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The problem of enactment: The influence of teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs on their uptake and implementation of feedback-related ideas and practices

Helen Dixon

Using an interpretive, qualitative case study methodology, the current study investigated 20 primary school teachers’ beliefs and understandings about feedback, and the use of feedback to enhance student learning. The use of Sadler’s (1989) theoretical framework illuminated both similarities and differences among teachers. As teachers’ feedback discourse was examined in more detail, the influence of self-efficacy beliefs on the uptake and enactment of new ideas and practices associated with assessment for learning and feedback became apparent. This paper pays particular attention to the participating teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs in regard to the scope of the discursive changes made to their feedback practice, the amount of effort teachers expended in moving toward mastery, their willingness to persevere in the face of difficulty and their apparent resilience when faced with self-doubt. The study concluded that teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs will either enhance or impede their journey toward the enactment of the contemporary feedback discourse.

The problem of enactment: The influence of teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs on their uptake and implementation of feedback-related ideas and practices

Helen Dixon


Using an interpretive, qualitative case study methodology, the current study investigated 20 primary school teachers’ beliefs and understandings about feedback, and the use of feedback to enhance student learning. The use of Sadler’s (1989) theoretical framework illuminated both similarities and differences among teachers. As teachers’ feedback discourse was examined in more detail, the influence of self-efficacy beliefs on the uptake and enactment of new ideas and practices associated with assessment for learning and feedback became apparent. This paper pays particular attention to the participating teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs in regard to the scope of the discursive changes made to their feedback practice, the amount of effort teachers expended in moving toward mastery, their willingness to persevere in the face of difficulty and their apparent resilience when faced with self-doubt. The study concluded that teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs will either enhance or impede their journey toward the enactment of the contemporary feedback discourse.


All teachers hold a myriad of educational beliefs. These beliefs manifest themselves in various forms such as teachers’ expectations of students, and teachers’ expectations of their role and that of students in effective learning. While such beliefs might be private, tacit and implicit, they do have a major effect on the nature of instruction and the interactions that occur within a classroom (Guskey, 2002; Putnam & Borko, 1997). Indeed, research findings have proved consistent with regard to two generalisations: teacher beliefs are relatively stable and resistant to change; and a personal style of teaching, informed by particular beliefs, will be enacted fairly consistently across classes and year levels (Kagan, 1992). In contrast, studies that have investigated the degree of congruence between teachers’ espoused beliefs and practice illustrate the fragility of the relationship (Fang, 1996). Possible explanations for discrepancies between teachers’ espoused beliefs and practices include the effect of outmoded, unpopular, unarticulated or contradictory beliefs on practice (Alexander, 1992; Kagan, 1992); bureaucratic requirements and con­straints placed on teachers (James & Pedder, 2006); and the broader belief systems that teachers hold, and the influence of other, more central beliefs that are part of that system (Pajares, 1992).

A growing body of evidence reveals that teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning, and their roles and those of learners in the process of learning, are a mediating factor in assessment reform (Dixon, 2008; Hayward, Priestley, & Young, 2004). To date, it has been shown that if beliefs underpinning a particular reform are incongruent with beliefs held by individual teachers, then the success of the reform will be limited, the change process slow and the nature of the change superficial (Yung, 2001). Less attention, however, has been paid to how teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs might affect their interpretation and enactment of new ideas and practices associated with assessment for learning. In this paper, it is argued that teachers’ beliefs about their abilities and capabilities as they pertain to the implementation of specific assessment for learning strategies are a further influencing factor.

The influence of self-efficacy beliefs

Self-efficacy beliefs are focused on what one believes one is capable of, regardless of the competencies, capabilities or skills that one might possess. As such, self-efficacy is a future-orientated judgement more to do with perception than an actual level of competence (Woolfolk Hoy, & Burke Spero, 2005). Self-efficacy comprises two components: an efficacy expectation, which is a belief in one’s ability to perform the desired behaviour; and an outcome expectation, which is a belief that performance of the behaviour will have a desirable effect. Without a strong self-efficacy expectation an individual is, therefore, unlikely to take action, even if it is believed that the required behaviour will lead to a desirable outcome. Of the four main sources of self-efficacy belief—mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, social persuasion and an individual’s physiological and emotional state—that have been identified (Bandura, 1977), mastery experiences are considered the most powerful as they “provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed” (Bandura, 1995, p. 3).

