2018, Cilt 8, Sayý 3, Sayfa(lar) 605-618
An Exploration of Graduate Learners’ Academic Attributions: A Case Study from Higher Education Context
Yýlmaz SOYSAL, Somayyeh RADMARD
Istanbul Aydýn University, Faculty of Education, Department of Basic Education, Istanbul, Turkey
Keywords: Theory of attribution, Academic failures, Academic successes, Higher education
The purpose of the study was to investigate graduate students’ attributions to their academic successes and failures. Apart from
quantitatively-oriented studies, qualitative techniques in gathering and analysing data were used to make an in-depth interrogation of the
representations of causal attributions of the participants to their academic failures and successes. Causal attributions of the participants
were examined through Weiner’s model of attribution in terms of four aspects as ability attributions, effort attributions, chance attributions
and attributions to specified contextual factors. Intentional social interactions were found to be an external executing functioning in
modifying the participants’ attributional orientations to successes and failures. Moreover, it was found out that individually developed
adaptive strategies may turn externally-oriented attributions into internal causal attributions. Idiosyncraticness of attributional reasoning
styles was the determinants of the participants’ attributional tendencies and learned helplessness behaviour was seemed as an associated
component of attributional orientations of the participants.
Human beings are inherently motivated to make sense of the
occurrences. Accordingly, Weiner (1985, 2010) accounted for
why and how individuals tend to attribute the reasons of the
occurrences to different causes. In order to explain that type
of human behaviour’s nature and complexity, Weiner (1992)
theorized Attribution Theory (AT) and AT has been conceived
as a motivational construct acclaiming individuals’ causal
attributions for perceived causes of events may be influenced,
for instance, their prior experiences, social circumstances and
cultural norms (Weiner, 1985, 2010). Indeed, as Pintrich and
Schunk (2002) proposed, AT evaluates individuals as naive
scientists who have efforts to analyse their environments in
general, and comprehend their own actions and behaviours of
others in particular. The current study was undertaken by taking
fundamental assumptions of AT into account particularly in
terms of academic success and failure.
Weiner (1985) identified five qualitatively distinctive, but interrelated,
components to elaborate the attribution model. These
components are interacting in nature (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002;
Weiner 1986, 2000) and categorized as antecedent conditions;
perceived causes of events, causal dimensions, psychological
consequences, behavioural consequences (Pintrich & Schunk,
2002). The current study deals with perceived causes of events
and causal dimensions of individuals’ attributional tendencies
regarding their academic successes and failures. To advocate,
AT is a cognitive theory of motivation and has utility value in
educational settings in uncovering learners’ attributional reasoning
concerning their school successes or failures (Pintrich &
Schunk, 2002; Weiner 1986, 2000).
Weiner (1985, 2010) differentiated individuals’ attributions
through constructing three dimensions as locus of control, controllability,
and stability (see also Table 1). The locus of control
dimension signifies for one’s judgment’s internality or externality
(Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). For instance, on one hand, an
individual may attribute the school success to his or her ability
or efforts that may be internally regulated and adjusted. On the
other hand, one perceives other causes of the same success
such as task difficulty, teacher’s assessment criteria, or grading
system of evaluators or luckiness. These instances confirm the
external aspects of the individual-led success attributions. One
of the second properties of causal dimensions, the stability,
signifies whether the attribution is stated as permanently or
temporarily. In instructional settings, for instance, academic
ability and instructional contexts might be perceived as stable factors whereas academic efforts, chances or luckiness can be
changeable over time.
As a third property of causal dimensions, as Pintrich and
Schunk (2002) and Weiner (1986) explicated, controllability
implies that occurrences may have causes either controllable
(i.e., one’s effort to perform a task) or uncontrollable, (i.e., task
difficulty, luck, context, teacher effect).
