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Attribution Theory, Motivation, and Success

Motivating students and helping them find success is part of teaching.  It is important to realize that success is motivating, and often the best way to teach a student to find success is to teach the student to find meaning and value in the work they are doing.  Methods we use for grading should not only be based on how an individual performs on exams.  While exams give a broad sample of what concepts a student understands, they often miss important side concepts students find meaning and value in that shape and motivate their learning.

In my experience as a student and as a teacher, students who find meaning in learning have a more adept understanding of the concepts being taught.  In order to assess a comprehensive and more dynamic sense of learning, we need to design our methods of grading to consistently assess student progress in understanding learning outcomes achieving learning goals.

While students need to be responsible and kept accountable for keeping up with assignments and meeting objectives, as teachers we should guide our students to think smarter and more efficiently.  I think Dr. David Laude, the keynote speaker at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Fall Forum at DePaul University, would affirm that a key issue, partially due to a lack of teacher guidance and engagement, that has come to light in recent years is student motivation.

Attribution theory is a concept developed by Fritz Heider and Bernard Weiner used in modern psychology that “emphasizes the idea that learners are strongly motivated by the pleasant outcome of being able to feel good about themselves.” (Vockell, 2008)  According to Dr. Vockell’s interpretation of attribution theory, there are four factors students use to determine success:


Ability – natural aptitude or acquired proficiency.

Effort – a serious attempt to do something; energy used to do something.

Task Difficulty – the quality of something that makes it hard to do; the ease of which something

can be done.

Luck – the things that happen due to chance.


The more students use an internal locus of control to explain their successes and failures, the more motivated they will be to put forth the effort and engagement in courses to learn.

Dr. Ken Robinson discusses the concept of the “element” in his book The Element.  Robinson defines the element as “the place where the things we love and the things we’re good at come together.”  I believe teachers can motivate students and guide them to success by tapping into their pupils’ ‘elements’.  Using skills with which students are already proficient and successful to engage new learning will help to motivate students.

Before your courses end, think about how your students are engaged.  Quickly assess how you have performed as a teacher.  How do you draw on previously learned skills and concepts?  How are your lessons going to be meaningful and valuable to your students now?  Can you identify each student’s ‘element’? From the students’ perspectives, are you clear and consistent with your expectations?  What changes could you make? Then, create tools that guide your students to think smarter and more efficiently.  Through critical assessment of your own practices, I think you will find your students will start coming to class prepared, excited to participate, and motivated to be successful.  I think that not only will students apply more effort to the work in your class, but your students will prove that they truly have the ability to be successful, contributing overall to their motivation to learn.


Works Cited

Anderman, E., & Anderman, L. (2009, December 23). Attribution Theory. Retrieved from


Culatta, R. (2013). Attribution Theory.



Laude, D. (Director) (2014, November 7). Can You Teach Perseverance?. 2014 Fall Forum on

      Teaching and Learning. Lecture conducted from DePaul University, Chicago, IL.


Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead



Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New

York: Viking.


Vockell, E. (2008). Education Psychology: A Practical Approach. Retrieved



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