .52) or classroom-based indices such as grades (d = .36) than with standardized achievement tests (d = .13), a finding that supports the context-specific nature of self-efficacy beliefs. As with self-concept, researchers have demonstrated that, when self-efficacy beliefs correspond to the academic outcome with which they are compared, prediction is enhanced and the relationship between self-efficacy and academic performances is positive and strong (see Pajares & Miller, 1994, 1995, 1997).
Correlations between self-efficacy and academic performances in investigations in which self-efficacy is analyzed at the item- or task-specific level and closely corresponds to the criterial task have ranged from .49 to .70; direct effects in path analytic studies have ranged from B = .349 to .545. Results tend to be higher in studies of mathematics than of other academic areas such as reading or writing, but even in these areas relationships are considerably higher than previously obtained if the criteria by which students rate their self-efficacy judgments is used as the criteria for scoring essays or assessing reading comprehension (Pajares, Miller, & Johnson, 1999; Pajares & Valiante, 1997, 1999).
Zimmerman and his associates have been instrumental in tracing the relationships among self-efficacy perceptions,
academic self-regulatory processes, and academic achievement. This line of inquiry has demonstrated that self-efficacy beliefs
influence self-regulatory processes such as goal setting, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and strategy use ((Zimmerman, 1989,
1990, 1994; Zimmerman & Bandura, 1994; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990). Self-efficacious students embrace more
challenging goals (Zimmerman et al., 1992). Students with high self-efficacy also engage in more effective self-regulatory
strategies at differing levels of ability, and self-efficacy enhances students' memory performance by enhancing persistence
(Bouffard-Bouchard, Parent, & Larivée, 1991). In studies of college students who pursue science and engineering courses, high
self-efficacy has been demonstrated to influence the academic persistence necessary to maintain high academic achievement
(Lent, Brown, & Larkin, 1984, 1986; and see Hackett, 1995, and Lent & Hackett, 1987, for reviews of the influence of self-efficacy on career choices and decisions).
Self-efficacy is also related to self-regulated learning variables and use of learning strategies (Feather, 1988; Fincham
& Cain, 1986; Paris & Oka, 1986; Pokay & Blumenfeld; 1990; Schunk, 1985 Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990). Students
who believe they are capable of performing tasks use more cognitive and metacognitive strategies and persist longer at those
tasks than those who do not. Academic self-efficacy influences cognitive strategy use and self-regulation through use of
metacognitive strategies, and it is correlated with in-class seatwork and homework, exams and quizzes, and essays and reports.
Pintrich and De Groot (1990) suggested that self-efficacy plays a facilitative role in the process of cognitive engagement, that
raising self-efficacy beliefs might lead to increased use of cognitive strategies and, thereby, higher achievement, and that
students need to have both the will and the skill to be successful in classrooms.
Students with similar previous achievement and cognitive skills may differ in subsequent achievement as a result of
differing self-efficacy perceptions because these perceptions mediate between prior attainments and academic achievement.
As a consequence, such performances are generally better predicted by self-efficacy than by the prior attainments. Collins
(1982) identified children of low, middle, and high mathematics ability who had, within each ability level, either high or low
mathematics self-efficacy. After instruction, the children were given new problems to solve and an opportunity to rework those
they missed. Collins reported that ability was related to performance but that, regardless of ability level, children with high
self-efficacy completed more problems correctly and reworked more of the ones they missed. When researchers tested the joint
contribution to mathematics performance of math self-efficacy and general mental ability (the variable typically acknowledged
as the most powerful predictor of academic performances), they found that, despite the influence of mental ability, self-efficacy
beliefs made a powerful and independent contribution to the prediction of performance (Pajares & Kranzler, 1995). Clearly,
it is not simply a matter of how capable one is, but of how capable one believes oneself to be. Dale Schunk (1989, 1991) has
suggested that variables such as perceived control, outcome expectations, perceived value of outcomes, attributions, goals, and
self-concept may provide a type of cue used by individuals to assess their efficacy beliefs.