Furthermore, Weiner (1985, 2010) elaborated AT by certifying
some other common attributions that were differentiated from
the aforementioned three facets of causal dimensions. The
quadrant of Weiner’s model alludes that perceived causes of
events may also incorporate both academically-oriented and
general attributions such as ability, effort, luck, task difficulty,
teacher, mood, health, fatigue, etc. In the current study, ability,
effort, luck and some contextual determinants were explored
as the perceived causes of events.
Theoretical Underpinnings and Justification of the Study
In the related literature, there have been various studies certifying
AT’s methodological and theoretical instrumentality in
diverse instructional contexts:
• Studies on the linkage between academic achievement and
learners’ attributions (e.g., Nathawat, Sighn & Sighn, 1997;
Cao & Bishop, 2001; Drew & Watkins, 1998; Swinton, Kurtz-
Costes & Rowley, 2011),
• Investigations on the linkage between gender and academic
attributions (e.g., Chedzoy & Burden, 2007; Hui, 2000;
Hyde, 2005; Lloyd, Walsh & Yailagh, 2005),
• Influences of the age differences on academic attributions
(e.g., Flammer & Schmid, 2003; Folmer, et al., 2008;),
• Studies on classroom management and teachers’ attributions
for students’ maladaptive behaviours or students’
attributions for their teachers’ pedagogical actions (Lambert
& Miller, 2010; Poulou & Norwich, 2000; McPherson &
Young, 2004; Kee-Tony, 2003),
• Explorations on academic cheating attributions of students
(Murdock, Beauchamp & Hinton, 2008), academic motivation
of pupils and their attributional reasoning (Graham,
• Studies on the linkage between self-regulation and attributional
beliefs (Masui & De Corte, 2005),
• Examinations on the influences of the attributional retraining
programmes on the students’ and teachers’ attributions
(Hall et al., 2004; Chan & Moore, 2006),
• Inquiries on the attributional reasoning in terms of cultural
diversity (Kivilu & Rogers, 1998; Wolleat et al., 1980).
These studies confirmed the fact that learners’ attributions
may be overly externally-oriented with a pessimistic orientation
particularly for their academic successes and failures.
However, when a learner’s attributions are readjusted in the
line with internally-oriented factors (i.e., self-effort), further
decisions and accompanied actions may considerably be
turned into optimistic tendencies.
For academic attributions, externally-oriented ones may be
related with “learned helplessness” behaviour whereas effort
attributions may be associated with “persisting” in performing
a task and boosting the further efforts of a person in attaining
the given tasks (Cheung, 2000; Swinton, Kurtz-Costes &
Rowley, 2011). This also implies an interaction between the
academic achievement attributions and accompanied actions.
When academic attributions are pervasively externally-oriented,
more pessimist scenarios may be drawn upon by learners.
For an instance sequence, once a learner failed a task; she may
think that it might be due to the difficulty of the task. Then, she
would be liable to renounce boosting future efforts to achieve
the given task. Presumably, she would be unsuccessful, since;
prejudicially she assumes that she would be unsuccessful in
As a consequence of the aforesaid chain, she would be pleased
by “self-serving bias” (Albaili, 1998; Mezulis et al., 2004; Miller
& Ross, 1975). Self-serving bias is a cyclical motivational process
regarding attributional reasoning: once the failure comes,
then, external attributions are proliferated; and the person
estimates her future failures and causing actions for the failure,
ultimately, she ensures her future failure by her deliberate
ill-structured actions (Arkin, Appelman & Burger, 1980; Blaine
& Crocker, 1993; Campbell & Sedikides, 1999; Kudo & Numazaki,
2003; Mezulis et al., 2004). As a whole, self-serving bias
is substantially associated to the locus of control dimension
(Mezulis et al., 2004; Miller & Ross, 1975).
