Attribution theory – how our beliefs affect our motivation

3 Feb

Hello, and welcome to my first blog for my Science of education module.

If you’re anything like me, you may find it hard to get motivated to start doing university work. I know that around exam and assignment deadlines, everything else seems to get done – my room is spotless, my car is sparkling and all my washing gets done.

I am going to look into the reasons behind our feelings and motivations surrounding our education.

There is a form of attribution theory that was developed by Bernard Weiner.  Weiner suggested that a person’s beliefs surrounding the causes of their academic success have an effect on their emotions and motivation.

Let me give you an example:

Say I fail my exams (touch wood!), and I think that this has happened because I just don’t have the ability to pass an exam. I don’t think that my ability to pass an exam is anything that I can control and I feel ashamed and embarrassed. Because of this, I stop trying and my academic performance is poor as a result.  In this case, my feelings of shame and embarrassment decreased my motivation, due to my belief about the causes of my academic success (that I don’t have the ability to pass an exam (uncontrollable)).

Of course, this can go the other way too. If I believed that I did badly in my exam because I hadn’t worked hard enough, and this is something that IS controllable I might feel guilty, and  put more effort into studying in the future – which would improve my performance.

In this case, my feelings of guilt increased my motivation due to my belief about the causes of my academic success (not working hard enough (controllable)).

As you can see, what a student perceives as being the cause of their academic success is hugely important to their future motivation.

I’m hoping that makes a little more sense, and let’s all cross our fingers for my results to not come back as F2s…

So, if a person’s beliefs about the causes of their academic success are so important to future motivation – is it possible to change a person’s attributions to help them be more motivated and, therefore, do better academically in the future?

Driscoll urges teachers to encourage learners to recognise that their outcomes are dependant on their efforts (something controllable).

However, Tollefson suggested that a student’s motivation cannot be effected by simply rewarding their efforts.  Actually, rewarding effort could lead to a student thinking they lack ability. For example, if a student puts in 100% to an assignment and still doesn’t do well, they may think that the failure must be down to their lack of ability.

For this reason, Hereli and Weiner suggest that students who regularly fail at a task should be redirected towards something more suitable.  By directing a student to a more achievable task, the student is more likely to attribute their failures to the difficulty of the task,  rather than their lack of ability. This should keep them motivated.

There is a lot more to this subject, and if it has peaked your interest I do advise you to read more about it as it’s not only fascinating but may help you in the future to stay motivated, by recognising that it’s not your lack of ability that’s holding you back but rather that you don’t put enough effort in due to watching TV instead of revising (maybe just me..?)

Thank you for reading, and if you have any further research, opinions or information about the topic please feel free to comment!


Driscoll, M. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Pearson Education.

Hareli, S., & Weiner, B. (2002). Social Emotions and Personality Inferences: A
Scaffold for a New Direction in the Study of Achievement Motivation. Educational
Psychologist, 37(3), 183-193.

Tollefson, N. (2000). Classroom Applications of Cognitive Theories of Motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 12(1), 63-83.

Weiner, B. (2008). Reflections on the history of attribution theory and research:
People, personalities, publications, problems. Social Psychology, 39(3), 151-156.


7 Responses to “Attribution theory – how our beliefs affect our motivation”

  1. lilbex23 February 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    Interesting blog, and not a topic I would have thought about directing towards education myself, however you’ve done it really well. I agree with the points about results of both exams and assignments can push a student in one of two directions; either to try harder or to give up and accept the fact you’re never going to pass (I usually go for the latter!) However, I think in some cases, the methods of testing just aren’t adapted to all students and their abilities. I know myself, that I find exams extremely stressful, usually making myself so ill that I struggle to even turn up to the exam, sitting in the room is usually more stressful to me that sitting the actual exam, however because of this, I don’t focus on the exam and therefore my results suffer significantly. I’m much happier to be given a set of essay questions and a word limit, and be able to sit at home writing away in my own time. Third year has allowed some lenience with this; the ability to pick your own modules means you can look at the module and their exam layouts and percentages, in some cases, avoiding exams completely. However, this is not possible in high school, or for the first couple of years in university. Research into exam stress, particularly in primary education has been carried out by Dr Putwain ( he states that SATs should be scrapped because of the negative effects it has on children, learning is no longer fun or enjoyable but becomes determined by targets and competition between schools and pupils themselves. Schools need to focus more on helping individuals deal with stress and providing alternative ways to show academic success other than making pupils sit in an exam hall for a structured amount of time staring blankly at papers panic stricken.

