CATL Teaching Guides

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Brief Description

Two types of expectancies play a role in student motivation. One is outcome expectancy, the expectation that there is a procedure or course of action that will bring about a specific outcome, e.g., “If I do all the assignments and study the material I will succeed in the course.” A second type of expectancy is the belief that one is capable of succeeding. This is known as efficacy expectancy. Both are important for motivation. To someone with low expectancies, there seems to be little point in trying to succeed.   

I can improve student engagement and motivation by 


  1. Alignment of objectives, instruction and assessment. Students are more likely to develop outcome expectancies when there are clear connections between course objectives, instructional strategies and assessment of learning in a class. Moreover, if the course involves deliberate practice and feedback students are more likely to see the path to success in the course [outcomes expectancy].

  2. Challenging but attainable goals. Experts often advocate setting challenging but attainable goals for students. This may be an unrealistic recommendation, especially if there is wide variability among your students. A challenging goal for well-prepared students may be an impossible goal for a student with no background in the subject. Teachers will need to grapple with what constitutes appropriate levels of challenge in heir courses.

  3. Success strategies. Research indicates that college students tend to use weak study strategies such as rereading, highlighting material and superficial review. They may come into a course ill prepared to make the best use of their study time. Instructors can help by identifying and explaining better ways to study the material.

  4. Demonstrate how experts learn and try to make sense of the subject. Every field of study has modes of learning that work for the discipline. Let students in on the secret—show them how to study and think about your subject matter. Model how you would analyze and solve problems or make sense of a topics.

  5. Provide early success opportunities or early reality checks. Early in the course provide students with low stakes opportunities to be evaluated. This is an opportunity for students to experience the type and level of work will be expected of them without being penalized excessively if they do not perform well. These early warning experiences can be especially useful if the teacher then discusses the course expectations, how to study and do well in the course, and what kinds of resources and help are available. 

  6. Verbal persuasion and vicarious experiences. Sometimes a simple vote of confidence (e.g., "I know you can do this!") can increase a student's efficacy for a given task. The message is more believable and more likely to be perceived as credible when it comes from a trusted authority figure (i.e., a professor who is familiar with the student's work) and when it is delivered in an authentic and individual manner. Pointing out that other students were successful on a task may also increase a student's efficacy, provided that the student perceives him/herself to be similar to the comparison group (i.e., of similar background or ability level).

  7. Provide positive messages about challenge and failure while simultaneously emphasizing the value of effort and perseverance. Emphasize that everyone faces challenges and that failures are natural parts of learning. Provide examples of your own struggles with learning and failures, or experts' failures in a particular field. (For examples, see But They Did Not Give Up).

Tips to Implement Expectancy Enhancing Strategies Effectively

  • Mastery experiences (i.e., successes) have the strongest and most direct influence on students' efficacy expectations. Simply telling a student that he/she "can do it" often isn't enough, as they need to see the connection between their efforts and success. Increasing efficacy may take time, especially for those who have experienced failure in the past. Efficacy expectations tend to be more malleable, and potentially fragile, for new/novel tasks. So teaching specific learning strategies, pointing out the contingencies between students' efforts and outcomes, and enabling students to experience small, gradual successes are important steps to building efficacy. Start with smaller, less challenging goals and gradually increase the difficulty level as students become more proficient.

  • Realize that efficacy and outcome expectations are domain- and task-specific. High expectations in one context do not necessarily transfer to another, although highlighting connections and similarities across domains/tasks may help to increase efficacy when a student is faced with new challenges. 

  • Although high outcome expectancies are generally associated with positive influences on motivation, it is also important for students to be able to recognize the limits of what they can control. To decrease anxiety levels, encourage students to focus on their own efforts and strategies while simultaneously help them recognize and accept factors that are outside of their control. 

  • Although high efficacy expectations generally have positive influences on motivation and achievement, it is also possible for students to be over-confident in their abilities. Overconfidence is associated with a lack of effort, strategies, and conscientiousness, and thus can decrease the likelihod that students listed to feedback and increase the likeliness of mistakes. To avoid these problems, encourage students to focus on the specific details of the task at hand and continually reflect on what they are learning. Asking highly competent students to assist or teach others may also help in this regard. 


Cerbin, W. & Marshik, T. (2015). Expectancies. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from