Attribution Theory – Theoretical Models for Teaching and Research (2023)

Yustinus Calvin Gai Mali

According to Dörnyei (2001), attributions are “explanations people offer about why they were successful or, more importantly, why they failed in the past” (p. 118). Attributional studies began in the field of social psychology in the 1950s, and Fritz Heider became the “father” of attributions’ theory and research (Dasborough & Harvey, 2016, n. p.). Besides Heider, Bernard Weiner is also well-known for his significant contributions to the development of attribution theory (see, for example, Weiner, 1972, 1976, 1985), which can be categorized as a cognitivist theory (David, 2019).

Previous Studies

Attribution studies have three commonalities. First, in research in education, attribution has been widely cited as one of the key factors in students’ learning motivation and achievement (see, e.g., Banks & Woolfson, 2008; Weiner, 1972). Similarly, Hsieh and Schallert (2008) suggest that how students attribute their past failures may influence how they approach future performances. In this situation, students will have more motivation to enhance their practices when they perceive their learning failure within themselves rather than within external factors that they cannot control (Ellis, 2015). For example, if students believe that they can succeed by making a greater effort, they are more likely to keep trying than if they believe that their teachers do not like them.

Second, previous studies (e.g., Chedzoy & Burden, 2009; Farid & Akhter, 2017; Mali, 2015; Williams, Burden, Poulet, & Maun, 2004) often classified attributions for success and failure and summarized the results in tables with frequency numbers and percentages. For instance, Williams et al. (2004) surveyed 285 11 to 16 year-old students’ attributions in learning foreign languages in five secondary schools in the United Kingdom. The study found that effort became the most widely cited attribution for the students’ learning successes or failures. More specifically, male students appeared to attribute their success to their effort more than female students did, while younger female students most commonly attributed their failure to ability. More recently, Mali (2015) adapted the open-ended questionnaire used in Williams et al.’s study to explore attributions of students’ English speaking achievement, such as their being able to perform a monologue or ask and answer questions using English. The study concluded that positive relationships between the students and teacher as well as among the students themselves were the primary attribution for English-speaking achievement. Based on these findings, Mali reminded language teachers to always maintain good rapport with their students, create positive relationships among the students themselves, and explain why their students need to perform a specific classroom activity.

A third commonality in attribution studies is the use of a questionnaire to explore attributions. In attribution studies, questionnaires often employ closed-ended questions like those in Figure 1. (For the original format of the close-ended questions, see the article). For another type of closed-ended questions, see Peacock’s (2010) study.

Figure 1

Example Question from an Attribution Questionnaire

Perceptions of English Language Learning. Think about your past experiences in the 1st semester English class. Try to remember a time in which you did particularly WELL/ POORLY on an activity in the class. The activity you are think­ing of might be listed below. If so, circle the activity. If the activ­ity is not listed below, circle the “other. . .” and describe the activ­ity in the space provided. Be sure to choose only ONE activity.

  1. Reading texts using appropriate strategies

  2. Answering comprehension questions

  3. Learning vocabulary

    (Video) Attribution Theory (Examples and What it is)

  4. Understanding grammar

  5. Translating texts and passages from English

  6. Other writing activities…………………….

(Mori, et al, 2010, p. 26-27).

In addition, respondents may also be asked to answer open-ended questions based on their previous knowledge or real-life experiences. Open-ended questions (adapted from Williams et al., 2004) may include the following:

  • When I do well in English, the main reasons are:

  • When I don’t do well in English, the main reasons are:

In the blanks, respondents can write the answers without following a fixed set of options as they do with close-ended questions. For other similar types of open-ended questions, see other studies such as Mali (2015), Tse (2000), and Yilmaz (2012).

Model of Attribution Theory

Figure 2 presents a model of attribution theory. The model consists of precursors, or what comes before an attribution, and a process with concepts, constructs, and the theory’s proposition.

