Attribute Theory and Motivation

Attribute Theory and Motivation by Chick Moorman

“He didn't ask the right questions on the test.”
“I would have done better if I had worn my lucky shirt.”
“I'm no good at math.”
“She didn't explain the assignment well enough.”

Students who uttered the comments above have one thing in common. They fail to see the connections among effort, success, and failure. They attribute their results to someone or something other than to themselves.

That's where attribute theory comes in. Attribute theory aims to help students link their successes and failures to their own efforts.

Attributions are the reasons one believes are responsible for achieving success or experiencing failure. Today's attributions are important because they affect the future actions and expectations of students.

Students who often fail are likely to attribute the result to lack of ability, luck, not enough effort, and difficulty of the task. In essence they see the failure as something over which they had no control.

Successful students often attribute that success to effort, energy, amount of study time, persistence, reading the material, or taking effective notes. They see their success as something they can influence.

Attributions can be characterized as internal or external and stable or unstable. The depiction of internal/external has to do with the students' belief about what caused the success or failure. They can believe it was something inside of them that created the success or they believe it was some outside factor. Stable/unstable has to do with student's pattern of failure and it's degree of consistency.

If Jason bombs a spelling test and has done so frequently, the attributions he assigns to that failure may well be internal/stable. He holds himself responsible (internal) and believes he will never be able to spell well (stable). When working with students like Jason, it is not enough to have them experience success. They may attribute that success to luck or an accident. If so, they will not expect success in the future.

External attributions are luck, circumstance, magic: “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” or “The teacher didn't ask the right questions on the test.” With an external attribution the result is attributed to something outside of one's self.

Unstable means changing. Thus the attribute would not be my intelligence since that is relatively fixed. I attribute my success to my mood that day since that changes frequently.

Arranging your classroom so that students experience success in an important first step in getting attribute theory to work for you. This means setting it up so that students CAN experience success. This is not arranging a lesson so that students WILL be successful because some choose not to. It does have to do with arranging it so that success is a perceived possibility.

Another, more important step, occurs when a student realizes she or he personally contributed to that success. Just being successful is not enough! Students must see the cause and effect connection between their behavior and the outcome of a success in order to experience the maximum benefit of it. Skillfully designed “Teacher Talk” can help students link effort, strategies, and ability with results.

Some Examples:
“ Madison , this is your highest test score. I guess that extra practice had an effect.”

“Latrell, that final revision put you over the top. It shows you really have learned to write in complete sentences.”

“Pablo, your test score went up again. Using note cards seems to work for you as a study aid.”

“Brenda, choosing not to complete the make-up assignments hurt your grade this time.”

“I see your handwriting is becoming more legible. To what do you attribute that?”

Often students don't know why they failed or succeeded. When you use Teacher Talk to give performance feedback that helps students link results with effort, strategy, or ability, you help them take responsibility in the present and raise expectations for the future. You then have attribute theory working for you and your students.