Motivation and education perfomance

Friday, September 01, 2006

Motivation Issues: Attribution Theory and Learned Helplessness.

Attribution Theory.

Bernard Weiner (1984) developed a theory about student's attempts to know why an event occurred, particularly in relation to the student's achievement. He argued that causal attributions (ideas about why we succeed or fail) are produced when there has been either an unexpected outcome or an aversive outcome. Students generate a variety of explanations for these unexpected outcomes. Some of the ways students explain their success or failure are that it has been caused by -

(a) high or low ability or aptitude

(b) good or poor effort

(c) task ease or difficulty

(d) good or bad luck

(e) effective or ineffective strategies

(f) help or lack of help from other persons.

The student who succeeds or fails, according to Weiner's (1984) attribution theory, will base the cause on either internal or external factors and stable or unstable causes. The internal factors are ability (i.e., level of or skill) or effort (i.e., degree of work or self-discipline). In effect, the student sees success or failure as related to ability, to effort, or to both. The student who is externally oriented will attribute performance outcomes to luck or task difficulty. Stable characterisitcs would be psychological phenomena such as personality; unstable characterisitcs would be factors such as amount and quality of revision undertaken and luck. For example, I did well in the exam because I am a discplined student (internal) who knows how to revise (stable). Or, I did not do well in the exam because the teacher did not help me (external) and the exam paper covered all the wrong topics (unstable).

This can be related to Rotter's concept of Locus of Control, by which we tend to view control of events in our lives as either occuring because of some feature of ourselves (internal Locus of Control) or factors outside of ourselves (external Locus of Control). If a student considers success to be related to controllable factors, they will assume responsibility for the success and therefore experience pride and satisfaction (internal Locus of Control). If on the otherhand, success is thought to have been brought about by an uncontrollable factor, the student will feel gratitude toward that factor. If failure is viewed by the student as caused by some uncontrollable factor, the student may feel anger or self-pity (external Locus of Control). Thus the attributions student make about where control is located in their lives will effect the type and extent of motivation they have towards their studies.

Learned Helplessness.

Seligman and Maier (1967) conducted studies in which dogs that had no control over events in the experimental situation where more likely to show apathetic behaviours than dogs which had had a degree of control over events in the experiment. Seligman refered to this apathetic behaviour as learned helplessness because it was through continued experience of failure that these dogs did not bother to show appropriate behaviour in later experiments. Presumably this was because their previous experience had informed them that it would be unlikely for a positive outcome to occur even if they bothered to do anything. Thus they had learned to become helpless.

This theory is based largely on some pretty nasty animal experiments, that the experience of being put in a position in which there is no possibility of escape from harm or pain can lead to an overall fatalism and resignation, in which it is believed that there is no point in trying to improve the situation. More generally, learned helplessness can describe a belief in one's own powerlessness, which makes any attempt to learn, futile. Typical experiments include the demonstration that dogs, confined in a cage where they have no possibility of escaping shocks from an electrified floor, no longer attempt to escape such shocks when the opportunity is presented.

This type of behaviour could be conditioned into a student if they experience continued failure irrespective of any learning behaviours they show. They would get into a 'why bother' frame of mind, due to their past experiences of percieved failure. However this would be made worse if the student makes external attributions about why they do not succeed (e.g. I get no support from my parents so how can I expect to do well) . Internal attributions make encourage them to try harder in the face of continued adversity. Learned helplessness provides an elegant account of disaffection among students, who have "given up" on the formal educational process as a way of learning anything. They have lost (or never gained) any sense of the connection between their efforts in school or college and any meaningful achievement, and therefore the major task for them is to re-establish this link.


  • you are right about learned helplesness amongst students. i would like to know more about why student fail to perform in education? why they take their career so easy and why they are not clear about what they want to achieve in life.

    By Blogger pallavi, at 7:59 AM  

  • very good article and easy to comprehend

    By Blogger maria, at 7:48 AM  

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