Self-Efficacy Theory: A Prescriptive Model for Teaching Research Methods

Article excerpt

This case study examines self-efficacy theory as a prescriptive model for helping journalism and mass communication students acquire the skills and confidence they need to learn and apply research methods. Journalism students enrolled in a graduate research methods class widely reported high math anxiety. But students attending optional classes designed to nurture mathematics self-efficacy showed significant improvement in fundamental math skills, overcoming a performance gap with other students in the course. Strategies are proposed for applying self-efficacy theory to research methods instruction.

Journalism students tend to take quantitative research methods classes with trepidation. They commonly fear statistics and fail to see the connection between scientific analysis and journalism.1 These attitudes carry over into the profession. When Curtin and Maier conducted a series of focus groups at a metropolitan daily newspaper to examine how capable journalists feel computing and interpreting numbers, they found that perceived math ability-not actual ability-appeared key to determining how effectively journalists worked with numbers.2 Drawing on self-efficacy theory, they proposed a conceptual framework for understanding innumeracy3 in the newsroom and offered strategies to help journalists work with numbers more confidently and competently.

These findings apply to journalism and communication students studying research methods. As educators, our challenge is to provide students not only with requisite math skills but also the efficacy beliefs to use them well. Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, the leading self-efficacy theorist, offers a guided mastery program that nurtures both. Under Bandura's paradigm, instructional material is structured into easily mastered subskills from which basic principles are learned and applied, self-efficacy is promoted through a succession of exercises leading to independence, and motivation is nurtured by repeatedly showing that what is being learned has utility outside the classroom.4

This article presents self-efficacy theory as a prescriptive model for helping journalism and mass communication students acquire the skills and confidence needed to learn and apply research methods. Using a case study design, we surveyed and interviewed students enrolled in a graduate research methods course about their math experience and attitudes toward math. Approximately a year later, students enrolled in the same course were offered additional class sessions designed according to principles of selfefficacy theory. In a qualitative study, we observed these sessions to assess their effectiveness. We also tested students' math ability before and after the course to obtain a quantitative measure of the experiment's effectiveness. From this examination, we propose strategies for journalism educators teaching research methods courses.

Literature Review

Journalists have long had trouble dealing with numbers. In a seminal 1936 accuracy study, Charnley found that three Minneapolis daily newspapers repeatedly got their numbers wrong.5 Mathematical and numerical errors have been detected in a long line of accuracy surveys following Charnley's path-setting efforts.6 In more recent years, journalistic innumeracy has been found to contribute to inaccurate and misleading stories regarding political polls, banking, the homeless, African-Americans, the poor, Social security and Medicare, sports, and other topical issues.7

Given the importance of a numerate press and the media's long-standing difficulty working with numbers, educators today consider mathematical literacy an integral part of journalism education.8 The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications has added "the ability to apply basic numerical and statistical concepts" as a core competency of undergraduate education.9 A growing number of communication and journalism schools have extended research methods to the undergraduate curriculum. …