Attribution theory has also been expositional regarding
“learned helplessness” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”
behaviours (Merton, 1948; Wineberg, 1987). Moreover, these
actions are more of an issue of uncontrollable and stable attributional
typologies (Chan & Moore, 2006; Paris & Paris, 2001;
Zimmerman, 2000). When learners make uncontrollable (i.e.,
difficulty of exam questions) and stable (i.e., teacher’s assessment
criteria) attributions to their successes and failures,
instead of more controllable (i.e., effort, ability) and unstable
ones (chance, luckiness), it becomes more drastic to cope
with learned helplessness cases (e.g., Chan & Moore, 2006;
Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993; Seligman, 1975). Learned
helplessness may also cause less future motivation to handle
a work or boost effort to achieve a given task (e.g., Obach,
2003; Zimmerman, 2000). To explain, a learner may learn
being unsuccessful; ultimately, this process may be inextricable
as she had lost whole controlling, monitoring and regulating
mechanisms of the occurrences (Seligman, 1974, 1975; Sellers
& Peterson, 1993). With this hopeless projection, s/he defines the situation as authentic (even though it is only fiction); they
would be a concrete reality in the sense their consequences
confirming self-serving bias.
Apart from abovementioned studies, graduate learners’ attributions’
nature and complexity were explored in their naturalistic
setting in the current study regarding two AT quadrants:
perceived causes of events (i.e., attributions for effort1, ability2,
chance3 and two contextual factors4 as in the form of complexity
of coursesa and simplicity of assessment and evaluation
approaches) and causal dimensions (i.e., locus of control1,
stability2 and controllability3). To justify, even though there are
several studies researching into cultural and social influences
on the failure and success attributions of individuals, only a
few studies explored how graduate learners’ attributions are
inherently associated with their experiences on the academic
achievements or failures (e.g., Cheung, 2000; McClure et al.,
2011; Perry, Hall & Ruthig, 2007; Perry et al., 1993; Pintrich &
Moreover, quantitatively-oriented studies have dominated the
current research’s methodology and this research tenet may
not ensure to depicture the in-depth aspects of motivational
constructs such as attributions (Chesebro & Borisoff, 2007).
In other words, for numerous studies which are conducted
in the line with quantitative approaches, only self-reported
questionnaires were easily administered to reveal attributions
in a more generic style as a limitation of these studies (Chan
& More, 2006; Drew & Watkins, 1998). In the current study,
it was aimed at drawing out a holistic portray of the graduate
students’ academic attributions regarding perceived causes of
events and causal dimensions through a fine-grained qualitative
analysis. The research questions of the study are that;
1) In what ways and to what aspects graduate learners represented
their attributions regarding perceived causes of
their academic successes and failures?
2) Which causal dimensions were more prominent in estimating
the graduate learners’ attributions to their academic
successes and failures?
By conducting convenience typology of sampling (Miles &
Huberman, 1994) the participants of the study were selected
as two graduate students, with pseudonyms as Roger
(26 years old, male) and Wendy (24 years old, female). The
participants have been in the process of gaining their master
degrees recently. They have been enrolled in a well-known
state university’s faculty of education in Turkey, within the
bounds of the capital city. Wendy has been at the department
of Computer Education and Instructional Technology whereas
Roger has been enrolled in Elementary Science Education.
They have been planning to be major researchers (PhD) in
their departments. In detail, Wendy has studied on computer-
supported collaborative problem solving, human-computer
interaction, usability and eye-tracking those are considered as
special topics in her field, whereas Roger has conducted his techstudies
regarding planned behaviour theory. The participants
have been perceived as pretty successful students by their
classmates and scholars, as they had been ranked in the first
orders by being accepted for the postgraduate program of the
A basic qualitative approach was used to capture how the
participants have experienced the reasons of the occurrences
that are related with their academic successes and failures for
undertaken courses during higher education. This was truly
possible by virtue of a basic qualitative approach in which “the
overall purpose is to understand how people make sense of
their lives and their experiences” (Merriam 1998: 23). Once
the participants explicated the self-reflections on their attributions
and attributional biases that are thought to be bounded
to perceived causes of events (i.e., attributions for effort, ability,
chance and contextual factors) and causal dimensions (i.e.,
locus of control, controllability, stability), for the authors, it
was plausible to re-classify them to collapse into higher-order
categories or categories of participant-led descriptions (Merriam,
1998). A basic qualitative research therefore allowed
the researchers to make a recurrent comparison across the
emerged themes that were derived only from the clarifications
of the participants. To advocate, this research approach was
generally utilized by researchers to clarify recurrent patterns of
themes or categories, which explore or understand a phenomenon
or a process not to focus on culture or build a substantive
theory as achieved in theory ground studies (Merriam, 1998).