Studies tracing the relationship between confidence and goal setting have demonstrated that self-efficacy and skill
development are stronger in students who set proximal goals than in students who set distal goals, in part because proximal
attainments provide students with evidence of growing expertise (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). In addition, students who have been
verbally encouraged to set their own goals experience increases in confidence, competence, and commitment to attain those goals
(Schunk, 1985). Self-efficacy is also increased when students are provided with frequent and immediate feedback while working
on academic tasks (Schunk, 1983b) and, when students are taught to attribute this feedback to their own effort, they work harder,
experience stronger motivation, and report greater efficacy for further learning (Schunk, 1987). Taking into account students'
self-efficacy beliefs is critical to the success of academic strategies and instructional interventions (Berry 1987, Schunk, 1981).
Self-efficacy explains approximately a quarter of the variance in the prediction of academic outcomes beyond that of
instructional influences. Students' self-efficacy beliefs are responsive to changes in instructional experience and play a causal
role in students' development and use of academic competencies.
When self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs are tapped at the same level of specificity (e.g., the domain level of
mathematics), they tend to predict performance equally well (Skaalvik & Rankin, 1996). This is probably because self-concept
instruments are often composed of items that relate to a student's confidence in an academic area. Math self-concept has been
assessed with items such as, "Compared to other students my age I am good at mathematics"; "I learn things quickly in
mathematics"; and "I have always done well in mathematics." When self-efficacy is assessed at a task-specific level and
compared with domain-specific self-concept beliefs, however (e.g., items assessing self-efficacy to solve specific mathematics
problems versus items assessing mathematics self-concept), task-specific self-efficacy beliefs are stronger predictors of the
corresponding academic performance (e.g., Pajares & Graham, 1999; Pajares & Miller, 1994).
Whereas recent findings suggest that gender differences in academic achievement are either diminishing or practically
nonexistent, gender differences in the academic self-beliefs of American students may still be prevalent (Wigfield, Eccles, &
Pintrich, 1996). For example, it seems that boys and girls report similar confidence in their math ability during the elementary
years, but, by high school, boys are more confident and girls more likely to underestimate their capability. High school boys
also report higher mathematics self-concepts than do girls (see Bong & Clark, 1999; Marsh, 1988). Gifted girls are especially
likely to be underconfident about their mathematics capabilities (Pajares, 1996a). Sandra Graham's (1994) summary of the
literature on the motivation of African American students revealed that they "maintain undaunted optimism and positive self-regard even in the face of achievement failure" (p. 103). Similar findings have been reported with Hispanic American students
(Lay & Wakstein, 1985; Stevenson, Hanson, & Uttal, 1990). These findings have resulted primarily from studies of global or
of domain-specific self-concept. In studies in which task-specific self-efficacy perceptions are assessed, the self-efficacy of
African American students and of Hispanic American students tends to be lower than that of their White peers. Despite
differences in self-efficacy, minority students report positive self-concepts (Pajares & Kranzler, 1995; Pajares & Johnson,
1996). Some have posited that beliefs at differing levels of specificity perform different functions for minority students (Edelin
& Paris, 1995).
In general, findings on the relationship between self-efficacy, self-concept, and academic achievement coincide on two
points related to specificity and correspondence. First, when self-beliefs are globally assessed, prediction is diminished; when
assessments are domain-specific, and especially when they are task-specific, prediction is enhanced. Second, when self-beliefs
do not correspond with the achievement outcome with which they are compared, their predictive value is reduced or can even
be nullified. In general, there is ample reason to believe that both self-efficacy and self-concept are powerful motivation
constructs that predict academic achievement at varying levels but work best when theoretical guidelines and procedures
regarding domain-specificity and correspondence are adhered to.
The sensitivity to context and greater specificity afforded by self-efficacy assessments have resulted in findings that
point toward the superiority of self-efficacy beliefs over self-concept beliefs as predictors of related academic outcomes
(Bandura, 1997; Bong & Clark, 1999; Pajares, 1996, 1997; Schunk, 1989, 1991). As Graham and Weiner (1996) observed,
what cannot be disputed is Bandura's argument that self-efficacy has been a much more consistent predictor of behavior
and behavior change than have any of the other closely related expectancy variables. Efficacy beliefs have been related
to the acquisition of new skills and to the performance of previously learned skills at a level of specificity not found in
any of the other motivation conceptions that include an expectancy construct. (p. 75)
Of course, human functioning is influenced by many factors. The beliefs that people hold about themselves are good
predictors of their behavior when these self-beliefs are in harmony with variables such as the knowledge and skills they posses,
the outcomes they expect, how they value those outcomes, their interest, the self-regulatory strategies they use, and the reasons
that they have for behaving as they do. The interplay among these factors may create situations in which neither judgments of
confidence or of self-worth are especially predictive of academic achievement (Hattie, 1992; Schunk, 1991). And it bears
emphasizing that no amount of confidence or self-appreciation can produce success when requisite skills and knowledge are
Self-BeliefsCause or Effect of Academic Achievement
One of the thorniest issues in research on the relationship between academic self-beliefs and academic achievement
deals with the chicken-and-egg question of causality. Basically, the question asks whether students' academic self-beliefs
determine their academic achievement, or whether academic achievement determine the self-beliefs. This has been a particularly
contentious issue in self-concept research, where researchers with a self-enhancement orientation argue that self-concept beliefs
are a primary cause of student achievement (we do well because we feel good about ourselves) whereas researchers with a skill
development orientation contend that self-concept is a consequence rather than a cause of achievement (we feel good about
ourselves because we do well).