Within the context of teaching, self-efficacy refers to the generalised expectancy a teacher has in regard to their ability to influence students, as well as to beliefs about their ability to perform the professional tasks that constitute teaching (Bandura, 1977). Given the magnitude and complexity of the teaching act, a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy may not necessarily be uniform across the multitude of tasks they are required to perform (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001), or the different subject matter they may be required to teach (Nespor, 1987). If this is the case, then it can be expected that self-efficacy beliefs will influence teachers’ uptake of new practices and new ways of working as both they and the students they teach are expected to undertake different roles and responsibilities within the feedback process.

New conceptions of feedback

A more expansive role for feedback in the processes of learning and assessment has been identified. Feedback is now conceptualised as the crucial interaction that occurs between the teacher and learner(s) during learning and teaching which will aid the improvement process through the identification of a learning gap and the actions needed to close that gap (Sadler, 1989). Significantly, contemporary notions of feedback emphasise new “ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking … that are accepted as instantiations of particular roles by specific groups of people” (Gee, 1996, p. viii).

Recognising the pivotal role that learners play in learning and assessment, contemporary notions of feedback emphasise the need for feedback to be a two-way communicative exchange, constructed jointly by teachers and learners. Learners, in collaboration with more expert others, are now seen as the generators of feedback information about their own performances and those of their peers. The need for feedback to promote self-regulatory behaviour in learners has been emphasised (Butler & Winne, 1995; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). As a consequence, the contemporary feedback discourse is both ambitious and complex, with the roles and responsibilities assigned to teachers and learners in the feedback process radically transformed. Teachers are now expected to make learning explicit to students and to share their evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise with students to enable the students to understand the concept of the standard or goal to be aimed for. Evaluative knowledge can be defined as substantive knowledge of the full set of criteria against which work will be judged and the rules for using this set of criteria. Evaluative expertise is the ability to make judgements and decisions about work based on the application of multiple criteria. In turn, students are expected to compare actual performance with the standard and to engage in appropriate action that will lead to some closure of the gap (Sadler, 1989). To engage in these two actions, students need to have acquired evaluative knowledge and expertise and the ability to apply these productively to their work to effect improvement.

The current study

An interpretive, qualitative methodology was considered the most suitable for the current research given the nature of the overarching question—“How is feedback conceptualised and implemented by teachers?” Cognisant of the critical interplay between beliefs and practice, the study was designed in two phases to investigate primary school teachers’ beliefs and understandings about, and use of, feedback. This paper reports on some of the findings from the first phase. Attention is paid to the participating teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs and how these influenced their uptake and enactment of the contemporary feedback discourse.

The sample for the first phase of the research consisted of a convenience sample of 20 primary teachers who had, during 1999–2004, upgraded their teaching qualification from a Diploma of Teaching to a Bachelor of Education (Teaching) degree at a large New Zealand university. Common to participants was their recently acquired degree status. However, as anticipated, these teachers were not a homogeneous group. There were differences in their years of teaching experience; type of position held in the school; class level taught; and involvement in various assessment-related professional development initiatives (see Table 1).

Table 1 Demographic information about Phase 1 participants


1AToL is Assessment to Learn, an assessment-related professional development programme offered to schools since 2002.

2New entrant.

3AbeL is Assessment for Better Learning, an assessment-related professional development programme offered to schools during the period 1995–9.

During Phase 1, each of the 20 teachers participated in an individual, semistructured interview. The interview schedule, informed partially by Sadler’s (1989) theory of formative assessment and feedback, was divided into five sections. Questions aimed to tap into teachers’ conceptions about the nature and role of feedback in the enhancement of learning; their beliefs about their role and that of learners in the feedback process; and the strategies and practices that teachers used and ascribed importance to within the feedback process, including the opportunities offered to students in relation to the development of evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise (Sadler, 1989). With participants’ permission, interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Individual transcripts were returned to each participant for confirmation and/or amendment. At this time participants were asked to select a pseudonym to be used in the final report.

Recognising the importance to interpretive enquiry of understanding the real-world settings of participants, in the majority of instances interviews were conducted in teachers’ classrooms. Before the interview, teachers were asked if they used learning intentions and success criteria (Clarke, 2001) and, if they did, to bring those currently in use to the interview to share with the researcher. These artefacts were considered important to the study given that, in New Zealand, intentions and criteria have been promoted as an effective way to communicate expected learning to students, and as the basis for providing feedback and making qualitative judgements about students’ learning (Assessment Focus Group, 2004). With teachers’ permission, these were photocopied and filed for future reference. During their interview, teachers often referred to wall charts, class books, whiteboard work or students’ completed work to illustrate a particular point or points. The detail gained on these aspects of teachers’ practice was recorded in the form of field notes, either at the time of the interview or as soon as possible thereafter. These data, along with the interview transcripts, formed the data set for Phase 1.