Attribution Theory – Theoretical Models for Teaching and Research (1)


(Video) Attribution Theory and Social Psychology Explained with Examples - Simplest explanation ever

The attribution theory model starts with the precursors, where people remember their success or failure in the past and begin to explain to themselves why they could be successful or fail in their language learning.


After the students perceive reasons for their successes or failures, they then ascribe the reasons in three main dimensions: locus, stability, and control (see Weiner, 1976, for more details). Weiner explains that locus is whether people perceive a particular cause as being internal or external. Stability is whether a specific cause is something stable (fixed) or unstable (can change). Meanwhile, control is about how much control the student has over a particular reason. Vispoel and Austin (1995) combined the three main dimensions and four causal explanations of attribution into a table to create a classification scheme for causal attributions; see Table 1 for an example of how these concepts work together. Attribution studies in different settings (e.g., Farid & Iqbal, 2012; Farid & Akhter, 2017; Mori et al., 2010; Gobel, Thang, Sidhu, Oon, & Chan, 2013; Rasekh, Zabihi, & Rezazadeh, 2012; Thang, Gobel, Mohd. Nor, & Suppiah, 2011) often discuss this scheme in their literature review or use some components of the scheme to develop research instruments.

Table 1

Dimensional Classification Scheme for Causal Attributions

Task DifficultyExternalUnstableUncontrollable
Family influenceExternalStableUncontrollable
Teacher influenceExternalStableUncontrollable

(Vispoel & Austin, 1995, p. 382)


Four possible causal explanations (e.g., ability, effort, luck, or task difficulty) comprise the three main dimensions of locus, stability, and control to which a particular cause is attributed. For instance, Weiner (1985) quoted a story of a Japanese warrior, Miyomota Musashi, who attributed his previous victories to natural ability. Weiner also instanced a football coach, Ray Malavasi, who related nine consecutive losses of his team to his players who were not doing their best. More recently, Mori et al. (2010) explained that effort refers to “a cause that is internal, unstable, controllable, while an ability is something internal, beyond personal control, and that endures over time” (p. 7). The literature (e.g., Dörnyei, 2001; Ellis, 2015; Weiner, 1976, 1985) suggests that when students refer their failures to an internal, unstable, and controllable attribution, such as lack of effort, they will enhance their motivation to do better and work harder.


In the end, attribution theory proposes that students might enhance their perseverance and persistence to achieve learning goals more successfully when they attribute their success or failure to internal, unstable, and controllable causes, such as effort (Dörnyei, 2001; Mori et al., 2010).

Using the Model

There are many possible ways to use the model for teaching and research purposes. For teaching purposes, for example, teachers can ask their students to think about a failure they experienced in a language class. Next, the students can write a self-reflective essay on why they think they failed and what they can learn from the failure to enhance future performance. Teachers can use the model to figure out common attributions in the students’ essay and work with the student to figure out ways to perceive their learning based on internal, controllable factors. Then, like Demetriou (2011) suggests, teachers can collaborate with their students to plan future action based on the common attributions revealed in the essay.

(Video) Attribution Theory

For research purposes, studies can test the proposition of the model; they can explore whether students believe that attributing their failure toeffortmight/ might not enhance their perseverance and persistence in their learning. Researchers can also expand on previous studies by classifying attributions for failure in a specific class (e.g., in a language class for writing, reading, listening, or speaking). Next, they can develop questionnaire items from the components of attributions (e.g., ability, effort, luck, or task difficulty) as displayed in the model and then survey students. Conducting research that specifically explores attributions for learning failure in across disciplines might be crucial, because, for example, “failure in learning a second language is very common, and the way people process these failures is bound to have a powerful general impact” (Dörnyei, 2001, p. 119). In addition, studies can be conducted in English as a foreign language (EFL) and other settings in which “learner attributions, perceived causes of success and failure, have received little attention…” (Peacock, 2010, p. 184).


