Who Gets the Credit, Who Gets the Blame?

Helping students attribute performance more adaptively.

Posted Jan 16, 2020

By Dr. Jennifer Cromley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

When students succeed, who do they give credit to? When they fail, who do they blame? This was a popular topic in educational research in the 1980s and 1990s called attributions (who does the student attribute an educational outcome to?; Weiner, 1986).

Why do attributions matter? If students fail or succeed but they give credit to others, they may feel anger or shame as well as study or practice less effectively. As a result, students may be less likely to succeed in the future. Imagine that a child did well on a spelling quiz but says they “got lucky” rather than crediting themselves for practicing. Imagine that an undergraduate student has done poorly on an exam but says “the questions were tricky” (when in fact the questions addressed common student misunderstandings) rather than taking responsibility for poor study habits. Imagine a soccer team that lost a game and blames the loss on “that rotten referee” (when in fact the referee judged fairly). These less-helpful attributions are associated with negative emotions, less learning, and lower performance. These attributions fall into three types.

First, students can make attributions to other people rather than themselves (external forces)—I failed or succeeded because of the teacher, my small-group project members, my classmates, in short, anyone but myself. Students in a study who were prompted to make internal attributions increased their achievement (Menec et al., 1994), provided they received high-quality instruction. Attributions to self—I myself am responsible—are associated with taking action oneself and therefore result in better learning and performance.

Second, students can make attributions to uncontrollable factors, such as luck or innate talent—I failed or succeeded because I got lucky, or because I am “good at” a subject. Hall and colleagues (Hall, Hladkyj, Perry, & Ruthig, 2004) found that when students were taught that learning is due to controllable factors, they earned better grades. However, these findings only held for students who knew effective study techniques. Be aware that children in early elementary school tend to talk about ability and effort as the same thing (Blumenfeld, Pintrich, & Hamilton, 1986), so they may feel all school tasks are uncontrollable. Addressing these types of attributions can be difficult with young children. By contrast, attributions to controllable factors—effort and asking for help—are associated with better learning.

Third, students can make attributions to what are seen as stable or unchanging factors, such as perceived favoritism. When Wilson and Linville (1985) taught students that low grades were just a temporary, changeable phenomenon, their grades on exams and in their courses increased. Attributions to factors that can change—building one’s own interest, applying extra effort—are associated with better learning.

How are attributions relevant to 21st-century learning? We found out in a recent undergraduate biology learning experiment. We provided videos showing study techniques and gave students feedback on their exam performance. This combination of learning and motivation supports helped students from groups underrepresented in science (URM; Black, Latino/x, and students who identified as other or mixed races) earn similar grades as their White and Asian peers who received the same supports, whereas URM students not in that experimental condition did not do so.

Why did it work? To answer this, we looked at feedback the students wrote to us, the researchers, about the motivational and study strategy supports; attribution theory seems to provide the answer. Underrepresented students were more likely to write about needing to study earlier, study harder, use the study techniques we provided, go to office hours, and get help from teaching assistants. They were also less likely to say that the instructor wrote difficult exams with deceptive questions. In short, underrepresented students made attributions to controllable, internal, and transformable (not “stable”) factors.

By contrast, the Asian and White students who received exactly the same study and motivation supports more often made less-adaptive attributions to uncontrollable (uncontrollable because the student is not likely to change the professor), external (blaming others), and enduring/stable (exam difficulty) factors. As did researchers in a number of other studies on attributions, we ensured that students had access to effective learning supports. Understanding these student attributions gives one possible explanation of why our classroom experiment helped close the achievement gap.

Parents, teachers, and coaches can all work with students who make less-adaptive attributions. They can ask students what they are feeling and why. They can ask whether students themselves can do something to improve the situation and point out cases of others who have taken initiative and had success. They can ask students if practice would make a difference and point out times when practice has helped. They can ask students to actively seek help and point out instances where expert help has led to improvements. Parents can also model attributions to their own actions such as “I wasn’t watching the time and I got a parking ticket” rather than blaming the parking meter.

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A140620 Temple University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

References

Blumenfeld, P. C., Pintrich, P. R., & Hamilton, V. L. (1986). Children’s concepts of ability, effort, and conduct. American Educational Research Journal, 23(1), 95-104.

Hall, N. C., Hladkyj, S., Perry, R. P., & Ruthig, J. C. (2004). The role of attributional retraining and elaborative learning in college students' academic development. The Journal of Social Psychology, 144(6), 591-612. doi:10.3200/SOCP.144.6.591-612

Menec, V. H., Perry, R. P., Struthers, C. W., Schonwetter, D. J., Hechter, F. J., & Eichholz, B. L. (1994). Assisting at‐risk college students with attributional retraining and effective teaching. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(8), 675-701.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. NY, NY: Springer.

Wilson, T. D., & Linville, P. W. (1985). Improving the performance of college freshmen with attributional techniques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(1), 287-293.