Perceived University Students' Attributions of Their Academic Success and Failure

By Mkumbo, Kitila A. K.; Amani, Jacqueline | Asian Social Science, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Perceived University Students' Attributions of Their Academic Success and Failure


Mkumbo, Kitila A. K., Amani, Jacqueline, Asian Social Science


Abstract

This study examined the applicability of the attribution theory in understanding how students attribute their academic success and failure. Participants involved a sample of 260 undergraduate students at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They completed an attitude questionnaire scale with items on locus of control, stability and controllability dimensions. The results show that the majority of students attributed their academic performance to internal, stable and controllable factors. High performing students were more likely to attribute their academic performance to internal and controllable factors than low performing students. Success was attributed to internal and controllable factors, while academic failure was attributed to external and uncontrollable factors. Save for sex, the participants' demographic variables did not statistically significantly influence the attribution pattern. The results of this study confirm the predictions of the attribution theory and are in line with the findings of similar studies conducted in other university settings.

Keywords: attribution, academic performance, academic success, academic failure, Tanzania

1. Introduction: The Attribution Process and Motivation for Academic Achievement

Naturally, human beings are in constant search for the factors that cause them or other people to behave the way they do. The process of assigning causes to our or other people's behaviour is called attribution. According to Heider (1958), people broadly attribute the causes of their behaviour either to internal or external factors. An internal attribution (also called personal or dispositional attribution) refers to causes that are associated with the person's innate characteristics such as personality traits, moods, attitudes, abilities or efforts. An external attribution (also called situational attribution), on the other hand, refers to the causes that are external to the person, such as the actions of others, environmental situation or luck.

The attribution theory has been applied in various contexts. It has been applied, for example, in understanding people's decisions about health behaviours, in explaining how people attribute their success or failure in a task and in explaining differences in motivation between high and low achievers (Batool, Arif & Ud Din, 2010; Laherand & Putnina, 2007, Murray & Thomson, 2009). One area that has received considerable attention in social psychological research with regard to the application of attribution theory is its application in explaining success or failure in academic context, with Bernard Weiner as the main theorist.

According to attribution theory, success or failure in academic tasks is associated with three sets of characteristics (Weiner, 1985). Firstly, people may succeed or fail because of internal or external factors, that is, because of factors that originate from within themselves or because of factors that originate in their environment. Secondly, the causes of success or failure may be either stable or unstable. If people believe that the factors are stable, then they may believe that the outcome of their performance is likely to be the same next time they attempt the same or similar task. If the factors are unstable, it means that they can be changed and therefore the outcome of performance may be different next time a behaviour is performed. Thirdly, the causes of success or failure may be either controllable or uncontrollable. If the causes are controllable, then it means that people believe that they can alter these causes. But, on the other hand, if people believe that the causes are uncontrollable, it means that they cannot be altered easily.

The attribution theory assumes that people will attribute their success or failure to factors that will enable them to feel as good as possible about themselves. To avoid negative emotional reactions, people have a tendency to attribute success to their own efforts or abilities, but they tend to attribute failure to some external factors that they do not have control of (Augoustinos, 2005). …

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