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Primary School Physical Education at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Could Online Teaching Undermine Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Work Engagement?

Department of Biomolecular Sciences, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, 61029 Urbino, Italy
Department of Medicine and Aging Sciences, University G. d’Annunzio of Chieti and Pescara, 66100 Chieti, Italy
Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Education and Applied Psychology, University of Padova, 35100 Padova, Italy
Faculty of Education, Free University of Bozen, 39100 Bozen, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2021, 13(17), 9830;
Submission received: 22 July 2021 / Revised: 17 August 2021 / Accepted: 24 August 2021 / Published: 1 September 2021


This study aimed to evaluate whether primary school classroom teachers reported changes in physical education teaching self-efficacy (SE-PE) and work engagement (WE) during the first COVID-19 wave. A total of 622 classroom teachers filled in an online questionnaire on SE-PE and WE, referring to before and during the lockdown, and on perceived digital competence. While controlling for perceived digital competence, a mixed between-within Repeated Measures Multivariate Analysis of Covariance (RM-MANCOVA) was performed, using a factorial design with two time categories (before vs. during the lockdown) and three age categories (≤40 vs. 41–50 vs. ≥51 years). The RM-MANCOVA revealed that perceived digital competence significantly adjusted teachers’ SE-PE and WE values (p < 0.001). The analysis yielded a significant multivariate main effect by time (p < 0.001) and by time × age categories (p = 0.001). Follow-up univariate ANCOVA showed significant differences by time in teachers’ SE-PE (p < 0.001) and WE (p < 0.001), with a reduction in both values from before to during the lockdown. A Bonferroni post hoc pairwise comparison showed teachers’ SE-PE significantly decreased in all age categories (p < 0.001). The present findings confirm the importance of promoting SE-PE among primary school teachers, regardless of the crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers’ self-efficacy and WE are essential to master the challenges of PE teaching.

1. Introduction

As in many countries worldwide, Italy was strongly affected by COVID-19 (official data: (accessed on 4 June 2020)), and in March 2020, in the attempt to contain the global pandemic, the Italian government temporarily closed the educational institutions. Consequently, while supporting students’ learning and development, teachers faced considerable challenges in adapting to online teaching. Teachers, students, and their families had to cope with a completely new situation [1], which led to the implementation of new strategies, radically changing the processes of teaching/learning and interpersonal communication [2]. Pedagogical continuity was only possible employing various digital tools and resources, approaching the teaching in a novel and innovative way. Recent studies conducted in the Italian context showed that teachers reacted to prevent the collapse of the education system [3], and although the sudden shift from face-to-face to online teaching impeded teachers from proper planning, they generally reported high satisfaction with the new teaching conditions [4].This disruptive situation permeated the education system as a whole, but Physical Education (PE) was particularly subjected to the necessity to be re-thought and re-designed [5,6]. PE has traditionally been considered a practical subject, in which proximity, physical contact, and bodily communication are common characteristics. Indeed, Kirk (2010) [7] claimed that PE is defined by what is said, written, and performed in its name, needing specific places and times. Moreover, according to SHAPE America [8], effective PE needs appropriate policy and environment, curriculum, instruction, and student assessment. Amid school closures, teaching PE confronted teachers with an unprecedented challenge, while also struggling with the lack of governmental guidance and concerns related to COVID-19 pandemic consequences. Teachers needed to radically transform the discipline contents, methodologies, practices, and communication strategies [9]. For instance, Italian secondary school PE teachers provided their pedagogical contents increasing the use of digital technologies (e.g., live streaming classes or video tutorials) and renovating the pedagogical formats used in their classes to promote students’ out-of-school physical activity (PA) [9].
Online teaching could have even more impacted PE in primary schools. In the context of traditional schooling, it has been generally reported that several classroom teachers (i.e., non-specialist teachers who teach different subjects) experience difficulties in teaching PE. Under normal circumstances, inappropriate training [10,11], negative attitudes [12], lack of time, inadequate facilities and equipment [13], and low levels of teachers’ self-efficacy [13,14] were reported among the major barriers to teaching PE, leading to poor quality PE programs in primary schools [15]. Moreover, associations between memories of individuals’ poor-quality school PE experiences and low levels of self-efficacy in teaching PE (SE-PE) among primary school classroom teachers were found [11]. Self-efficacy is generally defined as beliefs about individuals’ perceptions of their capabilities to plan and execute a specific behavior [16]. Indeed, referring to the context of teaching PE, the SE-PE has been addressed, investigating the teachers’ perceived competence in being effective at implementing a new PE curriculum [17], at adapting learning situations and adjusting objectives to attend to diversity in the classroom [18,19], or at managing students, time, space, and institution to teach highly active classes [20]. In general, teachers’ self-efficacy could be considered a protective factor since it was associated with a greater willingness to adapt pedagogical practices, even in challenging situations [21]. Previous work evidenced this adaptive influence of PE teachers’ self-efficacy on their behaviors [17,22,23]. Moreover, higher SE-PE was recently found to be associated with greater intention to promote out-of-school PA among secondary school students during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic [24].
Teachers’ self-efficacy is associated with work engagement (WE), meaning that teachers who have confidence in their capability to accomplish specific job-related tasks are also more likely to be engaged in their work [25]. Capability beliefs influence individuals’ decisions about behaviors and effort put in goal-related activities, which is in relation with personal engagement [16], as shown in a longitudinal study among Italian teachers, whose self-efficacy positively influenced the short- and long-term WE [26]. Moreover, engagement at work was associated with a stronger intention to engage in pedagogical innovations [27] and was paired with an increased effort in challenging situations [28]. More recently, in the context of school closure imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, PE teachers’ engagement at work was found to directly favor the implementation of teaching behaviors showing extra effort in promoting out-of-school PA [24].
When looking at the highly disruptive situation imposed by the challenge of teaching PE online [29,30], as far as we know, the impact on self-efficacy among primary school Italian teachers’ is not available. The present study was performed when online teaching was fully in place, aiming to evaluate whether SE-PE and WE changed from before to during the lockdown among primary school classroom teachers, hypothesizing that this group of teachers could have been particularly vulnerable to the situation. Within this background, information and communication technologies (ICT) attained high relevance. Indeed, according to the OECD’s TALIS study [31], 18% of educators and teachers felt that they need to develop better ICT skills for teaching. Therefore, assuming that teachers’ digital competence plays a crucial role in teaching PE during the lockdown, we considered perceived digital competence and the age of participants as possible factors of influence. We hypothesized that all the teachers lowered the levels of SE-PE and WE from before to during the lockdown. In addition, we hypothesized that, belonging to the “digital native” generation [32], the youngest teachers (i.e., ≤40 years of age) would be able to better adapt to the online teaching challenges posed by the school closure, reporting SE-PE and WE values less undermined compared to those of their older colleagues.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Participants and Procedure

