What are Source of Attributional Information?

How do we decide what caused our success and failure? What cues do we use to explain whether an outcome was influenced by our ability, effort, or some other factor? Information comes from direct and indirect cues (Graham, 1991). Some information comes from direct cues, like failing a test when other students succeeded. Information is also obtained from more indirect cues, often conveyed unintentionally, such as when a teacher communicates pity to a student who failed a test. In addition, there may be a bias toward causes (Weiner, 1992).

Direct Attributional Cues

One of the most important informational cues is the outcome of the task. Here students have a direct cue as to their performance. Another source of attributional information comes from comparing one’s performance to that of others (Weiner, 1992). When most of the class fails a test, students are likely to attribute the failure to the difficulty of the task, not to their ability. However, if Sam failed and everyone else in the class made an A or B, he is likely to believe the failure was due to his low ability. If Sarah fails a test and a peer says, “I didn’t study at all and I made an A,” Sarah may take this as a cue that failure must be due to her ability. When a teacher sees students comparing grades on a test, information other than the test score is being communicated. An important role of the teacher is to help students interpret the possible reasons for test scores and make an adaptive attribution.

Indirect Attributional Cues

In school, feedback that students receive from teachers is a source of much information about ability. Students’ attributional interpretations may be based on the attributions that teachers communicated to them (Reyna, 2000). Graham (1991) identified three groups of feedback as sources of indirect cues: praise versus blame, sympathy versus anger, and help versus neglect.

Praise Versus Blame: The praise or blame a student receives from a teacher can function as an indirect low-ability cue (Graham, 1991). The cue provided by praise or blame interacts with the difficulty of the task and effort expended by a student. Praise acts as a low-ability cue when a student is praised for completing an easy task. A low-ability cue is also conveyed when a student fails a task but receives no blame, like lack of effort. The student can interpret this to mean, “There’s nothing I can do about the failure.”

Sympathy Versus Anger: Did it ever occur to you that communicating sympathy to a student could be interpreted as evidence that he or she has the low ability? Graham (1984) found that when teachers conveyed sympathy following poor student performance, the failing students took this as a cue that they had low ability. Obviously a statement like “I feel sorry for you because you made such a low score” would be a low-ability cue. What might a teacher say that unintentionally conveys a message of low ability to a student? One student remembers a class being told, “All students have to do this except Holly and Ramon.” Holly took her omission as a cue that she would not be able to do the task. In contrast, mild anger for failure can provide an indirect cue that one is capable. For example, “You can do better than this. You handed this paper in with no editing,” provides a cue to the student that he or she is capable of more.

Unsolicited Help: Another low-ability cue for students is unsolicited help by the teacher (Graham & Barker, 1990). Graham and Barker found that, regardless of whether a helper was a peer or teacher, other students judged the student who received unsolicited help as lower in ability than non-helped peers. The important factor in this example is unsolicited. When the teacher consistently gives help to Sylvia before she requests it, this suggests that the teacher knows that she will not be able to do it.

Ability Grouping: One powerful cue for ability that affects large groups of students are tracking according to ability groups. Students in both high and low tracks are defined by labels such as high ability, honors, low-achieving, slow, and average (Oakes, 1985). These labels are powerful cues about one’s ability. Oakes observed that students in the lower track are usually seen by others as dumb and also see themselves in this way. A label may have an adverse effect on students in the high-achieving class as well. Students in a high-track class may take this label as a cue that they naturally have high ability and then assume inflated self-concepts. This belief can interfere with students working to develop their academic skills.

It is important that teachers be aware of the subtle cues that may have unintentional effects on students’ perception of ability. Commonly accepted practices of generous praise, minimal blame, sympathy, and unsolicited help can sometimes be interpreted by students as they have the low ability (M. D. Clark, 1997; Graham, 1991). M. D. Clark found that responses given to students with LD are often interpreted as low-ability cues. Graham further suggested that these cues raise important questions pertinent to the motivation of minority students such as African-Americans. For example, are minority students more likely to be targeted for feedback that conveys sympathy—thus receiving a cue for low ability? Reyna (2000) took this a step further, stating that labeling and indirect cues can lead to stable beliefs about ability and have the negative effect of stereotyping.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias or Attributional bias is a predisposition to make certain attributional judgments that may be in error (Weiner, 1985). Several variations of attributional bias have been identified that are relevant to achievement settings. A common misjudgment is a hedonic bias, the tendency to attribute success to self rather than to attribute failure to self (Weiner, 2000).

Previous knowledge can also lead to attributions that are erroneous (Frieze, 1980). Potential sources of errors in attributional judgments can be found in stereotypes about certain groups (Reyna, 2000). These preconceptions about certain groups can serve as ready-made explanations for why a student achieves or does not achieve. There is a danger that the stable, uncontrollable attribution for low performance will lead to lower expectations.

The implication for educators is to recognize that a number of possible causes may explain any given success or failure. Thus, it is important to be aware of potential stereotypical attributional biases. Explore other possible causes by gathering more information when bias may be a factor (see Strategy).

Strategy of Collect Attributional Information

Simply ask students why they succeeded, failed, or improved.

Some teachers elicit information by having students give their reasons for how well they did after assignments or exams.

Attribution information can be obtained through the use of learning logs, in which students keep records and write about their goals, successes, and failures.

Conduct an attributional task analysis of student performance. Is it because the student cannot or will not? A teacher may believe that a student is not performing well because he or she has the low ability or is lazy. Instead, the student may be performing low because he or she does not have the essential skills.

Look for clues that will enable you to determine if the student has the essential skills. Does the student have prerequisite knowledge or skills? Does the task require formal reasoning whereas the student is functioning at the concrete reasoning level? Does the student have the necessary learning or memory strategies?

If the student cannot, then teach the prerequisite skill or guide student to the appropriate source of help.


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