Classroom Motivation From an Attributional Perspective
University of California, Los Angeles
Psychologists study motivation to understand why people think and behave as they do. Applied to achievement contexts like classrooms, we would be addressing motivational concerns if we were to ask, for example: Why do some children persist to task completion despite enormous difficulty, while others give up at the slightest provocation? Why do some individuals believe that effort pays off and others do not? Or, what accounts for the fact that some children set such unrealistically high goals for themselves that failure is bound to occur?
Rather than take a more traditional approach and focus on personality traits or specific behavior as a way of addressing questions such as these, in this chapter I adopt a social cognitive approach to the study of motivation. A social cognitive approach to motivation is concerned with an individual's cognitive representation of his or her environment -- that is, perceptions, inferences, and interpretations of social experience as determinants of achievement strivings. For example, a cognitive social psychologist might investigate how a student interprets praise from her teacher as a guide to inferences about her own competence: Did my teacher praise me because she believes me to be a capable student? Or does she simply want to protect my feelings because she does not think much of my ability? The particular social cognitive representations addressed in this chapter are causal attributions, or inferences about why outcomes occur. Causal attributions are central to a theory of motivation that has proved to be exceedingly rich and applicable to a wide range of achievement-related concerns (see reviews in Graham, 1991; Weiner, 1985a, 1986). A major goal of this chapter is to demonstrate how this theory can be a useful conceptual framework for investigating motivational phenomena that often occur in classroom contexts.
The following sections begin with a brief introduction to causal attributions