Primary school teachers were invited to complete once a 15-min-long online questionnaire, available from the end of April 2020 to the end of May 2020. This period corresponded with the school closure imposed in Italy to contain the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The questionnaire was administered via online survey platforms (i.e., Google Forms) and accessed by participants using a designated link, which was disseminated through primary teachers’ social networks, using the snowball sampling technique. The study was developed in accordance with the principles embodied in the Declaration of Helsinki for the protection of human rights. Answering the questionnaire, all the participants expressed their consent and voluntary participation, agreeing with the analysis and use of the resulting data. Participants could interrupt or quit the survey at any point without explaining the reasons for doing so.
From a total of 884 primary school classroom teachers answering the questionnaire, a total of 622 (5.6% males) teachers were considered for the analyses, representing those involved in teaching PE during the lockdown. Participants were then divided into three age categories (≤40 years, 41–50 years, and ≥51 years).

2.2. Measures

An online survey composed of two sections with standardized questionnaires was administered. To reduce comparison biases, in the first part of the questionnaire, participants were asked to retrospectively provide information on SE-PE and WE before the lockdown, while in the second part, they were asked about SE-PE and WE during the lockdown period. A third section comprising questions on socio-professional information (i.e., gender, teaching PE in the current year, perceived digital competence) was also administered.

2.2.1. Self-Efficacy in Teaching PE (SE-PE)

Based on Bandura’s theory [16] and his guidelines for the construction of self-efficacy scales [33], we developed a 4-item scale capturing SE-PE. Teachers read the question header, “How confident are you that in your PE classes you can…” followed by four items representing key abilities in teaching PE and in accordance with the three dimensions of the teachers’ self-efficacy model [34]: (a) for classroom management, “create a working classroom atmosphere that facilitates student engagement” and “create a classroom environment in which students enjoy doing PA”, (b) for students’ engagement, “motivate students to PA, even if they are not interested in”, and (c) for instructional strategies, “take into account students’ needs so that they are more physically active in class”. Responses were given on 11-point scales ranging from 0% (not confident at all) to 100% (absolutely confident). Scores were averaged to compute a mean score (α = 0.99 and 0.95 for before and during the lockdown, respectively).