    • psuc202013 February 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

      I think you bring up such an interesting point regarding how students are examined! I feel, especially in high school, that certain students are given more opportunities simply because they are good at exams.
      With regards to the attributions mentioned in my blog, I think perhaps a student who is not good at exams and academically thinking may be forced to think that they keep failing due to their inability. Whereas, if this student were to be tested in a different way, be it an oral exam, a take home exam, a practical exam etc. they may excel and become more motivated to work hard.
      I feel very much that high schools become divided into the ‘smart’ and the ‘underachievers’, and the ‘underachievers’ become branded as incapable, a lost cause, something that needs to be put in the corner and out of the way so that the ‘smart’ children (or perhaps, the ones who are good at academic learning and exams) can strive. And that’s all well and good for the children who get given opportunities, but what about the children left in the corner? I think it’s very much a self fulfilling prophecy. A child is led to believe that he is not smart, told to stay out of the way of the smart children, led to believe that they are ‘naughty’, ‘trouble makers’, ‘disruptive’ etc. What more do we expect but for them to start believing it themselves and giving up on themselves so much that this is how they begin to behave.
      But what if these children were given the chance to be examined in a way that they can show off their knowledge and skills? They they would feel good about themselves, work harder and be more successful in the future, instead of carrying around this self-concept that they are no good and have no bright future.

      I think it begs the question, how is intelligence measured? By exams? Regurgitating information?
      Take for example, someone who has a photographic memory – they may be able to remember every word in a text book and write it perfectly in an exam. Does this make them smart? Does this mean they have understood? Ask the same student to do an oral exam, for example, and I believe they would struggle as they would not be able to show their knowledge and understanding of a subject.
      This person may get an A+ in an exam – but do they deserve it?

      Research by Wilding and Valentine found that memory ability accounted for up to 20% of the variance in exam results (
      20% is a huge amount to attribute to memory skills. Surely an exam should test knowledge and understanding, and cater for all learning types.

      Furthermore, exams can unfairly advantage certain students. For example, a study found that the gap between rich and poor students for achievment in exams has grown by almost 60% in the last 50 years (

      It baffles me how something that so clearly advantages some people over others, and gives them all of life’s opportunities while leaving some people in the gutter are still the main way of testing.

  2. elue01 February 5, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    WOW! I feel as though I could have written this blog myself, such a good topic. It is not that I find it hard to start work, as such it is more that once I start I struggle with NOT criticising myself constantly as I do, asking myself “are you reading it enough?”, “are you revising this lecture enough?”.

    I agree that the cause of success is important to future motivation. When I get a good grade it makes me want to get that grade or higher again, the feeling of satisfaction and pride of a job well done is amazing to me. Wlodkowski and Jaynes (1990) described motivation as being, “a value and desire for learning”. I think this quote is projects your blog nicely and sums my opinion up to a tee. However, I do have one question; how would we change a person’s attributions to enable them to do better? The whole nature vs nuture debate would have to have some involvement, I feel.

    Although I agree with your point on the subject and research into teacher encouragement, I would say research on parental influence is just as vital. Pape’s (1999) research highlights the importance of parent’s involvement in their child’s academic learning; they found that parents have a profound effect on their children’s skills to learn.


    • Pape, B. (1999). Involving Parents Lets Students and Teachers Win. Education Digest, 64(6), 47-51.

    • Wlodkowski, R. & Jaynes, J. H. (1990). Eager to Learn: Helping Children Become Motivated and Love Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

  3. Beth February 7, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I found this topic very interesting. I have never thought about how my beliefs may affect the way that I work and my motivation to work. I also find it interesting how it is possible to change this through rewards.

    Looking into this I find that there are also biases in attribution that can affect our performance that I think are also worth thinking about. For example, there is a self-service bias that can either enhance or protect. This refers to individuals attributing their success to personal factors but failures to situational factors (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). If we do well in an exam then we believe it because we worked hard and we are clever, however, if we do badly then it is because we were not taught well enough or the test is too hard. We tend to shift blame to protect ourselves but praise ourselves, possibly unduly, when things go well. If this is the case then there is no effect on future testing if something goes badly as the individual feels no fault. Nevertheless, if a person does feel anxiety about a test and feels it may go badly then they may resort to self-handicapping where they do not try prior to the test so they are able to blame something other than their abilities. Shepperd & Arkin (1989) found that disabilities such as social anxiety or illness, be it real or imagined, were used to obscure the line between performance and evaluation.

    Campbell, W. K., & Sedikides, C. (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology. 3(1). 23–43

    Shepperd, J. A., & Arkin, R. M. (1989). Determinants of Self-Handicapping
    Task Importance and the Effects of Preexisting Handicaps on Self-Generated Handicaps. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 15(1). 101-112.


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