Attribution Theory in Education

Video Version of the Article

In education, attribution theory deals with how learners attribute their successes and failures. For example, if six students fail a mathematics exam, each of them may attribute their failure to different reasons:

  • Student A: “I didn’t do enough revision these last couple of months. I have to work harder!”
  • Student B: “I’m just poor at mathematics.”
  • Student C: “It’s too bad that I was sick that day. That really affected my performance.”
  • Student D: “What bad luck! Who could have guessed the exam would focus on those areas?”
  • Student E: “Mathematics is just too difficult.”
  • Student F: “Those other students did well because they had private tutors. so I just need to ask my parents to get me one.”

The way in which students attribute learning outcomes can affect their motivation.

1. Perception is Everything

The six reasons mentioned above may not be accurate; they may not be the real reasons behind the students’ learning outcomes. For example, Student B might have failed the exam simply because of a lack of effort, but he/she may perceive the cause as being a poor natural aptitude for the subject. What only matters is the learners’ own perceptions. 

2. The Three Dimensions

In attribution theory, there are three different dimensions related to these perceptions. These are:

  • Internal vs External (aka locus of causality)
  • Stable vs Unstable (aka stable theory)
  • Controllable vs Uncontrollable (aka controllability)

2.1 Internal vs External

Is the perceived reason for success or failure related to internal factors such as the individual learner’s own abilities, effort or emotions (i.e., internal factors) or is it related to external factors such as task difficulty, teacher bias or luck?

2.2 Stable vs Unstable

Is the perceived reason for success or failure something that can change (i.e., it is unstable), like effort, emotion or task difficulty, or is it something that is constant (i.e., stable)? For example, 

  • If a learner thinks he/she failed a chemistry exam because the exam was difficult, that factor would be considered ‘unstable’. Maybe the next exam will be easier.
  • If a learner thinks he/she failed a chemistry exam because chemistry is a difficult subject, that factor is considered ‘stable’. The subject is difficult now, and it will continue to be difficult in the future.

For this dimension, you can consider using the terms ‘changeable’ and ‘unchangeable’ as the word ‘unstable’ often carries negative connotations.

2.3 Controllable vs Uncontrollable

Is the perceived reason for success or failure something that a learner can control, like effort, or is it something that is uncontrollable, like one’s natural aptitude or one’s innate intelligence (which are internal factors) or the difficulty of the exam or the quality of the teacher (which are external factors)?

Of course, if something is stable, or in other words, unchangeable, that automatically means that we cannot control it. Therefore, this dimension of control applies to unstable factors 

2.4 Examples

If we look at the six examples again, you can see that each of them falls into a different combination of factors:

Perceived ReasonAttribution Dimensions
Student A: “I didn’t do enough revision these last couple of months.”internal + controllable + unstable
Student B: “I am just poor at mathematics.”internal + uncontrollable + stable
Student C: “It’s too bad that I was sick that day. That really affected my performance.”internal + uncontrollable + unstable
Student D: “What bad luck! Who could have guessed the exam would focus those areas?” external + uncontrollable + unstable 
Student E: “Mathematics is just too difficult.” external + uncontrollable + stable
Student F: “Those students did well because they had private tutors” Is external + controllable + unstable

Altogether there are six combinations: three internal ones and three external ones.

3. Effect on Motivation (Education)

Let me just add a disclaimer here: Motivation is very complex and is influenced by many factors (not just how students attribute success or failure). Attribution theory is just one piece of the puzzle. 

The main point of attribution theory in education is that students tend to be more motivated to learn if they attribute success or failure to factors that are internal and controllable—like effort or the use of study strategies If students believe that success and failure are mainly determined by internal and controllable factors, they will be more likely to think that their efforts are worthwhile. In contrast, if students believe that success and failure are mainly down to luck or teacher preferences or natural talent, why would they want to invest a lot of time and effort in learning?      

4. Applications to Teaching

There are several ways in which teachers can help students attribute learning outcomes to factors that are considered internal and controllable (and as a result hopefully increase their motivation to learn) .

  1. First, teachers can make sure tasks are at a suitable level of difficulty. This can help prevent the problem of students attributing learning outcomes to task difficulty.  
  2. Second, teachers can make the assessment criteria as clear and as objective as possible. This can help prevent the problem of students attributing learning incomes to teacher bias or luck.  
  3. Third, teachers can consider factors like improvement and effort in the assessment criteria. However, they would need to keep in mind the previous tip to make the criteria clear and objective. 
  4. Fourth, teachers can help students understand that what they may think of as ‘ability’ is largely the result of effort over time. For example, someone who is amazingly talented at playing the violin obviously has great ability, but that ability wouldn’t be there without endless hours of practice.   
  5. Fifth, when students get stuck on a task, teachers can give them some extra support to help them complete the task or find the right answer.     
  6. Sixth, teachers can help students develop effective learning behaviors like regular revision and introduce them to different strategies for learning, revising and memorizing. 
  7. Lastly, teachers can give feedback to students that encourages them to attribute their learning outcomes to factors that are internal and controllable. For example, instead of saying, ‘that answer is correct, you are very smart’, you can say ‘that answer is correct, you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into your answer’. The use of feedback will be the topic of the next article.

5. Background

Fritz Heider started developing Attribution Theory the middle of the Twentieth Century. His work was later expanded upon by Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner.


~ by longzijun

education

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