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Motivation Monday: Attribution Theory

Attribution theory asserts that motivation depends on learners’ interpretations of their past successes and failures. Specifically, learner conceptualizations of the locus, stability, and controllability of past successful or failed outcomes influence if and how hard learners will try on similar tasks going forward. Here are some examples of what these characteristics(link opens in new tab/window)  might look like:

  • Locus: Was I successful on that test because I studied hard (internal factor) or because I got lucky (external factor)?
  • Stability: Will my effort/luck stay the same (stable) or change (unstable) over time?
  • Controllability: Can I control whether I do well on the next test (controllable) or is my success out of my hands (uncontrollable)?

Why it matters for education

Educators can play a critical role in helping students foster adaptive attribution styles. The benefits of certain attribution patterns are situationally relative. For example, an external attribution for a disagreement with a friend (“They were just having a tough day”) may benefit a student’s mental health. Contrarily, an external attribution for poor performance on a test (“It was my teacher’s fault”) may be maladaptive to a student’s motivation to put in effort on future assignments.


In education contexts, students are most likely to adaptively approach setbacks when they see challenges as internal, unstable, and controllable. A student with this attribution pattern might tell themselves after they perform poorly on a test, “I didn’t study in the best way for me, and I can make adjustments to how I prepare in order to improve next time.”

To help learners adopt adaptive attribution styles, consider the following approaches:

  • Teach students to see their success and failure as a product of their own effort (rather than ability). Statements like, “Great work—I can tell you studied a lot!” can go a long way.
  • Give students specific feedback. For example, when handing back a math worksheet, say, “It looks like you struggled most with dividing fractions on this assignment.”
  • Help students understand that failures can be addressed with appropriate strategy use. For the math worksheet example above, you might follow up with, “What strategy has worked for you in the past for mastering multiplying fractions? How can you apply a similar strategy to division?”
  • Create a classroom culture that values effort and persistence over being smart or good at a subject. If your students enjoy public praise, recognize students who you can tell work hard to improve their learning.
  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., SMARTS Intern

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

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