Social cognitive theory contends that all human functioning – including that of students and teachers – is determined by the interacting influence of personal, behavioural, and environmental factors (Bandura 1986). Personal factors include beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and physical attributes. Behaviours include the choices people make, how they perform, and how they manage their lives. Environmental factors include one’s physical and social surroundings, peer groups, and family. Human activity is not solely determined by the environment nor by inner impulses. Rather, through a process of triadic reciprocal determinism, personal, behavioural, and environmental forces dynamically interact.

A social cognitive view considers humans to be agents in their own lives. Students and teachers influence their own circumstances and behaviour by their own efforts, thereby exercising personal agency. When people lack the personal means to achieve their aims, they can solicit the help of others who can act on their behalf (i.e., proxy agency). Successful functioning also requires working with others to achieve shared goals through collective agency. All three forms of agency enable individuals to exercise some control over their educational pursuits and outcomes.

People exercise personal agency through their capacity for forethought, self-reaction, and self-reflection. Prior to acting, people can make plans, set goals, envision desired outcomes, and motivate themselves. As they carry out tasks, they monitor their performance and make necessary adjustments. After performing, they look back on their successes and failures and evaluating what happened and why. These self-driven processes are foundational elements of self-regulated learning.

Self-efficacy, individuals’ judgments of their capabilities to perform given tasks, is theorized to be the most central of these self-referent processes to learning and motivation (Bandura 1997). A large body of evidence has shown that learners who believe that they are capable of succeeding at the tasks they face will be more likely to act in ways that bring about their own success. Low self-efficacy undermines performance and motivation. Self-efficacy derives from people’s interpretations of information from four primary sources: their own performance, their observations of others’ behaviours, the evaluative messages they receive, and their own physiological and affective states (Bandura 1997). Self-efficacy and its sources may differ as a function of individual (e.g., gender, ethnicity) and situational (e.g., cultural background, learning environment) factors. Researchers have called for greater attention to these contextual factors and to the methodological approaches that would be most useful for investigating them.