Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Attribution Theory – Application in Academic Context

 Attribution Theory

According to attribution theory, the explanations that people tend to make to explain success or failure can be analyzed in terms of three sets of characteristics:

  • First, the cause of the success or failure may be internal or external. That is, we may succeed or fail because of factors that we believe have their origin within us or because of factors that originate in our environment.
  • Second, the cause of the success or failure may be either stable or unstable. If we believe cause is stable, then the outcome is likely to be the same if we perform the same behavior on another occasion. If it is unstable, the outcome is likely to be different on another occasion.
  • Third, the cause of the success or failure may be either controllable or uncontrollable. A controllable factor is one which we believe we ourselves can alter if we wish to do so. An uncontrollable factor is one that we do not believe we can easily alter.

An important assumption of attribution theory is that people will interpret their environment in such a way as to maintain a positive self-image. That is, they will attribute their successes or failures to factors that will enable them to feel as good as possible about themselves. In general, this means that when learners succeed at an academic task, they are likely to want to attribute this success to their own efforts or abilities; but when they fail, they will want to attribute their failure to factors over which they have no control, such as bad teaching or bad luck.

The basic principle of attribution theory as it applies to motivation is that a person's own perceptions or attributions for success or failure determine the amount of effort the person will expend on that activity in the future.


There are four factors related to attribution theory that influence motivation in education: ability, task difficulty, effort, and luck. In terms of the characteristics discussed previously, these four factors can be analyzed in the following way:


  • Ability is a relatively internal and stable factor over which the learner does not exercise much direct control.
  • Task difficulty is an external and stable factor that is largely beyond the learner's control.
  • Effort is an internal and unstable factor over which the learner can exercise a great deal of control.
  • Luck is an external and unstable factor over which the learner exercises very little control.


Students will be most persistent at academic tasks under the following circumstances: 

if they attribute their academic successes to either:

    • internal, unstable, factors over which they have control (e.g., effort) or
    • internal, stable, factors over which they have little control but which may sometimes be disrupted by other factors (e.g., ability disrupted by occasional bad luck);

and  if they attribute their failures to internal, unstable factors over which they have control (e.g., effort).

The following guidelines can be derived from the preceding statements for use in academic settings by teachers:

  1. Teachers should help students to establish a sincere belief that they are competent (ability) and that occasional imperfections or failures are the result of some other factor (such as bad luck or a lack of sufficient effort) that need not be present on future occasions.
  2. It is not beneficial for students to attribute their successes entirely to ability. If they think they already have all the ability they need, they may feel that additional effort is superfluous. Students do not know the material to be learned by them. They have the ability to learn the material. The ideal attribution for success is, "I succeeded because I am a competent person to make the required effort and I did put the effort."
  3. When students fail, they are most likely to persist and eventually succeed if they attribute their failure to a lack of appropriate effort. Therefore, it is extremely important that when students perceive themselves as unsuccessful teachers help them develop the conviction that they have the ability to succeed and they will succeed if they give it their best shot.
  4. It is extremely hazardous to motivational health for students to fail repeatedly after making a serious effort at academic tasks. When this happens, they will either (a) stop believing they are competent, or (b) stop attributing their failure to lack of effort. Both of these outcomes are likely to reduce persistence at the academic tasks. It is important, therefore, to arrange tests and tasks so that students who work hard are able to perceive themselves as successful.
  5. Effort is to be defined correctly.  In practical terms effort is most usefully defined as devoting effective academic learning time to the task. If children are engaged in ineffective effort we should be able to point out it. Children should not be made to believe that they have an internal, stable characteristic called laziness, over which they have no control. This will reduce motivation.
  6. Excessively competitive grading and evaluation systems are likely to impair the learning of many students. Competition will encourage students to persist only to the extent that they believe additional effort will enable them to succeed within the competitive atmosphere. In many instances, success in competition is completely beyond the learner's control - no matter how hard a learner works, another more competent and equally energetic competitor is likely to win.
  7. It is useful to evaluate students at least partly (but not exclusively) on the basis of their effort. Ideally, course assignments should be arranged so that diligent work actually leads to academic success, and the teacher's evaluation should help students see this connection.
  8. In general, it is best for students to believe that it is their own behavior rather than external circumstances that leads to success or failure. While it is good for students to have a realistic understanding of what's happening around them, they should be able to feel in the end result depends on their effort.
  9. When students have a conviction that they lack ability, it is necessary to take steps to circumvent or overcome this conviction. Such students are likely to repudiate successes. For example, when they do well, they are likely to have a sincere conviction that they were "just lucky." It is difficult to alter this conviction. Changing this conviction means altering the learner's self-concept, and this cannot be accomplished in a short time.
  10. In the short term, The approaches available to teachers, include:
    • Find areas in which the learner perceives himself or herself as successful, and show connections between that area and the topic currently under consideration.
    • Focus heavily on effort as the factor critical to success.

While the teacher's long-range goal may be to enhance the child's self-concept, the immediate goal is to promote motivation with regard to the subject matter at hand.

When students reject the value of effort, it is important to change their perception. This can be done by clarifying the meaning of effort and by seeing to it that effort does actually pay off. In addition, if students attribute their success to luck, it may be best to refrain from arguing with their attributions, while simply praising or otherwise reinforcing them for their effective use of academic learning time.


The preceding guidelines should enable teachers to use attribution theory to motivate students more effectively. In addition, it is possible to reinforce effort attributions and to conduct training programs designed to promote attributions that are likely to lead to higher levels of motivation and productivity.




Related Knols

Reviewed on 3.3.2011
Original knol - Knol Number 158

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