The answer to this question hold powerful implications. If it can be ascertained that self-concept beliefs determine how
well a student achieves in school, then educational efforts, teacher practices, and academic strategies should be aimed at
fostering students' self-concept, for raising self-worth should result in raising achievement. Conversely, if self-concept beliefs
are the result rather than the cause of how well one performs in school, then educational efforts should more reasonably be aimed
at increasing students' competence rather than focusing on raising their judgments of self-worth.
Because self-concept beliefs and academic achievement do not easily lend themselves to experimental manipulation,
questions of causality pose a great challenge. Self-concept researchers have offered various criteria that must be meet before
inferences of causality can be made, including that self-concept and achievement must be measured at least twice and preferably
more frequently; that each construct should be inferred on the basis of multiple indicators; that the study should include a
sufficiently large and diverse sample to justify the statistical technique used and the generality of the findings; and that the data
should be fitted to various statistical models that incorporate measurement error and test for residual covariation among them
(Marsh, 1993; Marsh, Byrne, & Yeung, 1999). Although some results suggest that prior self-concept can, in some circumstances,
influence subsequent academic achievement (Marsh et al., 1999), most self-concept researchers currently support a "reciprocal
effects" model in which self-belief and achievement are viewed as exercising a reciprocal influence (Marsh & Yeung, 1997;
Wigfield & Karpathian, 1991). But there is evidence to suggest that self-concept may play a stronger causal role as individuals
grow older (Skaalvik & Hagtvet, 1990). Moreover, variables such as the number and types of courses students select intervenes
between self-concept and achievement to mediate the effects of self-concept (Marsh & Yeung, 1997). Some researchers have
contended that variables such as social class or academic ability may account for most of the variance both in self-concept and
in academic achievement (Maruyama, Rubin, & Kingsbury, 1981).
The causality issue has not been contentious in self-efficacy research, in large part because Bandura (1986) has always
contended that human motivation and behavior influence each other reciprocally. According to Bandura's social cognitive theory,
behavioral and environmental information create the self-beliefs that, in turn, inform and alter subsequent behavior and
environments. This is the foundation of Bandura's (1978) conception of triadic reciprocal causation, the view that (a) personal
factors in the form of cognition, affect, and biological events, (b) behavior, and (c) environmental influences create interactions
that result in a triadic reciprocality of human functioning. Bandura provided a view of human functioning in which the beliefs
that people have about themselves are key elements in the exercise of control. These self-beliefs influence and are themselves
influenced by human behavior and by environmental contingencies. In this social cognitive perspective, individuals are both
products and producers of their own environments and of their social systems. Bandura's take on the causal influence of self-beliefs is that "by exercising self-influence, individuals are partial contributors to what they become and do" (p. 6).
The causal influence of self-efficacy on students' academic achievement-related behaviors has been effectively
demonstrated by Dale Schunk and his colleagues. In a series of studies (e.g., Schunk, 1982a, 1982b, 1983a, 1983b, 1984a,
1984b, 1984c, Schunk et al., 1987; Schunk & Swartz, 1993), Schunk increased students' self-efficacy beliefs by providing them
with instructional strategies designed to enhance their competence, strategies such as modeling, strategy training, goal setting,
and providing rewards, attributional feedback, or progress feedback. The increase in self-efficacy also resulted in improved
performance. In several studies, Schunk assessed students' self-efficacy for learning novel tasks prior to instruction and then
related that self-efficacy to subsequent achievement and motivation during instruction. Other findings show that efficacy beliefs
influence academic achievement and mediate the effect of possessed skills on subsequent achievement by influencing effort,
persistence, and perseverance (e.g., Collins, 1982).
