Applying Attribution Theory To The Classroom

Attribution theory is a psychological concept about how people explain the causes of an event or behaviour.

When we experience desirable and undesirable outcomes (such as success and failure) we can attribute the cause to something specific which in turn can lead to increased or decreased motivational behaviour.

As Fritz Heider stated, we are all ‘naïve psychologists’ with he innate desire to understand the causes of our behaviours and their outcomes.

When people experience a particular outcome, attributions help them to understand what caused the event so that if the outcome was desirable they can do their best to experience it again(in other words, the event becomes a positively reinforced) . Alternatively, if the event is unpleasant or undesirable they can try to avoid the behaviour that caused it.

These attributions help to shape our emotional and behavioural responses to situations.

Locus of Causality.

Attributions are classified along a dimension known as the locus of causality from internal to external. If we attribute behaviour to an internal locus of causality we assume that outcomes resulted from something within us; if we attribute the outcomes to an external locus of causality we view it as caused by something outside ourselves.

Stable and Unstable

Attributions are also classified in terms of stability, from stable to unstable. Stable causes are those that are difficult to change such as intelligence; unstable causes can be changed. For example, a student might fail a test because they didn’t put enough effort into preparation. Effort, therefore, is an unstable cause of the failure (it can be changed), intelligence, however, is often thought of as stable (it doesn’t change).

If our student attributes lack of intelligence to their failure they are more likely to believe that they cannot improve. Whether the student views their failure as either stable of unstable will then affect future expectations.


The Problem with Attributions.

The problem is that attributions don’t always accurately represent reality. Our student might, for example, attribute their failure to stable factors (intelligence) when in reality failure was caused by lack of effort (and unstable factor). This is what is known as a biased attributional style and this can lead to the increased likelihood that the student will succumb to false attributions.

Attributional style can have a major impact on motivation and attainiment because the way we attribute cause affects future expectations. Researchers have identified three specific attributional styles: Optimistic, Pessimistic and Hostile.


A person holding a optimistic attributional style will attribute negative outcomes to external events and positive outcomes to internal events. This is known as a self-serving attributional style. A student, therefore, will attribute failure on an exam to something outside of themselves; perhaps the exam paper was extraordinary hard that year or the teacher hadn’t covered the content in enough depth. Success, on the other hand, would be attributed to their own effort, superior preparation and stable measures such as innate intelligence.


A person holding a pessimistic attributional style will tend towards explaining negative outcomes in terms of internal and stable factors. A student who fails an exam, therefore, would attribute their failure to something about themselves and to something they couldn’t change (such as their level of intelligence). In the event of success they would attribute the outcome to something external and unstable such as luck.


A hostile attributional style tends towards blaming external factors for undesirable outcomes. This blame can manifest itself in hostility towards the external entity seen to be responsible. Our student, therefore, might become hostile towards a teacher they believe is responsible for their failure.

Attributions and Learned Helplessness.

Research into learned helplessness indicates that when people suffer repeated failure or punishments they eventually become passive and unmotivated. Studies conducted by Carol Dweck also found that children who fail to complete a difficult task become reluctant to engage in easy tasks presented later. This is because they have formed an expectation of failure through their attributional process. Helplessness becomes a learned response and even when individuals are presented with a way out, they rarely take it.

Learned Helplessness in the Classroom.

School policies, the behaviour of school leaders and individual teachers can all lead to students feeling that success in unobtainable, especially if effort is not appropriately recognised. Such behaviours create a feeling that nothing the student does will ever lead to success and motivation and engagement decrease. Furthermore, teachers and school leaders who insist that the success of students is wholly a result of teaching and school policies are in danger of encouraging learned helplessness in their students. This behaviour, if adopted by school leaders, can also demotivate teachers in the same way.

From a wider perspective, schools that insist on implementing out dated or ineffective procedures may also find that teachers display little urgency or interest in their work. For example, the many teaching strategies that have found to be highly erroneous (such as learning styles) are often well known by classroom teachers for their lack of empirical support yet are still favoured by school leaders. Teachers who understand this are less likely to engage in such practices (for good reason) but might also lose motivation for other aspects of the job.

Similarly, school leaders who take the credit for success, undermine teacher confidence and fail to recognise the hard work of their staff, risk nurturing learned helplessness in their workforce.

The way in which people attribute the causes of events, therefore, impact on their motivation and self-belief based on their expectations of how future events will turn out. Those students who explain their failures in terms of internal and stable factors will view the future in the same way as the present; as that nothing they do will make any difference. Success is dismissed as luck and effort rejected.

Alternatively, those who view failure in terms of unstable factors (for example, lack of effort rather than lack of intelligence) are better equipped to view failure and setback as things to be overcome.


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