A seminal and well-respected theory of formative assessment and feedback (Sadler, 1989) informed analysis and was used to provide insight into teachers’ feedback understandings and practice. This theory provided some of the emergent notions central to the feedback process, which were then used as a way of looking at, or “leveraging” (Neuman, 2003), the data. Mindful of the need to pay attention to the voice of participants, other key ideas were created inductively—they emerged out of the data. The use of open, axial and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) enabled the researcher to reorder and make sense of the data in a systematic manner. Interview transcripts were analysed further to determine how feedback was used in the promotion of the learning. The data analysis was further informed by how teachers perceived the relationship between themselves and their students within the feedback process and how this relationship may have either constrained or enabled student participation. Consistent with recommended practice, the researcher moved back and forth between the original data and the key ideas identified to ensure that these could be expanded upon, illustrated and validated (Ezzy, 2002).

The combination of approaches, applied in a reflexive and flexible manner, drew attention to the contention, argued elsewhere and in relation to other facets of teacher practice (for example, Nespor, 1987), that the participating teachers were not a homogeneous group. The grouping of similar responses led to the establishment of three groups of teachers: “the technicians”, “the pragmatists” and “the empowerers”. While teachers’ placement in a group was based on their overall pattern of responses, it was also determined by the existence of certain responses that the researcher considered to be critical. For example, to be placed in the empowerers group, the active role of students in the feedback process had to be to the fore in teachers’ discourse, as this is a critical aspect of Sadler’s theory of formative assessment and feedback. Of the 20 teachers interviewed, eight were grouped together and formed the technicians group. Seven were placed in the group referred to as the pragmatists and five placed in the empowerers group. The names of the three teacher groupings were created to capture the salient characteristics of each group. Table 2 compares teachers’ discourse to the purposive criteria used, to show how teachers were placed in one of the three groupings.

Table 2 Teachers’ discourse compared to the purposive criteria


xMentioned the area; few or superficial examples/descriptions given.

xxMentioned the area; examples given although sometimes key aspects absent from descriptions.

xxxMentioned the area, explained and expanded; detailed examples given which included key aspects of the area.


Although teachers held some understandings in common about the nature, place and role of feedback in learning and teaching, there were also differences between teachers about the framing and communication of the goals of learning and the development of students’ evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise. Differences were also apparent in the ways teachers took on board and dealt with difficulties associated with the implementation of new feedback-related strategies.

Framing and communicating the goals of learning

Given the belief that feedback should be work-related, all teachers thought it important that students should have an understanding of expected learning. Hence, the majority of teachers had adopted learning intentions as an approach to specify and communicate the goals of learning. Consistently, intentions were phrased in student-friendly language, commonly prefaced with the terms “I am learning to” or “We are learning to”, and recorded in a variety of places for display and reference purposes. However, it was apparent there were key differences among teachers in their understanding of the approach, their commitment to it and their use of the approach when faced with difficulties of implementation.

Only some of the technicians had adopted the learning intentions approach. Those who did, thought that learning intentions should be specified tightly so that students would understand expectations. Consequently, the goals of learning were expressed as narrow, fragmented items of knowledge—“We are learning to identify parts of the human body” (Krystal, class modelling book). In the cases where success criteria had been developed, these were framed either as a list of items for inclusion in an end product or as a reiteration of an intention. For example, the criteria generated to exemplify in more detail the successful completion of the intention “We are learning to write a narrative” was restricted to a list of four properties—“interesting words, characters, happenings, descriptions” (Monica, class modelling book). Framing intentions and criteria in this manner was seen as unproblematic. Carol, for example, found writing them “quite straightforward”, given her experienced teacher status. Similarly, Krystal had found intentions “easy to write”. While the technicians believed that students “love these [intentions]” (Krystal), it was also revealed that some had taken on board their use because they had been “told we have to” (Carol). In this respect, the use of intentions and criteria was considered somewhat of a fad—“it’s like fashion, this is what the principal wants done” (Sunita). Furthermore, the expectation to comply had led some teachers “to play the game” (Sunita) with little genuine change occurring to everyday practice.