It might be challenging for some people to make attributions for their failure in the past, as it requires reflective capabilities. Regardless of that challenge, there are possibilities for using components of attribution theory (e.g., locus, controllability, effort) as a foundation for teachers and students to explain and mitigate academic success or failure.


Banks, M., & Woolfson, L. (2008). Why do students think they fail? The relationship between attributions and academic self-perceptions. British Journal of Special Education, 35(1), 49–56.

Chedzoy, S., & Burden, R. (2009). Primary school children’s reflections on Physical Education lessons: An attributional analysis and possible implications for teacher action. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 4, 185–193.

Dasborough, M. T., & Harvey, P. (2016). Attributions. Oxford Bibliography.

David, L. (2019, February 2). Summaries of learning theories and models.

Demetriou, C. (2011). The attribution theory of learning and advising students on academic probation. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 16–21.

Dörnyei, Z. (Ed.). (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom [PDF file]. Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (2015). Understanding second language acquisition (2nd ed.) [PDF file]. Oxford University Press.

Farid, M. F., & Akhter, M. (2017). Causal attribution beliefs of success and failure: A perspective from Pakistan. Bulletin of Educational and Research, 39(3), 105–115.

(Video) Attribution Theory

Farid, M. F., & Iqbal, H. M. (2012). Causal attribution beliefs among school students in Pakistan. Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, 4(2), 411–424.

Gobel, P., Thang, S. M., Sidhu, G. K., Oon, S. I., & Chan, Y. F. (2013). Attributions to success and failure in English language learning: A comparative study of urban and rural undergraduates in Malaysia. Asian Social Science, 9(2), 53–62.

Hsieh, P. P., & Schallert, D. L. (2008). Implications from self-efficacy and attribution theories for an understanding of undergraduates’ motivation in a foreign language course. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 513–532.

Mali, Y. C. G. (2015). Students’ attributions on their English speaking enhancement.Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics,4(2), 32-43.

Mori, S., Gobel, P., Thepsiri, K., & Pojanapunya, P. (2010). Attributions for performance: A comparative study for Japanese and Thai university students. JALT Journal, 32(1), 5–28.

Peacock, M. (2010). Attribution and learning English as a foreign language. ELT Journal, 64(2), 184–193.

Rasekh, A. E., Zabihi, R., & Rezazadeh, M. (2012). An application of Weiner’ s attribution theory to the self-perceived communication competence of Iranian intermediate EFL learners. Elixir International Journal, 47, 8693–8697.

Thang, S. M., Gobel, P., Mohd. Nor, N. F., & Suppiah, V. L. (2011). Students’ attributions for success and failure in the learning of English as a second language: A comparison of undergraduates from six public universities in Malaysia. Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, 19(2), 459–474.

Tse, L. (2000). Student perceptions of foreign language study: A qualitative analysis of foreign language autobiographies. The Modern Language Journal, 84(1), 69–84.

Vispoel, W. P., & Austin, J. R. (1995). Success and failure in junior high school: A critical incident approach to understanding students’ attributional beliefs. American Educational Research Journal, 32(2), 377–412.

Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational process. Review of Educational Research, 42(2), 203-215.

Weiner, B. (1976). An attributional approach for educational psychology. Review of Research in Education, 4, 179–209.

(Video) Attribution Theory - Basic covariation | Individuals and Society | MCAT | Khan Academy

Weiner, B. (1985). An attribution theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.

Williams, M., Burden, R. L., Poulet, G. M. A., & Maun, I. C. (2004). Learners’ perceptions of their successes and failures in foreign language learning. The Language Learning Journal, 30(1), 19-29.

Yılmaz, C. (2012). An investigation into Turkish EFL students’ attributions in reading comprehension. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 3(5), 823–828.


What is the theoretical model of attribution theory? ›

Attribution is a three stage process: (1) behavior is observed, (2) behavior is determined to be deliberate, and (3) behavior is attributed to internal or external causes. Achievement can be attributed to (1) effort, (2) ability, (3) level of task difficulty, or (4) luck.