Data Collection Processes
The data were gathered through semi-structured interviews.
An in-depth interview was conducted by the authors in the
university office as a mutual meeting location. Prior to data
collection, the interview protocol was designed, based on the
authors’ research purposes addressed by the research questions
of the current study, by taking the existing theoretical
frames into account (Lefcourt et al., 1979; Pintrich & Schunk,
2002; Weiner, 1985, 1986, 2000, 2010; Hamilton & Akhter,
2002;). The interview protocol incorporates five interrelated a
priori categories of academic attributions (i.e., four categories
for perceived causes of events: effort, ability, chance, contextual
factors, and one category for achievement perceptions).
Put it differently, the interview protocol was included five
sets of questions: (i)achievement conceptualizations, (ii)effort
attributions, (iii)ability attributions, (iv)chance attributions, (v)
contextual factors attributions.
The interview protocol incorporated 10 main questions, as two
main questions for each component, and 21 probing-prompting
subordinate questions to enlarge the responses of the participants.
The protocol was externally audited by two experts
who have specializations in the field of (educational) psychology
prior to administration. A pilot data was gathered to ensure
whether the questions were sufficiently serviceable.
The pilot data were collected from seven graduates. First, 11
external participants were invited to contribute to a study on the graduate students’ attributional typologies. Seven of the
11 external participants welcomed the invitation and by virtue
of 60-75 minutes interviewing processes, they contributed to
the development of the finalised structure, format and questioning
flow of the interview protocol. In other words, following
the pilot study, the questions were reorganized based on
the gained experiences from the aforesaid first-trial processes.
The authors got in contact with the participants to initiate data
collection procedures. Whole interviews were conducted in a
silent and non-distracting environment and the conversational
exchanges between the interviewer and interviewee were
recorded through an audiotape by stating the presence of
voice recording overtly to the participants (Fontana & Frey,
2000; Silverman, 1993). Interviews were maintained in 120-
150 minutes, respectively. The purpose of the study and the
authors’ intentions were explicitly and sincerely explained to
the participants. There were no attempts to judge or evaluate
the participants’ responses. The control of the conversation
had been changed from the interviewer to the interviewee,
or vice versa. The authors were therefore of the idea that the
participants were encouraged to talk freely and completely
externalized themselves about their academic attributions
that supplied considerably ample data that might remedy the
lack of additional data sources for a naturalistic inquiry (Patton,
Data analysis was based on the following procedures. Voice-recorded
conversations were verbatim transcribed and the
accuracy of transcriptions was checked for analysis. First, the
participants’ academic attributions were sought within the
previously sectionalized perceived causes of events. Secondly,
within each perceived causes of events (attributions for the
categories as effort, ability, chance and contextual factors), the
participants’ academic attributions were detected by means of
inductive method in order to extract the indicators of the each
dimension (Patton, 1980).
The authors re-read the transcripts separately to construct
a flexible coding list and labelled codes were collapsed into
previously defined categories. Through the many rounds of
rigorous negotiations of the abstracted codes and categories,
iterative modifications of the raw categories were attained.