Pragmatists acknowledged that the sharing of learning intentions was now considered “part of the way you set up the lesson” (Priscilla). Success criteria were seen to be the “building blocks” that helped learners to “know how they are going to have to meet the learning intention” (Priscilla). Although the importance of criteria was recognised, a number of the intentions shared were not supported by criteria. As several pragmatists explained, developing criteria was being phased in slowly, hence the absence of criteria in support of some intentions. Like their technician counterparts, pragmatists often framed intentions in a narrow fashion and when criteria were specified, there were issues about their specification. In only one instance did the criteria that were shared contain helpful information and valuable clues as to what needed to be included in an end product. Significantly, these criteria were drawn from a Ministry of Education resource package for teachers.

Pragmatists believed that their adoption of the approach had been beneficial to both teachers and students, as teachers were now interrogating their tacit knowledge that previously “we haven’t always been able to itemise” (Priscilla). Grappling with what needed to be made explicit to learners had resulted in greater clarity on teachers’ part about what needed to be learned and what successful learning might look like. In turn, students now knew “what is expected of them” (Lynda). However, for some, the approach was “suffocating” (Lynda) and the “teachable moment” (Gem) lost if teachers only focused on providing feedback in relation to prespecified criteria.

All empowerers were committed to and excited about using intentions and criteria. Seemingly, their excitement and commitment arose from their perceptions of changes that had occurred in terms of students’ involvement in, understanding of, and increased responsibility for, learning. Having insight into to what was expected was “putting the onus on the children”. In turn, clarification of expected learning had “had a huge impact on what learning actually does occur” with a subsequent rise in achievement (Marama).

In contrast to the technicians and the pragmatists, the empowerers, in the main, considered the writing of quality intentions a difficult task, one that they had struggled with. It was only through a combination of trial and error, and engaging in extra reading about the approach, that they had begun to gain a better understanding of the functions of intentions and criteria. In the interim, it was felt that neither was well written: “We were putting the criteria in the learning intention and our learning intention wasn’t concise” (Jennifer). Making explicit the details of a successful performance had also proved problematic because “sometimes there’s a mismatch because you can’t think of what that [a successful performance] looks like” (Marama). Despite these reservations, the empowerers were committed to the use of intentions and criteria. They seemed to have faced problems of implementation in a way that had enabled them to persevere with the approach.

Gaining student commitment to, and fostering student understanding of, the learning intention approach was seen as critical as “it’s all new for them” (Audrey). Students were being asked to participate in ways that were foreign to them and initially students did not understand “what you’re [the teacher] going on about” (Tara). To ensure student understanding of the approach, teachers felt the need to spend additional time, in an already busy day, recording, sharing, discussing and reviewing criteria with students. Without student understanding and commitment, the whole approach would fail as “it’s very difficult to get buy in from everyone in the room if they don’t understand what those two things really mean [intentions and criteria]” (Marama).

The development of students’ evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise

All teachers acknowledged that they had considerable evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise on which to draw when engaged in the act of feedback. There were, however, differences apparent between the groups about how each used this knowledge, and in their perceptions of students’ ability to make use of evaluative and productive knowledge. These beliefs, in turn, influenced the opportunities teachers provided for students to develop their evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise.

The technicians believed that students, in comparison to teachers, did not “have the same understanding of criteria” (Susanna). Hence, given teachers’ expert status and superior knowledge, they needed to take control of, and play the leading role in, the feedback process. The role of decision maker was considered the domain of the teacher and hence feedback was often framed as a directive—“Some people will need to do this” (Monica). Teachers were seen as the arbiters of quality, telling students: “This is what we did, this is how we went and this is what we’ll do next” (Diana). The role of students was underplayed. Students were viewed as dependent on the teacher to make the evaluative and productive judgements and decisions. Consequently, the students’ role was limited to that of recipients of feedback information.