What is attribution theory in teaching? ›

Attribution theory is concerned with the perceived causes of success and failure. It is one of the most prominent theories of motivation in the field of education research. The starting point for the theory is an outcome perceived as a success or failure and the search to determine why that outcome occurred.

What is an example of attribution theory in the classroom? ›

Ways Attributions are Formed

For example, if a student is disruptive, a teacher may comment that “no one else is acting like this.” This attributes the bad behavior to the student because their actions are not in alignment with the class.

What is the importance of attribution theory in education? ›

In the end, attribution theory proposes that students might enhance their perseverance and persistence to achieve learning goals more successfully when they attribute their success or failure to internal, unstable, and controllable causes, such as effort (Dörnyei, 2001; Mori et al., 2010).

What is attribution theory explain with example? ›

Attribution theory is how we attribute feelings and intentions to people to understand their behaviour. For example, we may unconsciously apply this theory when we see someone shouting on public transport. You may blame their character, assuming they are an angry person.

What are the main elements of attribution theory? ›

The attribution process involves three stages that must be present:
  • Stage 1: Observation. The individual must observe the behavior first-hand. ...
  • Stage 2: Belief. The individual must believe that the behavior or action was performed intentionally, instead of accidentally or involuntarily. ...
  • Stage 3: Cause.
Feb 3, 2016

What are the 4 types of attribution? ›

Identify four different types of attribution proposed by Weiner's attribution model and give a practical example for each type identified.
  • External/ Extrinsic - Weather/ Luck.
  • Internal/ Intrinsic - Effort/ Ability.
  • Stable/ Unchangeable - Task difficulty/ opposition.
  • Unstable/ Changeable - Tactics/ Effort.

What is the goal of attribution theory? ›

The purpose behind making attributions is to achieve COGNITIVE CONTROL over one's environment by explaining and understanding the causes behind behaviors and environmental occurrences.

What is an example of a teacher influencing students attributions? ›

Attributions Communicated

For example, a teacher may say 'Great work on this assignment. It is clear you know this subject very well. ' This would be an ability-based attribute. Or, a teacher may say 'Well you didn't quite pass, but your hard work is evident, and if you try to study once a day your grade will improve!'

What are the three 3 ways in attribution theory? ›

Attribution theory, proposed by Fritz Heider (1958), is a social psychology theory that deals with how individuals relate and make sense of the social world.
There is a three-stage process underlying attribution:
  • Perception. Observe. ...
  • Judgment. Determine deliberateness. ...
  • Attribute.
May 14, 2022

How does attribution affect learning? ›

It is pointed out that attribution will lead to changes in learners' expectations of their own behavior results, and at the same time, it will cause learners to have emotional responses, which will effect learners' behaviors and effects.

What is an example of attribution theory in the workplace? ›

The attribution theory can manifest in so many ways in the workplace. For example, if a person gets a promotion, it will be 'natural' for those left behind to attribute the promotion to the person being the manager's 'favourite' instead of attributing it to their experience and skills.

What are the two significant models of attribution? ›

In an internal, or dispositional, attribution, people infer that an event or a person's behavior is due to personal factors such as traits, abilities, or feelings. In an external, or situational, attribution, people infer that a person's behavior is due to situational factors.

What is the simple definition of attribution theory? ›

: a theory that attempts to explain the interpretive process by which people make judgments about the causes of their own behavior and the behavior of others. After studying how people explain others' behavior, Fritz Heider (1958) proposed an attribution theory.

What is attribution in your own words? ›

the act of saying or thinking that something is the result or work of a particular person or thing: The usual attribution of the work to Leonardo is now disputed by several experts.

What are examples of attribution? ›

For example, over the course of a typical day, you probably make numerous attributions about your own behavior as well as that of the people around you. When you get a poor grade on a quiz, you might blame the teacher for not adequately explaining the material, completely dismissing the fact that you didn't study.

