CATL Teaching Guides

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Brief Description

Causal attributions are the reasons we use to explain our successes and failures. A student who does well on an assignment may attribute that success to hard work and extra effort. Another student might attribute success to her outstanding ability in the subject. Attributions consist of two key elements:

  1. Whether the perceived cause is internal or external to the individual, and
  2. Whether the perceived cause is something the person can control or is uncontrollable

This table below organizes attributions according to these two dimensions:



Not controllable


Amount and type of effort – worked hard or did not prepare well

Ability – good at it; not good at it.

Anxiety – couldn’t concentrate


Course is too hard – don't enroll; drop the course

Task difficulty – easy; hard

Luck – good; bad

Attributions can have significant consequences for students’ motivation. Students are more likely to put forth effort and persist if they attribute their performance (good and bad) to their effort, an internal, controllable cause. This makes intuitive sense: If I believe that I have done well or poorly because of my own effort, then I can influence what happens to me in the future. By working hard or better I can continue to do well or improve my learning.

If, on the other hand, I attribute my performance to external causes, there is little I can do to influence my future performance. Whether I believe it was task difficulty, luck or the quality of teaching that caused my performance—all of these are beyond my control. Why invest a lot of effort in studying or trying to improve if your performance is determined by external factors over which you have no control?


  1. Avoid attributional biases. People have a tendency to attribute the performance of another person to a disposition or trait, and minimize the influence of the situation or context. This is known as the fundamental attribution error. We observe a student who does poorly and attribute it to laziness or a bad attitude about school and minimize contextual factors that play a role in their performance.

  2. Teacher feedback. To support stronger motivation feedback messages should give accurate information about student work in relation to the goal, and that strategic effort is the key to making progress toward the goal. Research has shown that teachers often comment on students’ ability, e.g., "You are really bright." By linking performance to ability teachers may inadvertently support the idea that students succeed because they are smart or fail because they lack ability. 

  3. Encourage students to regularly reflect on the causes of their successes and failures. Too often, students skip this reflective process (e.g., they immediately look at the grade on the paper or exam and then place it in a folder, without giving much thought about why they received that grade or what they could have done differently). Initially, it helps to make this reflective process deliberate and conscious-- have students keep track of the strategies they use to prepare for assignments/exams (via journals, notebooks, or exam wrappers), ask them to reflect on the relative helpfulness of each strategy after getting performance feedback, and then ask then them to propose changes or alternative strategies to try on future assignments. Repeat this process until patterns emerge and/or it becomes more automatic.

Tips to Implement Attributions Effectively

  • Remember that in any given situation, performance can be attributed to a variety factors. Encourage students to focus on factors that they CAN control-- like their specific efforts and strategies-- while simultaneously accepting factors that are outside of their control.

  • Promote growth mindset about ability (i.e., incremental beliefs) so that students perceive their ability as something that can (and will) increase with effort and practice. 

  • Look for patterns and biases in students' attributions when attempting to diagnose their effects on a particular student's motivation and performance. Remember that attributions may or may not reflect reality-- sometimes "being sick" (for example) is a legitimate explanation of poor performance, whereas other times it may be an excuse or self-handicapping strategy. 

Cerbin, W. & Marshik, T. (2015). Attributions. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from