The pragmatists appeared to struggle with the demands of developing students’ evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise. Two competing discourses ran through their talk. On the one hand, they recognised the importance of providing opportunities for learners to amass and enlarge their evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise. This, however, was counteracted by their feelings about the manageability of such a task. The time it took to develop criteria, share student work and for students to feed back to others was a challenge, as “time runs out” (Lynda). The other, more substantive, factor that seemed to impede learners’ opportunities to develop evaluative knowledge and expertise was the pragmatists’ perceptions of learners’ responses to this involvement. Students’ reactions to playing an evaluative role that had traditionally been the domain of the teacher was seen as a major impediment to developing students’ evaluative knowledge and expertise. As Sela noted, “The children are used to the teachers being the keepers of knowledge.” Mary had found “success criteria difficult to co-construct” given that students were “not used to being asked for what it [a successful performance] will look like”. Similarly, Lynda had found that her students displayed “restlessness during the co-construction of criteria”. This she interpreted as a disinclination to be involved which led her to “write [success criteria] herself even though that’s not the optimum”.

Acknowledging both that students were self-monitoring and the need to promote this behaviour, the empowerers considered it a teacher’s responsibility to extend students’ evaluative and productive knowledge and expertise. From their descriptions of practice, the empowerers made deliberate attempts to help students “catch” evaluative knowledge in an authentic manner. Given their belief that telling students had a limiting effect on learning, all considered it important that criteria were not simply developed by the teacher and told to the students. They thought it necessary to build a discussion around the criteria so that students would begin to understand them and take ownership of them. Discussion would focus students’ attention on the substantive learning that was required by cueing them into the kind of student responses required. Making learning expectations transparent was seen as a necessary power-sharing exercise. If students were denied the opportunity to develop these understandings, they would be forever reliant on the teacher to make judgements and decisions about what had been achieved and what needed to be improved. Once students had access to, and understood, learning expectations they became “responsible for their learning” (Tara).

Students were regarded as having a significant role to play in the feedback process. They could be generators of feedback information about their own work and that of others, for both achievement and improvement. Once students became familiar with monitoring their own work and feeding back to each other, they were responsive to it and hence they began to contribute without prompting from the teacher. Importantly, teachers had to value and respect the students’ voice if they were going to make a genuine contribution to the feedback process.

Discussion: Teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs

Explanations for the similarities and differences in teachers’ conceptions of feedback and descriptions of practice help to unravel and better understand the complex meanings teachers ascribe to their situations (Ezzy, 2002). In the current study, it was never the intention to measure or even explore teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs. It was not until teachers’ feedback discourse was examined in more detail that the influence of these beliefs on the uptake and enactment of new ideas and practices associated with feedback became apparent. As such, teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs in this study are only the researcher’s interpretation. Consequently, the sources of the teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs and how these beliefs have been formulated are areas that have been left unexplored.

The need to engage with ideas and practices associated with the current feedback discourse

Current conceptions of feedback have radically transformed the roles and responsibilities assigned to teachers and learners. Teachers have been charged with responsibility for forging partnerships with learners and promoting student agency and autonomy in learning through the specification and sharing of learning goals and the development of self-regulatory skills and behaviour. In turn, the learner has been assigned an expanded and crucial role in both assessment and feedback and is now expected to take an active role in each of these processes.

In the current study, teachers had taken on elements of the contemporary feedback discourse to varying degrees, as shown by their placement in the three groupings of teacher feedback. Based on their descriptions of practice, there appeared to be key differences between the technicians, the pragmatists and the empowerers in regard to the scope of the changes teachers had made to their practice; the amount of effort they appeared to expend to master the discourse; their seeming willingness to persevere with the challenges inherent in enacting elements of the discourse; and their apparent resilience when faced with self-doubt about their ability to enact the discourse.

The magnitude of teachers’ self-efficacy expectations

The magnitude of one’s self-efficacy expectations can differ (Bandura, 1977). Some individuals’ expectations may be limited to simple tasks associated with a goal, whereas others may expect to perform the most complex of tasks. While all teachers in the present study believed in their ability to use feedback to support learning, the magnitude of this self-efficacy expectation was a noted difference among the three groups of teachers. In regard to feedback, the sharing of learning goals is a less difficult part of the feedback process as it does little to challenge a teacher’s notion of what constitutes accepted behaviour in assigning of roles and responsibilities. Conversely, the requirement that teachers promote independent and autonomous learning through the development of self-regulatory skills and behaviours is fundamentally more demanding and difficult to achieve. It requires that teachers share power and control over learning and assessment with their students (James & Pedder, 2006). For the technicians, their self-efficacy expectation appeared to be limited to the sharing of learning goals with students. Given their view of learners, the fostering of student agency and autonomy appeared not to be an expectation. Hence, for the technicians, the latter aspect of the feedback process was not problematic, as it did not exist.