What is the most common attribution model? ›

Following are several of the most common attribution models.
  • Last-click attribution. With this model, all the credit goes to the customer's last touchpoint before converting. ...
  • First-click attribution. ...
  • Linear attribution. ...
  • Time decay attribution. ...
  • U-shaped attribution.
Jan 11, 2019

What are the best attribution models? ›

Best Marketing Attribution Models For 2022
  • First-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
  • Last-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
  • Linear Multi-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
  • U-Shaped Multi-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
  • Time Decay Multi-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
  • W-Shaped Multi-Touch Marketing Attribution Model.
Dec 30, 2021

What are the different attribution theories? ›

Attribution theories attempt to explain how human beings evaluate and determine the cause of other people's behavior. Well-known attribution theories include the correspondent inference theory, Kelley's covariation model, and Weiner's three-dimensional model.

Why are attribution models important? ›

Attribution modeling allows you to hone in on the buyer's journey and understand which parts of it are working best for your customers and what needs improvement. It also offers insight into how your marketing channels and touchpoints are working together to convert your target audience.

Why is attribution so important? ›

Why Is Attribution Important? As we've established here, attribution is important because it helps marketers understand the impact of their marketing efforts. It allows you to determine which marketing channels are driving the most ROI for your business.

What is attribution and why is it important? ›

Attribution is about "giving credit where credit is due." By acknowledging where information comes from, you show respect for the intellectual work of those who came before. An example of attribution is a citation.

What are the top three attributes of a teacher? ›

Some qualities of a good teacher include skills in communication, listening, collaboration, adaptability, empathy and patience. Other characteristics of effective teaching include an engaging classroom presence, value in real-world learning, exchange of best practices and a lifelong love of learning.

How do we use attributions to explain behavior? ›

Dispositional (i.e., internal) attributions provide us with information from which we can make predictions about a person's future behavior. The correspondent inference theory describes the conditions under which we make dispositional attributes to the behavior we perceive as intentional.

What are the four factors that influence teaching? ›

The teaching process gets affected by various parameters such as teachers, learners, environmental and Institution factors. These factors make the whole process of learning easy and smooth.

What are two of the main propositions of attribution theory? ›

To summarize, Kelley's (1967) model of attribution contains two core propositions: (a) that attribution is a choice between external and internal causes and (b) that the cognitive pro- cedure by which people arrive at this choice is covariation assessment. Both propositions are problematic.

How do you apply attribution theory to motivate your employees? ›

Leaders should arrange tasks so that employees are able to perceive themselves as successful. Use Attribution assigning questions to help people get to the right frame of mind about their own performance. For example, ask people what they might do differently to affect a different outcome in the future.

How many attribution models are there? ›

Generally speaking, there are six main types of attribution models – first-touch, last-touch, linear, time decay, U-shaped, multi-touch, and W-shaped multi-touch.

What are the two types of attribution theory? ›

There are basically two types of attributions: internal and external, or personal and situational. Either the person is in control of his/her behavior, or the situation is exerting influence upon him/her, to shape his/her behavior.

What is Kelley's model of attribution? ›

Harold Kelley's covariation model (1967, 1971, 1972, 1973) is an attribution theory in which people make causal inferences to explain why other people and ourselves behave in a certain way. It is concerned with both social perception and self-perception (Kelley, 1973).

What is attribution theory? ›

: a theory that attempts to explain the interpretive process by which people make judgments about the causes of their own behavior and the behavior of others. After studying how people explain others' behavior, Fritz Heider (1958) proposed an attribution theory.

What is an example of an attribution model? ›

Attribution modeling example

A customer finds your site by clicking one of your Google Ads ads. She returns one week later by clicking over from a social network. That same day, she comes back a third time via one of your email campaigns, and a few hours later, she returns again directly and makes a purchase.


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