Bandura's (1997) emphasis that one's mastery experiences are the most influential source of self-efficacy information
has important implications for the self-enhancement model of academic achievement, which contends that, to increase student
achievement in school, educational efforts should focus on altering students' self-beliefs. This is usually accomplished through
programs that verbally persuade students that they are capable and can acquire these skills. Social cognitive theorists focus on
a joint effort to raise competence and confidence primarily through successful experience with the task at hand, through
authentic mastery experiences. They argue that interventions should be designed accordingly (Pajares, 1997; Pajares & Schunk,
in press; Schunk, 1991).
As we have illustrated, self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs represent differing ways of thinking about one's self. They
are distinct psychological constructs that should be differently understood, defined, and used in empirical investigations, for it
is likely that they will produce differing insights. Current research findings reveal that, when properly assessed, students' self-concept and self-efficacy beliefs are each related to, and help mediate the impact of other motivation constructs on, academic
achievement. As Bandura (1986) observed, both self-beliefs "contribute in their own way to the quality of human life" (p. 410).
Because the causal relation between these self-constructs and achievement is reciprocal, students' academic behaviors are a
function of the beliefs they hold about themselves and about their academic potentialities. As a consequence, students' difficulties
in basic academic skills are often directly related to their beliefs that they cannot read, write, handle numbers, or think wellthat
they cannot learneven when such things are not objectively true. That is to say, many students have difficulty in school not
because they are incapable of performing successfully but because they have come to believe that they cannot perform
successfullythey have learned to see themselves as incapable of handling academic work.
Bandura (1997) has argued that beliefs of personal competence constitute the key factor of human agency, the ability
to act intentionally and exercise a measure of control over one's environment and social structures. As children strive to exercise
control over their surroundings, their first transactions are mediated by adults who can empower them with self-assurance or
diminish their fledgling self-beliefs (see Erikson, 1959, 1968). Because young children are not proficient at making accurate
self-appraisals, they rely on the judgments of others to create their own judgments of confidence and of self-worth. It is during
early childhood that the metaphor of the "looking-glass self" is at its most powerful. Parents and teachers who provide children
with challenging tasks and meaningful activities that can be mastered, and who chaperone these efforts with support and
encouragement, help ensure the development of a robust sense of self-worth and of self-confidence. Early mastery experiences
are predictive of children's cognitive development (Ramey, McGinness, Cross, Collier, & Barrie-Blackley, 1982), and there is
evidence to suggest they work independently of critical variables such as socioeconomic status (Bradley et al., 1989).
School is the primary setting in which cognitive capabilities are cultivated and evaluated (Bandura, 1997). It is also
the primary setting in which academic self-regulatory practices are developed and maintained, and, as we reviewed earlier, the
use of these strategies is intimately connected both with success in school and with the positive self-beliefs that accompany that
success. William James (1896/1958) long ago argued that "education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior
consists" (p. 58). For James, the critical challenge that educators face is making their students' self-regulatory practices automatic
and habitual as early as possible. These practices include the habit of finishing assignments by deadlines, studying when there
are other interesting things to do, concentrating on academic work, accessing appropriate resources to gather information,
organizing time and schoolwork, and having a place where they can study without distractions. According to James, when sound
academic practices are handed over to "the effortless custody of automatism," higher powers of mind can be freed to engage
academic tasks (and see Zimmerman, 1989).
There is evidence to support James's contention that the self-regulatory processes that individuals use to make most
of their decisions become automatic and are exercised primarily unconsciously. Many psychologists contend that individuals
perform the bulk of their actions on auto-pilot, as it were, making use of "automatic self-regulation" (see Bargh & Chartrand,
1999). People are, in later life, slaves to the self-regulatory habits developed during childhood. Once formed, these habits exert
a powerful influence on the selection of life's paths and on the success or failure experienced on them. Self-regulation is the very
stuff of which the self is made. Beliefs of personal competence and of self-worth ultimately become habits of thinking that are
developed like any habit of conduct, and teachers are influential in helping students develop the habitual self-beliefs that will
serve them throughout their lives.
