attribution theory in education
The third causal dimension is the ability of the individual to control the outcome of the behavior (Weiner, 1979). Weiner stated that a behavior can be controllable or uncontrollable by the individual. If a behavior is controllable, then the individual has the capability to influence the outcome of a task or behavior, whereas if a behavior is uncontrollable, the individual has limited or no capability to influence the outcome of the task or behavior. The effect that the controllability of the behavior has is based upon the individual’s locus of control and the stability of the behavior (see Table 2).
Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs 80(1, Whole No. 609).
Attribution theory argues that humans interpret events as caused by the actions of an agent (e.g. themselves, others) and external and internal circumstances.
Attribution theory is closely associated with the concept of motivation. It also relates the work done on script theory and inferencing done by Schank.
Attribution theory has been used to explain the difference in motivation between high and low achievers. According to attribution theory, high achievers will approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding because they believe success is due to high ability and effort which they are confident of. Failure is thought to be caused by bad luck or a poor exam, i.e. not their fault. Thus, failure doesn’t affect their self-esteem but success builds pride and confidence. On the other hand, low achievers avoid success-related chores because they tend to (a) doubt their ability and/or (b) assume success is related to luck or to “who you know” or to other factors beyond their control. Thus, even when successful, it isn’t as rewarding to the low achiever because he/she doesn’t feel responsible, i.e., it doesn’t increase his/her pride and confidence.
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.
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.
The current review provides an overview of published research on teachers’ causal attributions since 1970s in the context of theoretical assumptions outlined in Weiner’s (2010) attribution theory. Results across 79 studies are first examined with respect to the prevalence of teachers’ interpersonal causal attributions for student performance and misbehavior, as well as intrapersonal attributions for occupational stress. Second, findings showing significant relations between teachers’ attributions and their emotions and cognitions, as well as student outcomes, are discussed. Third, an overview of results showing the prevalence and implications of teachers’ causal attributions to be moderated by critical background variables is also provided. Finally, observed themes across study findings are highlighted with respect to the fundamental attribution error and the utility of Weiner’s attribution theory for understanding how teachers’ explanations for classroom stressors impact their instruction, well-being, and student development.
Weiner’s (2001) attribution theory also differentiates between intrapersonal and interpersonal attributions for achievement outcomes. The intrapersonal perspective, as described above, refers to the attributions individuals make for their own performance, focusing on how expectations for personal success and responsibility can lead to self-directed feelings of pride, guilt, hope, or shame and, in turn, self-relevant educational outcomes (e.g., persistence). On the other hand, the interpersonal approach to Weiner’s theory concerns the attributions made for outcomes experienced by others and focuses primarily on how perceptions of another’s responsibility for an outcome contributes to other-directed emotions (e.g., sympathy, anger) and behaviors (e.g., punishment, assistance; Weiner, 2001, 2003). For example, although teachers may attribute their own instructional failures or occupational stress to specific factors (e.g., insufficient resources, lesson preparation), their attributions for students’ misbehaviors or poor performance may differ (e.g., insufficient student effort, parental support).