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Define attribution theory and describe its role in learning.

Define attribution theory and describe its role in learning.

Attribution theory states that individuals tend to make sense of outcomes by attributing, or ascribing, them to specific people, thoughts, feelings, or actions. In the field of learning, this theory provides an additional point of view to evaluate by encouraging learners to consider why they do what they do, why they learn effectively in certain situations but not others. What we attribute our successes and failures to matters (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Cheng & Novick, 1990; Feather, 1988; Fiedler, Walther, & Nickel, 1999; Försterling, 1989; Hewstone & Jaspars, 1987; Schwarz & Clore, 1983; Weiner, 1995). If individuals believe they are not good at something, they often attribute their unsuccessful outcomes to external factors, or others’ actions and characteristics (e.g., the instructor, high stress, or a significant other). In contrast, if individuals believe they are good at something, they often attribute their successes to internal factors, or personal actions and characteristics (e.g., study habits, time management, or organizational skills).

The excerpts in this section are from Thompson (2015). Thompson discusses attribution theory, which, like social cognitive theory, considers the role of one’s efficacy. In the context of learning, this can encompass the factors that a learner will attribute positive and negative outcomes to. As you read, think about times when you or someone you know attributed his or her learning outcomes to either internal or external factors. What characteristics could help explain these behaviors and learning outcomes were attributed to external versus internal factors? You should also think about how to self-regulate personal learning opportunities by being more aware of how the attributions you assign can support effective learning. Add this knowledge about attribution to your existing schema about learning, because it will enrich the discussions about awareness, self-regulation, and metacognition in Chapter 8, areas that research has suggested can affect attribution and self-efficacy (Darling-Hammond, Austin, MCheung, & Martin, 2016; Marzano et al., 1988; Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985; Zimmerman, 2002).

Excerpts from “Attribution Theory”

By S. Thompson

Self-Perceptions and Learning

A runner crossing the finish line. Other race participants are running behind him.


An example of attribution theory could be a runner crossing the finish line and winning his race. The runner could perceive himself as being naturally skilled at running; if so, he may attribute a race win to his daily practice and dedication. On the other hand, the runner may believe himself to be a mediocre runner, attributing a race win to the other runners not doing well or even climate conditions.

What makes a winner win? Is it all in one’s attitude? Why do some people with apparent talents never seem to achieve as others predict? How can the interaction between a person’s perceptions and the actual talents a person has be used to help each student reach full potential? These types of questions are often answered through the application of attribution theory. Attribution theory originated as a subsection of the theories of personality. Personality psychologists were working to describe what makes individuals unique by identifying the relatively unchanging aspects of people that make them unique individuals. However, there were many different approaches to the questions. Some psychologists focused on identifying and describing personality characteristics that define mental illness and poor social adjustment (i.e., abnormal psychology). Others chose to focus on identifying and describing the personality characteristics of people viewed as mentally healthy. They wanted to understand, and eventually be able to predict, why life events affect people in different ways. During this period of time, psychologists divided into two camps that differed on whether they believed one’s inborn traits are integral in determining personality or whether the key factor is the environment in which one is reared (this argument has often been referred to as the continuing nature/nurture debate). Almost everyone has come to a realization that there is most likely a mix of the two influences that work together to create uniqueness in individuals, although there is little agreement on how much of each is contributing to that mix (Ridley, 2003). Attribution theory is one of the theories formulated using an assumption that both inborn traits and one’s environment will be reflected in one’s personality. It posits that people will inherently work to organize their observations as they try to make meaning of their experiences.

This organizing will necessitate the creation of categories into which the observations can be sorted. The categories will be created and labeled by each person and will be influenced by both personal temperament and life experiences (Weiner, Nierenberg, & Goldstein, 1976). For example, two students might attend the same campus party and, on telling their friends about their weekends, one might describe the party as fun and exciting while the other describes it as out of control and dangerous. The two students attended the same event but, based on their temperaments and past experiences, chose different categories in which to store their memories of the party.

As the theory of attribution was further refined and developed, researchers realized its impact on how people are motivated, moving the theory from ideas about what makes personalities unique to a theory of understanding how a student’s self-perceptions intersect with all learning experiences (i.e., social learning theory). More recently, researchers have linked attribution theory to expectancy theory, which has helped them to better explain the role of persistence and resiliency in the learning process.

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