2.2.2. Work Engagement

Engagement at work was measured using a slightly modified version of the short Utrecht Work Engagement Scale [35,36], which investigates aspects of WE by means of three 3-item scales: vigor (e.g., At my job, I feel strong and vigorous), absorption (e.g., I am immersed in my work), and dedication (e.g., I am proud of the job that I do). Answers to the items were given on a frequency scale varying from 1 (Never) to 4 (Always) in order to capture teachers’ perceptions at the 2 time points (before and during the lockdown). The items were averaged to create an overall score of engagement at work (α = 0.92 and 0.91 for before and during the lockdown, respectively).

2.2.3. Perceived Digital Competence

Perceived digital competence was assessed using a single item (“To what extent do you feel confident in your ability to use digital technologies?”), with answers’ anchors from 1 (not confident at all) to 6 (absolutely confident). The whole sample mean value for digital competence was 4.1 (SD = 1.0).

2.3. Statistical Analysis

Data were initially screened for outliers [37]. Examination of histograms, skewness, and kurtosis of the variable scores showed no substantial deviation from normal distributions. In line with the literature [25], and given the significant Pearson’s correlations observed between teachers’ SE-PE and WE in before (r = 0.471, p < 0.001) and during the lockdown (r = 0.461, p < 0.001), the analysis was computed including both dependent variables. Thus, to assess the mean differences of teachers’ SE-PE and WE from before to during the lockdown, while controlling for perceived digital competence, a mixed between-within Repeated Measures Multivariate Analysis of Covariance (RM-MANCOVA) was performed, using a factorial design with two time categories (before vs. during the lockdown) and three age categories (≤40 years vs. 41–50 years vs. ≥51 years). Bonferroni correction test was used for post hoc pairwise comparisons. Effect sizes were calculated using partial eta square (ηp2) [38] in the analyses of covariance, with 0.01, 0.06, and 0.14 considered small, medium, and large effects, respectively [39]. In the case of multiple comparisons, effect sizes were calculated using Cohen’s d [39], for which 0.20, 0.50, and 0.80 are considered small, medium, and large effects, respectively. The significance level was set at p < 0.05, and the analyses were performed using the STATISTICA 12 software (StatSoft, Inc., Tulsa, OK, USA).

3. Results

Descriptive statistics are reported in Table 1. The RM-MANCOVA revealed that perceived digital competence (p < 0.001) significantly adjusted values of teachers’ SE-PE and WE. The analysis also yielded a significant multivariate main effect by time (Wilk’s λ = 0.817, F (2, 617) = 69.288, p < 0.001, ηp2 = 0.183, Power = 1) and by time × age categories (Wilk’s λ = 0.969, F (4, 1234) = 4.886, p = 0.001, ηp2 = 0.016, Power = 0.959). No significant multivariate main effect by age categories was found (p = 0.101). Follow-up univariate ANCOVA showed significant differences by time in teachers’ SE-PE (F (1, 618) = 102.162, p < 0.001, ηp2 = 0.142, Power = 1) and WE (F (1, 618) = 84.899, p < 0.001, ηp2 = 0.121, Power = 1), with a reduction in both values from before to during the lockdown (see Table 1). Further, a significant time × age categories interaction was found for teachers’ SE-PE (F (2, 618) = 9.507, p < 0.001, ηp2 = 0.030, Power = 0.980) but not for WE (p = 0.662) (Figure 1). Specifically, post hoc pair-wise comparisons with Bonferroni correction showed that, from before to during the lockdown, teachers’ SE-PE significantly decreased in all age categories (≤40 years: p < 0.001, d < 1; 41–50 years: p < 0.001, d > 1; ≥51 years: p < 0.001, d = 0.99). Moreover, while SE-PE values of the three age categories did not differ during (ps > 0.05), before the lockdown there was a significant difference between the youngest (i.e., ≤40 years) and the oldest (i.e., ≥51 years) teachers (p = 0.005, d = 0.39), with the youngest teachers showing higher SE-PE values only before the lockdown, consequently seeming to be the most impacted group during the lockdown (see Figure 1).

