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Who's Fault Is it, Anyway?
Attribute Theory and Motivation


By Chick Moorman

Students who fail to make the connection between effort and results attribute their successes and failures to someone or something other than themselves. Successful students see their successes and failures as something they can control. How to motivate all your students to work for success.

"He didn't ask the right questions on the test."
"I would have done better if I had worn my lucky shirt."
"I'm no good at math."
"She didn't explain the assignment well enough."

Students who uttered the comments above have one thing in common. They fail to see the connections between effort and success or failure. They attribute their successes and failures to someone or something other than themselves.

That's where attribute theory comes in. Attribute theory is designed to help students link their successes and failures to their own efforts.

"Attributions" are the reasons an individual assigns to his or her successes or failures -- the factors that person believes are responsible for what happens to them. Attributions are important because they affect the future actions and expectations of our students. Students who often fail are likely to attribute their failures to a lack of ability, the difficulty of the task, and luck. In essence, they see their failures as beyond their control.

Successful students, on the other hand, attribute their successes to effort, energy, persistence, and the amount of time they spend studying, reading the material, or taking effective notes. They see their successes as something they can influence.


Attributions can be characterized as internal or external, and stable or unstable. The depiction of internal/external has to do with students' beliefs about what causes success or failure. They can believe the cause is something inside themselves, or they can believe the cause is some outside factor.

External attributions are luck, circumstance, and magic: "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," or "The teacher didn't ask the right questions on the test." With an external attribution, the result is attributed to something outside oneself.

Stable/unstable has to do with student's pattern of failure and it's degree of consistency. If Jason bombs a spelling test and has done so frequently, the attributions he assigns to that failure might well be internal/stable. He holds himself responsible (internal) and believes he will never be able to spell well (stable). When working with students like Jason, it is not enough to have them experience success. They might attribute that success to luck or an accident. If so, they will not expect success in the future.


Setting up your instruction so students experience success in an important first step in getting attribute theory to work for you. That means arranging the experience so students can experience success -- not arranging a lesson so students will be successful, so success is a perceived possibility.

Even being successful is not enough, however. The next, more important, step occurs when a student realizes he or she personally contributed to the success. Students must see the cause and effect relationship between their behavior and a successful outcome in order to experience the maximum benefit from the experience.

Skillfully designed "teacher talk" can help students link results with effort, strategies, and ability.

"Madison, this is your highest test score. I guess that extra practice had an effect."

"Latrell, that final revision put you over the top. It shows you really have learned to write in complete sentences."

"Pablo, your test score went up again. Using note cards seems to work for you as a study aid."

"Brenda, choosing not to complete the make-up assignments hurt your grade this time."

"I see your handwriting is becoming more legible. To what do you attribute that?"

Often students don't know why they failed or succeeded. When you use "teacher talk" to give performance feedback that helps students link results with effort, strategy, or ability, you help them take responsibility in the present and raise expectations for the future. You then have attribute theory working for you and your students.

About the Teacher

Chick Moorman holds bachelors and master's degrees in education from Western Michigan University. A former classroom teacher, he is the co-author of The 10 Commitments, Parenting with Purpose, and the author of Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. For more information about Moorman, or to subscribe to one of his free e-newsletters for parents and educators, visit, his Web site at

By Chick Moorman
Education World® Copyright 2005