To note, despite the fact that the authors’ vision was rigidly
framed with the model of attribution, they sincerely intended
to seek the model’s aspects in the participants’ utterances,
instead of restricting themselves with predetermined hypothetical
arguments. In other words, the category-characterizing
elements (presented later within Results section) that were
found through analyzing the participants’ attributions were
neither hypothesized in advance nor derived from the solid
related literature. To put it differently, analysis of the participants’
perceived causes of events for academic success were
analysed in a both data-driven and theory-laden sense.
Trustworthiness of the Study
Even though the gathered data was restricted, other techniques were incorporated in order to meet the standards of
validity for the current naturalistic inquiry. First, the authors
negotiated the ongoing investigation with their expert
colleagues during establishing the interview protocol and
maintaining data analysis. These interactions with colleagues
served as peer debriefing (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Secondly,
a member check was conducted with the informants as participants
through informal conversations by emails to revalidate
the established codes and themes. These cautions were taken
for the validity of the current inquiry.
For reliability, during the data analysis processes, as a result of
many rounds of negotiations concerning the tentative coding
list and categories, iterative revisions of the raw categories
were achieved and continuously modified. For the first rounds
of coding, the inter-coder reliability was lower (78%; relatively).
However, the authors found out the ways of attaining a more
acknowledgeable inter-coder reliability level (calculated as
87%) by means of rigorous negotiations of mutually exclusive
codes or themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Through a fine-grained analysis of the participants’ attributions
to their successes and failures, 27 attributional themes were
abstracted. The extracted attributional themes were presented
as the most featured statement(s) of the participants. The most
featured statements were extracted once the analytical codes
were saturated (Glaser, 1978; Strauss, 1987). About 13 (48%,
respectively) of 27 themes were devoted to Wendy whereas
about 14 themes (52%, respectively) were derived for Roger’s
attributions. For achievement perceptions five (18.5%, respectively)
attributional themes were composed: ability (n=5;
18.5%, respectively), effort (n=6; 22%, respectively), chance
(n=4; 14.8%, respectively) and contextual factors attributions
(n=7; 26%, respectively).
Two important aspects were emerged in Wendy’s statements
(Figure 1). She has been of the idea that one’s achievement
depends upon her ability in putting the theory into the practice. In other words, according to Wendy, success infers
genuine practical applications of the acquired knowledge as a
“Operating theory to different contexts… Rather than having a
better grade… Of course getting good grades is a simple issue
as well, therefore there is no need to be successful to get better
grades, and achievement is only, up to me, treatment of newly
acquired knowledge and facts to different fields.” (Wendy, 119).
Moreover, Wendy has perceived the achievement as a lifelong
process. She has judged herself as a novice for her occupation
(researcher in a university) and felt herself at the beginning of
the profession. She has considered the achievement as a continuous
entity as she has not been looking for an ultimate end.
Roger draws out a different portray of achievement, however.
Initially, he indicates that there has been a “before and after”
dichotomy for her regarding her achievement experiences.
According to Roger, success simply denotes outperforming
others and getting better grades when he was an undergraduate.
This perception is seemed to be substantially associated
with “social comparison” concept (Mitchell & Schmidt, 2014).
“In my opinion, achievement…Up to senior year, in my opinion,
achievement was outperforming others and attaining better
grades among others.” (Roger, 118).
“In conclusion, you are in an array of examination processes, I
mean evaluation processes among other people, you are located
in a competitive class and you know nobody desires to be
stupid among others.” (Roger, 96).
After completing his under graduation, however, he had a
completely different understanding regarding achievement as
in the sense of “gaining mastery experiences”. As understood
from the clarifications of Roger, he had a “failure-avoidance”
orientation towards success (Bandura, 1977, 1988). He storied
that he has been taking his master degree and his evaluation
criterions have been mostly based upon the performance
assignments instead of prescriptively structured traditional
examinations. He therefore has supposed achievement as abilspecializing
in the field instead of getting better grades for
outperforming others (see also Figure 1). To interpret, when
meaning of grades are shifted in Roger’s mind (when evaluation
processes are based on evaluating his true performance
instead of measuring his knowledge acquisition by conducting
conventional methods) he might alter his perceptions concerning
achievement or success. As a final note, Roger perceived
the achievement as an organic process by emphasizing on
lifelong learning similar to Wendy.