4. Discussion

The school closure imposed to contain the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic forced teachers to replace traditional in-presence teaching with online teaching, radically transforming PE. Consequently, primary school classroom teachers could have been particularly impacted in PE teaching during this unprecedented and unpredictable situation. The present study explored changes in SE-PE and WE among primary school teachers of different ages while controlling for digital competence. Our main findings showed significant decreases by time on both the outcome variables among all the participants. When looking at the different age categories, participants decreased their SE-PE from before to during the lockdown period. Moreover, younger teachers reported significantly higher SE-PE in comparison to their older colleagues in the period before lockdown.
First, our data confirmed previous literature reporting a positive association between teaching self-efficacy and work engagement, highlighting the reciprocal association which may exist between the two constructs [40]. According to the literature and as confirmed by the present results, teachers experiencing higher engagement also perceive more capability in domain-specific tasks [41], and vice versa—teachers who believe they are able to perform goal-directed activities are more likely to be engaged in their work [26].
As expected, during the lockdown period, participants in this study lowered both SE-PE and WE. Different factors could be hypothesized, but the context-specific constraints should be particularly considered due to the critical situation lived by the teachers. According to Bandura [16], self-efficacy could be influenced by the workplace environments, especially with supervisors’ verbal persuasion and modeling serving as important prompts to workers’ self-efficacy development, also among teachers. In the case of our participants, a context-specific lack of guidelines for goal-directed activities from the Italian Ministry of Education was reported in a previous study [9]; teachers received only general indications for online teaching while lacking support for the delivery of practical subjects such as PE. Another possible explanation concerns the support offered by PE coaches in primary schools, reported as a context-specific factor influencing teachers’ feeling of competence and confidence to deliver PE or promote active play [42]. While before the lockdown, many Italian classroom teachers were used to being supported by specialist PE teachers implementing projects funded by different sports authorities in primary schools, during the lockdown period, this was missing, since the sports sector ceased this support in the online PE teaching. Other issues related to the lowered SE-PE among teachers could relate to the exacerbation of barriers usually perceived by primary school teachers in traditional PE. During the lockdown, the impossibility to deliver active classes, both with pupils at home or in outdoor spaces—performing PA in parks, gyms, and playgrounds was forbidden—could parallel the perception of lack of facilities and equipment perceived in the traditional teaching [11]. Moreover, the generally reported lack of proper training in the use of technology in PE [13] may have been intensified during the lockdown when delivering online PE was necessary, and the adoption of digital pedagogical formats was essential.
In the analysis of the time × age interaction effect, a higher SE-PE among the younger teachers (≤40 years) in comparison to their older colleagues (≥51 years) was highlighted in the period before lockdown. An explanation of the initial difference in SE-PE among the youngest teachers could be due to the stage of their career; indeed, previous studies reported teachers’ self-efficacy negatively correlated with years of experience [43,44,45]. Moreover, it has been reported that, on average, teachers’ self-efficacy increases in the first two decades of their career and then falls afterward [46]. This could likely represent the age-related difference in our participants because teachers ≥51 years usually have more than 20 years of teaching experience. Although Bandura proposed that self-efficacy, once established, is relatively stable [16], in our study, apart from the “before lockdown” effect, the age-related difference on SE-PE was not present during the online teaching period, indicating that neither digital competence nor age played a protective role in the challenging situation determined by the pandemic. Another issue regards the teachers’ self-efficacy changing/flowing according to the changes in personal attributes and interpretation of environmental circumstances [34]. Particularly, it was highlighted that verbal persuasion and contextual factors play a more important role for novice teachers than for veteran teachers [34], and this could explain why in our participants, the youngest seemed to be the most impacted by the shifting to online PE teaching.
The present research findings confirm the importance of promoting SE-PE among primary school teachers, regardless of the crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent study conducted during school closure among Italian teachers, 32% of the participants reported feeling ready for, and preferring, the blended teaching method [3]. This positive attitude to the use of online teaching was correlated to the perception of increased ICT skills mastery, and to the declared need for training in digital teaching. These findings are in line with the literature showing that among the most effective strategy to enhance teachers’ self-efficacy, meaningful and engaging professional development opportunities were reported [47]. Programs of induction education and in-service professional development need to be implemented early, since—once consolidated—self-efficacy could be resistant to change, even if teachers are exposed to new teaching methods [48] such as the unexpected online teaching. In Italy, scant support has been reported in induction [49] and continuous development phase [50] among PE teachers of all grades, which could partially explain the decrease in SE-PE despite years of experience in teaching. The findings corroborate the evidence on risk for Italian primary school teachers of teaching online PE. In particular, since it is known that self-efficacy perception and work-engagement are resources to deal with new situations [3], the findings might inform school leaders and policy makers about the need to plan supportive interventions with more goal-oriented instructions, and teachers’ training for online PE teaching.
Limitations of this study warrant note. First, the use of self-reported measures and the fact that the variables before the lockdown were retrospectively assessed could have enhanced the risk of recall biases. Second, this study does not provide information about specific personal or professional variables, such as years of teaching experience, which could offer further explanation of teachers’ WE and SE-PE changes in the before/during the lockdown. Third, our study regards Italian teachers, and therefore, generalizing results to other countries is potentially critical. However, we can assume that other educational settings faced similar challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, with teachers adapting to online teaching during complete or partial school closures.

