How to Apply Attribution Theory to Learning

How to Apply Attribution Theory to Learning

It’s no secret that people have widely different learning styles. But what often escapes the instructors is how those preferences impact the learner’s ability to succeed in different settings. Because we all know how a single student can be majorly successful in one class or with one course, and totally fail with another one several months later. Attribution theory, proposed by social psychologists, can shed some light on how humans tend to attribute their success to specific traits or conditions.

What is Attribution Theory? A Quick Example

Phil and Susan are enrolled in the same e-course. There are a number of activities involved, including reading, writing, group discussions, projects, etc. Both want to do well in the course, as it is a part of their college degree program and is a required course. It is also a prerequisite for moving on to additional coursework. There is work to do and they are ready to get to it.

As the weeks move on, Phil is doing well. He is completing all of the assignments, is actively involved with his discussion group, and is working on a long-term project with the group to which he has been assigned. Things are looking good for him and his final grade. He knows that his motivation, his good relationship with his group members, and communication with his instructor are keeping him on track and successful.

Susan is flailing. While she is completing the reading and individual assignments, her group discussions and project work are not going well. She is convinced that she has been put together with other students who are not motivated and serious, and her complaints to her instructor are not being resolved to her satisfaction. Susan is painfully lacking the right engagement.

While not realizing it, both of these students are exhibiting behaviors that are classic examples of attribution theory. And this theory has major implications for learning that instructors must consider as they plan their e-courses and learning materials.

Attribution Theory in Education

Fundamental attribution theory was first identified and described by psychologist Fritz Heider in his 1958 book, “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations”.

In short, the theory says that people see all behavior, their own and that of others, as the result of either internal or external factors. So, a particular personality trait may cause a person to behave in a certain way. Or some external factor will generate that type of behavior.

Take anger as an example. There may be some people just prone to be angry and offended much of the time because that is “who they are.” On the other hand, a person may become angry or offended by some external incident that occurs and affects them. These two different causes of anger are known as “dispositional” internal personality traits, or “situational,” based on a specific incident.

Angry drivers are a prime example of dispositional vs. situational attribution. Individuals who are prone to become angry will exhibit those behaviors if someone in front of them is driving too slowly, failed to put on a blinker signal, stopped too long at a stop sign, etc. Individuals who exhibit situational anger may not be so bothered by these things, as they might about a single incident of being cut off and almost being in an accident.

Wait, but what does all of this have to do with learning?

For designers of e-courses, attribution theory may not at first seem really relevant. But bear with this for a while, and you will probably see the many applications and implications for learners and learning itself, especially when you take a closer look at the dimensions of attribution theory.

1. Locus of Control

Let’s go back to the scenarios of Phil and Susan. Each of them has some rather different perceptions of who or what is in control of their learning outcomes.

In the case of Phil, he sees his own behaviors as the causes of his success. Whereas Susan wants to ‘blame’ external factors for her lack of success. In her eyes, Phil was the “lucky” one because he was assigned to a group that “gelled” well and was productive. She was unlucky to be assigned to a group that was not.

Clearly, both of them will require somewhat different engagement and motivation approach to ensure successful learning.

2. Permanence of the Situation

This is a key factor in a student’s perception of the feasibility of success.

  • If a student has developed the belief that they are just no good at writing and never will be, then that internal belief will impact both motivation, effort, and, ultimately, achievement.
  • If, on the other hand, a student is convinced that with hard work and more effort, they will be able to ultimately master difficult concepts or skills, then the potential for ultimate success is much greater.

The first student sees the situation as permanent. The second student sees the situation as temporary and able to be “fixed.”

3. Perception of Control

When a learner has the belief that control over his learning and mastery is within his “internal structure,” then he sees achievement and success as the result of his work and efforts. This is a good place to be because that reinforces his belief in his abilities to achieve and be successful.

But when a student believes that control of success or failure is the result of external factors such as:

  • “I haven’t been taught right”
  • “The instructor doesn’t like me”
  • “The test was just too easy or hard”

Then the learner comes to see academic achievement and later career achievement as the result of things beyond his control. The fates, so to speak. This is a problematic stance that must be addressed.

Implications of Attribution Theory Dimensions to E-Learning

As instructors plan activities and produce learning materials for their coursework, whether in an academic or business setting, several things will help more learners experience success.

1. Provide for Observations

The easiest way to encourage someone to change their behavior is to make them acknowledge it first. For situational that may be tough. Hence, present the group with scenarios that relate to the concepts or skills you want your students to master.

Use fictional learners as they attack those concepts and skills and ultimately master them. This will help students to see that the cause-effect relationships between how learners behave and how those behaviors result in success or failure.

2. Include Options for Mastery Demonstration

Some learners want to depend only on their internal motivations and behaviors to learn and achieve. And others relish the collaboration and communication with others. They see these as external factors that can contribute to their success and achievement. Honor both of these types of learners as you develop materials for e-learning activities.

3. Incorporate Challenging, But Achievable Activities

The course should force students to stretch themselves into new learning. But training should not be super challenging either. Because that will make certain students discouraged. And they will think that the “deck is stacked” against them.

Learning challenges should come in stages and phases so that each step in the ultimate mastery process allows learners to achieve success. Success begets success. Once learners start seeing see that they can meet with success on their own merits, their motivation and effort will increase.

Along with this “phases” process, provide students with the ability to move at their own paces. One of the learning theories of Benjamin Bloom is that mastery is not so much a matter of how things are done, but for how long. Learners may move through phases of mastery at different speeds. Allowing for this honors and reinforces dispositional rather than situational attribution theory. When learners do not achieve mastery within a confined deadline, they see the cause of failure as based on factors beyond their control.

4. Communication and Encouragement is Key

It is the instructor’s full responsibility to ensure that communication remains open with their learners. Only through this can an instructor understand which students are moving along well and which are clearly struggling. When learners are struggling, they will tend to give up, attribute the causes to either internal or external factors, and this is not acceptable.

Here are several things you can do to mitigate that:

  • Extending deadlines
  • provide additional resources
  • break the content down into smaller chunks
  • provide supplemental activities
  • engage in direct re-teaching of some things

Finally, change your view on rewarding. Instead of merely providing recognition for completion and achievement, motivate the situational attribution learners with certificates of participation, and other quick ‘nods’ that will make them rethink their hostile attitude to external factors.

The Key Takeaway

Attribution theory is not always linked to education. It is really a theory that relates to social psychology and often applies to circumstances within the workplace and human relationships. But how adults perceive cause-effect relationships in their lives is often a result of their formal and informal learning experiences, and whether they see those relationships as distributional or situational and how to differentiate between them.

So educators should remember this: the more they can show how achievement results from dedication, motivation and hard work (above anything else), the greater service they’ll do to the learner.

Photo by Christina Morillo

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