According to Wendy’s experiences, her achievements have
been considerably based upon the externally-regulated factors.
To explain, for her, there is a partial dependence on academic
ability, since; she attaches more attention to the social interactions
in her work setting (see Figure 2). Wendy has considerably
valued external factors, particularly, social interactions,
compare to internal factors such as personal abilities. Put it
differently, Wendy elucidated the value of warmth and civility
for personal relations to be successful in her work setting. In
other words, she is in need of making positive and scaffolding
social relations with others
“My actual achievements do not depend on only my academic
ability, even though my academic ability is superior, performing
a task perfectly does not depend on only me, environmental
factors are also effective. For instance, other people who work
in my working area, my social relations and interactions with
these people… Up to me these are more effective than my academic
ability.” (Wendy, 415).
“…All these influenced me negatively… And when I interrogated
myself whether I am incapable in performing the task,
I said to myself -No, substantially! - Even I could overcome the
required tasks, I only needed more time and just sympathy.”
To support her idea, Wendy storied an experience. In her
senior year, due to Wendy’s cooperative group’s co-advisor’s prejudices, she was notably academically demotivated in the
presence of the detrimental effects of the social happenings. In
that time, Wendy decided to interrogate her academic ability
and she pondered to define the determinants as the reasons
of her lower motivation to success; in turn, she attributed
that lowered motivation to the negative social occurrences.
Presumably, Wendy may drastically be affected from extrinsic
factors such as negative/positive social occurrences. To justify,
intra-group interactions, non-democratic and insincere relations
leaded Wendy to interrogate her academic ability even
though she has been successful persisting in demonstrating
For Roger’s case, there were differences regarding ability
attributions compared to Wendy’s clarifications. For instance,
Roger attributed getting into a well-known university to his
academic ability. He compared his university’s reputation to
other universities and concluded that this achievement should
be explicitly associated with his academic ability. However,
Roger also mentioned that getting into a university was only a
beginning, but not an ultimate goal. He therefore has believed
that he has been at the bottom of the ladder.
“I mean, entering the X University (his special labelling) leaded
me think that I have pretty much ability…You entered the X University,
I mean the X University has not been an ordinary one in
Turkey, thus, you feel yourself academically better, sometimes
the best, among others.” (Roger, 223).
“…After this failure, I interrogated myself regarding why I
couldn’t pass the exam, at the end of that process I came to a
conclusion that it was just due to inadequate study, thus I had
a break during one year to study hard, and one year later once
again I took the exam and I succeeded.” (Roger, 397).
Roger maintained by a different experience obtained from his
academic preparations for getting into a better university. He
talked about an acute failure for the first trialling in getting
into the university. Expectedly, he criticised his academic ability regarding why he could not get the sufficient grade from
the nationwide exam. He decided to attribute this failure to
his insufficient academic effort instead of available ability. In
addition to effort attributions, Roger also attributed the aforesaid
failure to the some external factors by taking the previous
achievement experiences of him (his educational and personal
academic background during secondary school years) into
account, and she attributed the failure to test anxiety and to
some other externally-oriented tacit contextual factors.
The first attribution of Wendy to her efforts was the familiarity
of the assigned tasks or performances. Wendy attributed such
a manner that she may not be in need of struggling for in the
case of the familiarity or proficiency of the contents or contexts
of the assigned tasks or performances. Wendy has been liable
to be an internally-oriented attributor in the presence of the
familiarity of required tasks; since, the practical and theoretical
algorithms to accomplish given tasks have already known and
acquired (see Figure 3).
