The Attribution Theory: Week 7 (18/03/13)

So this week I’ve decided to focuses my blog on whether the way our work is marked affects our motivation? I came across this area of research after reading my friend Sarah’s blog…that can be found here ( so, as the title of Sarah’s blog suggests, my motivation theory is going to be linked to something called ‘The Attribution Theory’. I’ll start off how I always do by explaining what it is and then ill link to how the attribution theory is relevant within education.

Motivation is something we all struggle with and all have different ways of dealing with, I myself, make lists for the week of what work I need to complete then tick it off as each piece gets done, ticking each box and seeing the work load go down and down motivates me to finish it all. But what is the Attribution Theory, and how does it motivate (or not) us to complete work and stop procrastinating!

So the attribution theory is related to how we attach meaning to both our behaviour and other people’s behaviour, for example; is somebody upset because they are depressed or has something happened to make them sad? It deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events and examines what information is gathered to form a causal judgement (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Heider (1958) put forward two ideas:

  1. When we explain the behaviour of others we look for enduring internal attributions, such as personality traits (jealousy)
  2. When we try to explain our own behaviour, we make external attributions. Such as the environment.

There are several explanations that people use to explain success or failure:

  1. The cause of success or failure may be internal or external
  2. The cause of success or failure may be either stable or unstable. Stable means that the outcome will be the same if we perform the same behaviour on another occasion. Unstable means that the outcome is likely to be different on another occasion.
  3. The cause of success or failure may be either controllable or uncontrollable. Controllable means we feel that we can alter it if we wish to, uncontrollable is one that we do not believe we can alter.

Right, onto how the attribution theory can be applied to education. There’s four factors related that influence motivation in education:

Ability: is internal and stable, the learner has no direct control

Task Difficulty: is external and stable; it is largely beyond the learners control

Effort: is internal and unstable, the learner has a great deal of control

Luck: is external and unstable with very little control.

Students will be more successful at academic tasks if they attribute their success to internal and unstable factors over which they have control (effort) or internal and stable factors over which they have little control but sometimes can be disrupted by other factors (ability disrupted by luck).

One of the websites I used whilst conducting research included guidelines for teachers to follow if they wish to use the attribution theory within their classrooms, I thought I’d include just a few of the ones I found the most interesting (ill post the link in my references if anyone fancies reading up on anymore of them)

  • It is extremely hazardous to motivational health for students to fail repeatedly after making a serious effort at academic tasks. I thought this point was really important, if a student believes they have put in as much effort as possible and is still failing at the task, they will suffer psychologically and emotionally. Why should they carry on trying if they are just going to fail? It is important to arrange tasks so that students who work hard are able perceive themselves as successful.
  • Excessively competitive grading and evaluation systems are likely to impair the learning of many students. I included this point as it has popped up in a lot of comments being made at the moment. I believe that the grading system needs to be in place in order for students to know how they are doing, however I think that it needs to be regulated in order to maintain consistency, I also believe that proper feedback also needs to be given so that students can improve on their previous efforts.
  • In general, it is best for students to believe that it is their own behaviour rather than external circumstances that leads to success or failure. This is also known as an ‘internal locus of control’. Lefcourt (1976) showed that the most successful students have a tendency to overestimate the degree to which their own behaviour leads to success or failure.

A study conducted by Kloosterman (1984) into the attribution theory within mathematics. He found that students perceptions of success or failure in maths are followed by attributions, which then influence effort and finally achievement.

So in conclusion, I believe that it is important to include attribution theory into education. If students know what can influence their success or their failures then they can take this into account when working on their next assignments. It is important for students not to think that certain things will guarantee them a pass, to counterbalance this, it is also important for them not to think that no matter how much effort they put it, they will always keep on failing. If a teacher can notice a student getting to a point of no motivation and constant failing, then they can adapt the assessments used to aid the student, for example, by using performance based assessments (refer to my previous blog ( if you aren’t sure what this is.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. Comments as always, appreciated.


Kloosterman (1984) retrieved from

Fiske & Taylor (1991) retrieved from

Heider (1958) retrieved from

The guidelines I talked about above can be found here:

Also… a final point: If any of you came to my talk a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned something about a school phobia, if anyone is interested in reading up on that, I found an article the BBC produced ( Seems it is a real thing after all! 


10 thoughts on “The Attribution Theory: Week 7 (18/03/13)

  1. Heider (1958) distinguished between two determinants of behaviour: “can” and “try”. “Can” refers to the invariant properties of the student – intelligence and ability to name a few – whereas “try” is determined by the momentary intentions and effort expenditure of the student. Regarding a student’s achievement, their success may be attributed to high ability/effort, while failure is perceived as due to low ability/lack of effort, in which these disparate patterns of attribution differentially affect both teacher and student behaviour.
    Your point about whether the way our work is marked affects our motivation is an interesting one. Lanzetta and Hannah (1969) investigated rewards and punishments regarding motivation. College students were given the power – by pretending to be teachers – to dispense feedback to grade-school children. The subjects were told each child’s ability level (high or low), effort expenditure (high or low) and exam performance (excellent, moderate, failure).Their results revealed that, despite ability, those children perceived as having expended effort were rewarded more and punished less than those children believed not to have tried.
    Could this be a sufficient motivator in applying effort to students’ work?