5. Conclusions

Teachers’ self-efficacy and work engagement are relevant in mastering the challenges of PE teaching during the pandemic and beyond. Particularly, the results of the present study could be applied to inform teachers’ initial and continuous education addressing relevant and possible new scenarios, such as implementing new curricula or technologies. These issues might stimulate further research in various school contexts, looking at the underlying mechanisms explaining the observed changes of teachers’ SE-PE and WE. Moreover, future research might investigate relationships among teachers’ SE-PE and WE and their students’ attitudes and motivation. Finally, in the context of online PE teaching, training teachers on how digital innovations are shaping PE pedagogy in theory and practice could reinforce their perceived usefulness and competence in ICT, and in turn, fostering the implementation of renewed pedagogical practices [51].

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, A.C. (Attilio Carraro), M.B., and E.G.; methodology, M.B., A.C. (Attilio Carraro), S.d.F., and E.G.; formal analysis, S.d.F. and E.G.; investigation, A.C. (Alessandra Colangelo); data curation, A.C. (Alessandra Colangelo), S.d.F.; writing—original draft preparation, S.d.F. and E.G.; writing—review and editing, A.C. (Attilio Carraro), M.B., S.d.F., and E.G.; visualization, A.C. (Alessandra Colangelo); supervision, M.B. and A.C. (Attilio Carraro); funding acquisition, A.C. (Attilio Carraro). All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This work was supported by the Open Access Publishing Fund of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.

Institutional Review Board Statement

This research is a part of a larger international study on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on PE teaching, for ethics approval see Gobbi et al., 2020 [9]. The study was developed in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki for the protection of human rights.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

All the data are provided within the text; the data will be available upon request to all interested researchers by contacting the corresponding author.


The authors would like to acknowledge all the teachers who voluntarily participated in the study.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Significant time × age categories interaction reported for SE-PE (self-efficacy in teaching PE). Means and standard deviations are represented. **: p < 0.01; ***: p < 0.001.
Figure 1. Significant time × age categories interaction reported for SE-PE (self-efficacy in teaching PE). Means and standard deviations are represented. **: p < 0.01; ***: p < 0.001.
Sustainability 13 09830 g001
Table 1. Self-efficacy in teaching physical education (SE-PE) and work engagement (WE) from before to during the lockdown for each age category.
Table 1. Self-efficacy in teaching physical education (SE-PE) and work engagement (WE) from before to during the lockdown for each age category.
Age CategoriesBeforeDuringBeforeDuring
≤40 years (n = 129)7.82 (1.97)4.06 (2.47)3.27 (0.47)2.69 (0.62)
41–50 years (n = 202)7.24 (2.66)4.42 (2.55)3.29 (0.46)2.73 (0.57)
≥51 years (n = 291)6.81 (3.02)3.92 (2.81)3.34 (0.52)2.71 (0.63)
TOT7.16 (2.74)4.11 (2.66)3.26 (0.49)2.71 (0.61)
Note: Data are reported as mean (SD), N = 622 classroom teachers.
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Gobbi, E.; Bertollo, M.; Colangelo, A.; Carraro, A.; di Fronso, S. Primary School Physical Education at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Could Online Teaching Undermine Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Work Engagement? Sustainability 2021, 13, 9830.

AMA Style

Gobbi E, Bertollo M, Colangelo A, Carraro A, di Fronso S. Primary School Physical Education at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Could Online Teaching Undermine Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Work Engagement? Sustainability. 2021; 13(17):9830.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Gobbi, Erica, Maurizio Bertollo, Alessandra Colangelo, Attilio Carraro, and Selenia di Fronso. 2021. "Primary School Physical Education at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Could Online Teaching Undermine Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Work Engagement?" Sustainability 13, no. 17: 9830.

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