If there is one finding that is incontrovertible in educational psychology it is that children learn from the actions of
models. Schunk and his colleagues have demonstrated that different modeling practices can differently affect self-beliefs
(Schunk, 1981, 1987, 1999; Schunk & Gunn, 1985; Schunk & Hanson, 1985; Schunk et al., 1987; also Zimmerman & Ringle,
1981). For example, when peer models make errors, engage in coping behaviors in front of students, and verbalize emotive
statements reflecting low confidence and achievement, low-achieving students perceive the models as more similar to themselves
and experience greater achievement and self-efficacy. Social cognitive theorists recommend that teachers engage in effective
modeling practices and that they select peers for classroom models judiciously so as to ensure that students view themselves
as comparable in learning ability to the models.
Children also learn from the actions of peers. Social comparisons are critical to the development of self-concept and
self-efficacy beliefs. Self-concept researchers have described the Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Effect (BFLPE), which describes how
students form their self-concept in part by comparing their academic ability with the perceived abilities of other students in their
reference group. Self-concept is increased when one views oneself as more capable than one's peers but, conversely, lowered
when others are viewed as more capable (Marsh, 1993). Self-efficacy and self-concept researchers concur that social-comparative school practices that emphasize standardized, normative assessments, involve ability grouping and lock-step
instruction, use competitive grading practices, and encourage students to compare their achievement with that of their peers work
to destroy the fragile self-beliefs of those who are less academically talented or prepared. These are practices that convert
"instructional experiences into education in inefficacy" (Bandura, 1997, p. 175).
When classroom structures are individualized and instruction is tailored to students' academic capabilities, social
comparisons are minimized and students are more likely to gauge their academic progress according to their own standards
rather than compare it to the progress of their classmates. To some degree, students will inevitably evaluate themselves in
relation to their classmates regardless of what a school or teacher does to minimize these comparisons (Marsh, 1993).
Nonetheless, when instruction is individualized, students can more easily select the peers with whom to compare themselves.
Structures that lower the competitive orientation of a classroom and school are more likely than traditional, competitive
structures to increase students' confidence and perceptions of self-worth (Moriarty, Douglas, Punch, & Hattie, 1995).
The efficacy beliefs of teachers are themselves related to their instructional practices and to their students' achievement
and psychological well-being (Ashton & Webb, 1986; Tschannen-Moran, Woolfolk Hoy, & Hoy, 1998). Efficacious teachers
create classroom climates in which academic rigor and intellectual challenge are accompanied by the emotional support and
encouragement necessary to meet that challenge and achieve academic excellence. All teachers do well to take seriously their
share of responsibility in nurturing the self-beliefs of their pupils, for it is clear that these self-beliefs can have beneficial or
destructive influences. Teachers who view as their singular obligation the cultivation of their students' cognitive skills or who
believe that nurturing their students' often-fragile egos is beyond their purview would do well to rethink their teaching mission
and reflect on the nature of their roles as educators of youth.
Some researchers have suggested that teachers should pay as much attention to students' perceptions of competence
as to actual competence, for it is the perceptions that may more accurately predict students' motivation and future academic
choices (Hackett & Betz, 1989). Assessing students' self-beliefs can provide schools with important insights about their pupils'
academic motivation, behavior, and future choices. For example, unrealistically low self-efficacy perceptions, not lack of
capability or skill, can be responsible for maladaptive academic behaviors, avoidance of courses and careers, and diminishing
school interest and achievement (Hackett, 1995). Students who lack confidence in skills they possess are less likely to engage
in tasks in which those skills are required, and they will more quickly give up in the face of difficulty. Given the generally lower
confidence of most girls related to boys in the areas of mathematics and computer technology, it seems that young women may
be especially vulnerable in these areas (Zeldin & Pajares, in press). In such cases, in addition to continued skill improvement,
schools must work to identify their students' inaccurate self-beliefs and design and implement interventions to challenge them.
For example, teachers can provide students with proximal rather than distal goals, combine process goals with progress feedback,
employ peers who share similar attributes to their students as teaching and learning models, and furnish effort attributional
feedback to enhance students' percepts of efficacy and ensuing performance (see Schunk, 1991).
Of course, cautions should be taken as regards the nature of interventions designed to increase academic self-beliefs.