The magnitude of expectation was more expansive for both the pragmatists and the empowerers. Both groups recognised the need to share the goals of learning and to promote the active involvement of learners in the feedback process. However, while the pragmatists voiced faith in their ability to share the goals of learning with their students, they were far less sure of their ability to foster student agency and autonomy. In contrast, the empowerers felt they were growing in confidence and competence in both of these aspects of the feedback process.

The strength of teachers’ self-efficacy expectations

Not only do self-efficacy expectations vary in magnitude, they also differ in strength (Bandura, 1977). The strength of an expectation is influential in that it will determine persistence of effort, particularly in the face of difficulties. In the current study, there was a variation between the pragmatists and the empowerers in the strength of teachers’ expectations. Although not the sole source of expectation, the most powerful expectancy source is mastery experience—the previous successes one has experienced in dealing with a particular challenge (Bandura, 1995). The pragmatists’ and the empowerers’ interpretations of their mastery experiences seemed to operate to either weaken or strengthen their self-efficacy expectations.

In the case of the pragmatists, descriptions of their mastery experiences to date suggested that they had proved to be somewhat disconfirming and arguably may have weakened their mastery expectations. The reactions of students appeared to be a significant obstacle to achieving the goal of greater student involvement in various stages of the feedback process. The pragmatists felt they had been less than successful in involving students in the development and co-construction of learning intentions and success criteria. In face of perceived resistance on the part of the students, some of the pragmatists spoke of lessening their efforts to get them involved. Seemingly they had settled for a mediocre solution to the problem.

While the empowerers had also voiced misgivings and self-doubt based on their mastery experiences, their expectations had not lessened. They continued to be optimistic about their ability to master the task. They were taking personal responsibility for improving their practice, believing that increased effort on their part would eventually lead to success. Moreover, the belief that their efforts would have the desired effect of greater involvement of students in the learning process remained robust. Involving learners in the feedback process was not regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. It was an achievable task if one expended the necessary time and effort.

Teachers’ self-doubt in relation to new ways of working

Initial conceptions of a masterful performance are rarely translated into action during first attempts (Bandura, 1989). It is to be expected that obstacles will be encountered which in turn will trigger self-doubt. That self-doubt has been aroused is not the significant matter. Rather, it is the individual’s response to self-doubt that is crucial. In this study, the technicians seemed not to have encountered obstacles or experienced self-doubt. From their perspectives, their status as experienced teachers had enabled them to incorporate the sharing of learning goals into their existing programmes quite easily. Furthermore, the students’ reactions to these new ways of working were seen as positive. Together, the technicians’ perceptions of their own capabilities and of students’ reactions to changes made seemed to work to circumvent self-doubt.

Unlike the technicians, both the pragmatists and the empowerers spoke of the obstacles encountered as they tried to implement new practices, which in turn had caused them to question their capabilities. For one group, self-doubt seemed to become a source of empowerment while for the other, it seemed to be debilitating. In the case of the empowerers, self-doubt had motivated them to learn more about learning intentions and criteria. They persevered in “the face of adversity and quickly rebounded from setbacks” (Bandura, 1995, p. 3). Gaining student commitment and encouraging greater involvement on the part of students was not regarded as a major obstacle. In contrast, the pragmatists appeared less resilient in the face of setbacks. Questioning and self-doubt became impediments to progress, preventing them from moving forward in their attempts at mastery. In addition, their perceptions of students’ reactions to new ways of working weakened their outcome expectations. Their mastery experiences appeared to lessen their belief that their actions would have the desired effect.

Thus it can be argued that in relation to the enactment of the contemporary feedback discourse, the empowerers had a stronger and more resilient sense of self-efficacy than the pragmatists. Consistent with what is known about those with strong beliefs about their own capabilities, the empowerers set high goal challenges for themselves (Locke & Latham, 1990). They were open to new ideas and showed a willingness to experiment with new approaches (Guskey, 1988; Stein & Wang, 1988; Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001) and made vigorous and persistent efforts to succeed. Difficulties encountered were perceived as opportunities to learn. While they conveyed a sense of confidence in their capabilities about what could be accomplished, this was tempered by the belief that they were novices in their understanding and enactment of the discourse. Although their learning journey had just begun, they were motivated to learn more. In contrast, the pragmatists’ sense of self-efficacy was less robust. The magnitude of the pragmatists’ expectations was apparently lower, and became weaker in light of disconfirming experiences. Furthermore, the pragmatists were more likely to attribute their failure to external factors, such as lack of student responsiveness or pressures of time.