    • I think you make a really interesting point here Sophie and in some ways its nice to think that when people think you put more effort in they perceive the grade as being higher. However this isn’t always the case. Education these days is focused far too much on the grading system and ‘school tables’. This means that effort within the classroom from teachers is often focused on the exam, what will be in it, what students should revise (memorise) and what grade they should be achieving. When this grade isn’t reached, unnecessary pressure can often be put upon children. The Guardian produced an article ( in which Professor Power stated that children are often made to feel like failures if they achieve less than four A grades in A level and missed out on a place at Oxbridge. Children feel that parents and teachers are disappointed in them and that they have let themselves and their families down. In India, parents put a ridiculous amount of pressure on their children to achieve and get into the best universities. Unfortunately this has lead to a massive increase in suicide in school children. I got this information from a blog I found on the Internet, which also focuses on education ( (really interesting). Do you think schools should monitor parent pressure and try to reduce the amount of pressure they put on children themselves? Should children simply be allowed to enjoy their education and the experiences they gain at school without being worried and pressurized into producing A grade material?

  2. I think your points about feedback are very important. Even just thinking about it, it would make so much more sense if we were given comprehensive feedback for all graded pieces of work. Assignments are very good for this; however in exams we rarely get feedback beyond grades. Numerous studies note how important feedback can be, for example Ende (1983) discusses the use of feedback for medical students. Feedback is described as necessary for the acquisition of clinical skills. It is not just enough to be assessed, but people need to understand what areas they are strong in and what areas they need to improve on, after all isn’t that fairly critical to learning? It is also noted, however, that feedback is often not given, or improperly given. This is common in lots of areas of education.
    A fantastic paper by Higgins et al (2001) looked at why feedback is not given. They highlight one interesting; the student. Students are focused on getting the highest grades possible with the minimum effort, they are no longer concerned with becoming “critically informed, independent learners”. It is also pointed out that many teachers have found that students only really care about the grades they received. If teachers believe this, and students believe this, then there is going to be a severe breakdown in feedback. It is suggested that instead, feedback needs to be viewed as a process of communication. Suggestions are also made about how to make feedback better; It needs to be delivered quickly and in accessible language that relates to published assessment criteria.
    So overall, feedback is very important, yet for a variety of reasons it is not often used in education. Ways of thinking about feedback and changing how it is delivered would help reverse this problem.

    Ende (1983)
    Higgins et al (2001)

  3. Interesting blog, but the attribution theory is mostly related to the way our society works. For example in countries like ours, and European and American values, we value individuals, personal goals and independence. However in more collectivist cultures in places like Asia, Africa and native American societies, individuals are seen as members of groups, families, tribes, work units and nations, and value conformity and interdependence. This can effect how we make attributions; as if you are from an individualist culture you are more inclined to make attribution error by blaming internal factors (the student is not intelligent) than from external (the student wasn’t taught properly). This has been supported by research by Wang (1993), who found differences in attributions between the two styles of cultures. So do you think if we took a more collectivist approach towards education it would benefit us more?

    • You make an interesting point Alec, but I wouldn’t agree that the Attribution Theory is about how our societies function, extensive research has been carried out into how the Attribution Theory can affect and improve our education, some of which I have included in my blog. However, taking on your question of whether taking a more collectivist approach towards education could benefit us more, I decided to conduct some research into this area. As you mention, Asia have a more collectivist society. However, when conducting research into how education is carried out in countries such as India, its shocking to find that the rates of suicide of young children of education age are. They are pressurized by their extensive families, friends and teachers to achieve the best that the can achieve (collectivist cultures being those that are larger and more ‘together’). ( So is this collectivist culture really benefiting their children? From what I can see, it seems to be doing more harm to them that good. Pressure on young children is not always essential and can lead to drastic action being taken to escape.

  4. I am just going to comment in relation to the very last sentence in your blog this week and that was “If a teacher can notice a student getting to a point of no motivation and constant failing, then they can adapt the assessments used to aid the student, for example, by using performance based assessments.” I would argue that the teacher would not always adapt the learning method for one student for example at university doing weekly stats tests and failing them I cannot see the lecturer deciding you can present a 5 minute talk instead as you are not doing as well as your peers. One of the reason for this would be it would set off a big debate why one student gets to learn through speeches and others have to do standardised tests. However, if students were given the choice of with which assessment methods with wanted to do as their is no single assessment method that suits all students 100%. A range of assessments can test students on a variety of skills and avoids the problem of using one single method which may not suit some students.

  5. The idea of the student’s ability being out of their control could be related to self efficacy; if a student feels they have no control over their abilities, their belief in their abilities is going to be directly affected. For example, when you feel that you’re not good at something and there’s nothing you can do about it, you’re not going to believe that you can do a particular task, so you will have low self efficacy. This is quite important, because there is a lot of research which suggests that an individuals’ self efficacy is directly related to their success or failure. For example, Nahl (1996) found that, when given training in a new program, students who initially believed that they would not be able to learn how to use the program were the ones who dropped out of the course within 3 weeks. Zajacova, Lynch and Espenshade (2005) found that students’ self efficacy consistently predicts academic success. This type of research suggests that students must have a certain level of self efficacy before they can be successful in learning. With regards to education and attribution theory, students should be made to feel that they can succeed, increasing their levels of self efficacy thereby increasing their chances of success. Schools could do this by focusing on the aspects of education that students have control over (for example the amount of effort they put in), rather than the aspects they have no control over (for example luck).

  6. 20-30% of students experience problematic procrastination so it is a good topic to go into but there are definitely many causes behind it. So like attribution theory, procrastination can also been seen as a self-regulation failure as during stressful situations procrastinators fail to regulate their functioning causing a self-regulation failure of performance (Ferrari, 2001), which has been stated to be because of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) self-regulation (Wolters, 2003).

  7. Pingback: Blog Comments Week 7 | lon03

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