Because mastery experience is the most influential source of self-efficacy information, social cognitive theorists focus on the
important task of raising competence and confidence in tandem through authentic mastery experiences. An artificial self-concept is naked against challenge and adversity; unwarranted confidence is cocky conceit. Erik Erikson (1959/1980) put it
Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial
bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but what I call their accruing ego identity gains real strength
only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their
culture. (p. 95)
Self-esteem programs, gimmicks, and kits of the sort that have been in fashion are largely ineffective either in raising
self-esteem or achievement. In most cases, efforts are better aimed at transforming schools, classrooms, and teaching practices
than at altering students' psyches (Kohn, 1994). Moreover, when what is communicated to children from an early age is that
nothing matters quite as much as how they feel or how confident they should be, one can rest assured that the world will sooner
or later teach a lesson in humility that may not easily be learned. An obsession with one's sense of self is responsible for an
alarming increase in depression and other mental difficulties. But institutional, curricular, and pedagogical transformation and
a focus on students' intellectual development are not incompatible with concern for students' personal, social, and psychological
needs and well-being. Positive self-regard need not result in arrogant self-satisfaction.
There are ways of maintaining a joint focus on the development of mastery and of the self-beliefs that accompany such
mastery. In the area of writing, for example, instructional programs such as the writers' workshop approach to writing instruction
have as a key priority the building of a child's sense of confidence in writing (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1994). Writers' workshop
advocates stress that children must gain confidence in themselves as writers if they are to improve and grow in this skill.
Attention to students' self-beliefs is made an explicit feature of teacher education in such programs, and teachers are encouraged
to assess both competence and the accompanying confidence as part of writing evaluations. Students' self-evaluations typically
include self-reflection geared to understanding self-beliefs.
Important voices in psychology, philosophy, and education have long argued that the maintenance and enhancement
of the perceived self is the primary motive behind behavior. Combs (1962) argued that individuals have "an insatiable need for
the maintenance and enhancement of the self; not the physical selfbut the phenomenal self, of which the individual is aware,
his self-concept" (p. 8). For Maslow, this insatiable need provided the impetus toward self-fulfillment. Piaget (1970) expounded
a cognitive theory in which children are viewed as active agents in constructing the meanings that direct their lives. Part of this
active agency includes the adaptive tendencies toward intrinsic interest and curiosity that act as inborn motivational forces. In
school, children attempt to maximize their sense of self-worth by maintaining positive perceptions of their own competence.
They also interpret self-related information in a positive light so as to maximize their self-worth. In a sense, the fact that children
make great efforts to enhance their perceptions of their self creates a built-in advantage for a teacher, for, if these forces come
from within each student, they are by their very nature motivating, purposeful, and positive. They are positive in that they are
affirmative, constructive, optimistic, and hopeful.
It seems clear that many of the difficulties that people experience throughout their lives are closely connected with the
beliefs they hold about themselves and about their place in the world in which they live. Students' academic failures in basic
subjects, as well as the misdirected motivation and lack of commitment often characteristic of the underachiever, the dropout,
the student labeled "at risk," and the socially disabled, are in good measure the consequence of, or certainly exacerbated by, the
beliefs that students develop about themselves and about their ability to exercise a measure of control over their environments.
As Bandura (1997) observed, because beliefs of self-worth have many sources, there is no single remedy for low self-esteem.
When low self-esteem is rooted in poor competence, skills that will bring satisfaction must be cultivated. When it is rooted in
unrealistically high standards, students can be helped to adopt standards of achievement they can more readily attain or
encouraged to be more self-forgiving when they fall short. When it is rooted in social inequities, self-worth must be affirmed
with humane treatment. When it is rooted in multiple causes, multiple corrective measures are required.
The influence of people's self-beliefs on their achievement does not end with their schooling. Consequently, the aim
of education must transcend the development of academic competence. Schools have the added responsibility of preparing self-assured and fully-functioning individuals capable of pursuing their hopes and their ambitions. As Albert Bandura (1986) has
argued, "educational practices should be gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use but also by
what they do to [students'] beliefs about their capabilities, which affects how they approach the future. Students who develop
a strong sense of self-efficacy are well equipped to educate themselves when they have to rely on their own initiative" (p. 417).
Educational philosopher Nel Noddings observed that the ultimate aim of education should be to nurture the "ethical
self""to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people." One need only cast a casual glance at the American landscape
to see that attending to the personal, social, and psychological concerns of students is both a noble and necessary enterprise.
Teachers can aid their students by helping them to develop the habit of excellence in scholarship while at the same time nurturing
the self-beliefs necessary to maintain that excellence throughout their adult lives.
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