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How to Help Students Know When It’s Time to Quit—and When It’s Not

Albert Bandura

Jan 13 2021

Posted In:

Faculty, In the News

Angela DuckworthWhen is it the right or wrong time to quit something—and how do I help students figure that out?

There’s a big difference between thinking you can’t do something and deciding whether or not you want to. Eminent psychologist Albert Bandura wrote about the importance of self-efficacy for Education Week last year, which inspired me to write about it for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week. Here is the first of a four-part series on the topic:

Sometimes, we quit things because we really don’t want to do them anymore.

For instance, I quit piano when I was still in elementary school because I didn’t enjoy it. I knew I could keep getting better if I tried, but I felt only joy on the day I knew I would never have to play another note and I’ve had no remorse since.

But very often, we quit things because we don’t think we can do them even if we try.

I quit taking math in college, because some part of me doubted my ability to succeed beyond multivariable calculus. I loved derivatives and integrals and everything I was learning at that point—and I especially loved my math professor, Robin Gottlieb. Yet the idea of progressing to upper-level courses was terrifying.

Quitting is sometimes the right decision, but in the moment, when we declare, “I’m done! No more for me!,” it can be very difficult to know whether we’re quitting for the right reasons.

Around the time I was quitting piano in New Jersey, something very important was happening on the other side of the country. In 1977, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura published a paper entitled “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.”

Now, more than four decades later, this article has been cited by other scientists over 75,000 times—more than any other paper I’ve ever read.

Bandura asserted that underlying so many decisions in life—to persist or quit, to try a little harder or slack off, to seek help or cower from challenge—is the degree to which we think we can succeed if we try. The technical term Bandura gave us for this subjective judgment of our capabilities is self-efficacy, but the more commonly used term is confidence.

For example, here is a survey that measures self-efficacy in physics:.............