Seemingly, the technicians had not experienced self-doubt, or if they had, this was kept private. It appeared they had a fairly robust sense of self-efficacy to the less demanding, less difficult aspect of the feedback process, the sharing of learning goals. Being experienced classroom teachers bolstered the technicians’ levels of confidence. Yet as research evidence has shown, there is little correlation between years of experience and increased effectiveness and efficiency (Desforges, 1995). In the case of the technicians, it can be argued that their beliefs about their capacity to enact the new discourse of feedback were inaccurate. Their self-efficacy beliefs provided them with an unreliable guide to the nature of reality (Bandura, 1986) and blinded them to aspects of practice that could assist students to take more control of their learning. Linnenbrink and Pintrich (2003) make reference to calibration, the match between an individual’s self-efficacy judgements and actual performance. It would appear that the technicians had overestimated their capabilities and abilities to enact the contemporary feedback discourse through an underestimation of the magnitude of such a task and an over-reliance on experience as a means through which new learning can be acquired and applied to practice (Desforges, 1995). Arguably, they still have a long way to go to enact the vision of the feedback discourse in ways that will promote student autonomy and agency.

Conclusion and implications

While protagonists of assessment reform may promote new feedback-related practices and strategies, it is unlikely that teachers will take these on board unless they believe in their capacity to perform such tasks, especially when faced with problems of enactment. In turn, teachers must believe that such practices will produce desirable effects for students. Findings from the current study suggest that teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs influenced the scope of the discursive changes made and the amount of effort teachers used in moving towards mastery. Teachers’ willingness to persevere with the challenges inherent in enacting elements of the contemporary feedback discourse and their apparent resilience when faced with self-doubt appeared to be affected by their efficacy and outcome expectations.

In future, teachers engaged in professional development need to have their cognitive dissonance aroused. They need sustained opportunities to reflect on the quality of their practices and to examine how particular practices may be affected by outmoded ideas and assumptions (Broadfoot, 2001). Moreover, if students are to become more active in the processes of learning and assessment, considerable attention has to be paid to developing teachers’ understandings of the kinds of feedback interactions needed to foster student self-monitoring and self-regulatory behaviours. Focusing attention on the nature of these interactions is particularly important, as a change in teacher behaviour that results in improved student outcomes can be a catalyst for a change in teacher beliefs (Guskey, 2002).

Self- and peer-assessment, along with the communication of expected learning including the criteria for successful accomplishment, have often been caricatured as a set of practical strategies that teachers can implement with little adjustment made to the existing classroom programme or to the traditional teacher–student relationship. The danger in emphasising the practical is that those aspects that can promote transformational change to practice are ignored. Transformational change is dependent on an alignment between teachers’ “understanding(s), values and attitudes” (James & Pedder, 2006, p. 27) and those underpinning a particular innovation. Therefore, those who run professional development programmes need to encourage teachers to examine their deep-seated beliefs, including their self-efficacy beliefs, and to engage in “serious talk” (Feiman-Nemser, 2001) about the beliefs/practice relationship. Assisting teachers to consider how their espoused and tacit beliefs permeate their day-to-day actions and interactions, and possible consequences of these actions and interactions for the construction of student identities as learners (Filer & Pollard, 2000), must be an essential and sizeable component of professional development programmes. A cycle of enquiry, grounded in the particulars of teaching and learning and based on the analysis of relevant classroom evidence, could stimulate the kind of “serious talk” needed to help teachers ask the “hard questions” (Feiman-Nemser, 2001) of themselves. Such serious talk should focus on “unpicking” teachers’ beliefs about what it means to be a teacher, including the teacher’s role in helping students learn; the students’ role in, and responsibility for, learning; and the nature of the relationship between teacher and students and how this should manifest itself in classroom feedback interactions. Such talk would provide teachers with valuable insights into their behaviours and the manner in which their practice has been constructed. In addition, given the scope and magnitude of the task of implementing new feedback-related interactions with students, teacher self-doubt must be expected and dealt with. More attention must be paid to developing teachers’ coping behaviours when faced with self-doubt, thereby developing teacher persistence and resiliency key attributes if substantive change is to occur.


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The author

Helen Dixon is a principal lecturer in the Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland. Her teaching and research interests are assessment for learning, feedback and teacher beliefs and how these influence assessment practice. Her doctoral study, which won a national award, examined teachers’ conceptions and use of feedback to enhance students’ learning.