“I cannot say I really expended more energy in a small scale
project with kids, because these were not heavy works, but, I
believe that I conducted that project in desired way with the
aid of my certain prior knowledge and previous experiences,
and in the final I gave very positive reactions to my students
who were participated in the project.” (Wendy, 528).
“I was puzzled at the beginning, I mean in this new field there
have been many of things to deal with, I mean it is a new side
of my profession, in these processes I read too many articles in
order to set my design, and when I looked at the back, it was
not very compelling and challenging, but in these processes
because of lack of prior knowledge and experiences, I expended unbelievable effort to complete it in a desired way.” (Wendy,
In the case of the invisibility of the required performances,
Wendy may tend to make attributions to external entities. Put
it differently, when the personal practicability or attainability of
the required task is reduced through an array of unfamiliar procedures,
she may tend to avoid making internal attributions. To
explain, Wendy may automate recognised strategies and skills
for the required tasks (Seweller, 1988). However, she may not
desire to use up enlarged intellectual energy to transfer previously
learned strategies to non-familiar contexts or create new
skills to cope with new conflictions embedded in the recently
requested performances. As a plausible inference, Wendy, in
all likelihood, may hold a performance-based goal orientation
and failure-avoidance posture (Ames & Jennifer, 1988;
Ames, 1992) regarding effort attributions. In this sense, newly
required tasks should be moderately challenging that leads
Wendy to persist in extending more effort to attain the task.
Furthermore, once again Wendy expressed the instrumentality
of the social exchanges as the most illuminating reason of making
lesser effort for a novel or known required task.
Roger had distinctive articulations regarding the effort attributions
compare to Wendy. Roger articulated that he began to
interrogate himself in order to explicate the possible reasons
of the failure; after getting a low grade from the physics course.
At first, he compared himself with others in an academic sense,
while he was coming into the actions, and finally he took some
academic precautions (see also Figure 3).
“Because, if the other students got higher marks than me in
physics, why I could not achieve at the same level?’ Because, in
conclusion, that man has been enrolled the University, and also I too have been enrolled in the same University, so, what is my
deficiency, is there a problem with me?” (Roger, 218).
“I said to myself, you can make this better than you did, therefore
I took the lecture for a second time and my previous mark
was DD (a lower grade), then I got a BB (a higher grade) in the
same physics course.” (Roger, 245).
“I did not make an effort, seriously I did not make any effort,
for instance I did not follow the lecture at the least, I parried
and parried by convincing myself –I will do it later on, later
on…-, I was not making effort, not reviewing related literature,
and at the final, I tried to complete whole term tasks in only a
few weeks, thus I had no a high expectancy, at the least I was
expecting a BB, but I was graded as CC… In conclusion, I did
not do many of the requirements of the lecture, it was not the
lecture, it was me…” (Roger, 445).
After the initial social comparison and corrective self-feedback,
Roger comprehended that the failure he confronted might be
due to lower effort. Beyond, Roger tended to attribute his failures
or successes to not only ability-based determinants, but
also he has an ability plus effort attribution style (see Figure 3).
Roger monitored himself to explicate why he could not achieve
the course for the first time. According to Roger, his failure was
exactly due to his very low effort. However, he was meta-cognitively
aware of the determinants of the failure. He admitted
that he had not concentrated on the lecture; as he had been
in a decision-making process as he tried to determine the topic
of his thesis research. Additively, in the presence of heavy
assignments of the lecture (projects, presentations), obviously,
he was cognitively overloaded, and expectedly had failed.
It should be noted that the participants perceived the chance
as a marginalized aspect of their attributions and as the very
last determinant of their academic successes or failures. For
instance, for Wendy’s case, chance is the endmost explanation
for her successes or failures in the presence of other more concrete determinants (ability, effort). To support, Wendy had
limited memories during her educational life in attributing to
the chance for explicating the authentic reasons of her failures
or successes (Figure 4).
“I mean, if you enter an exam without any further studying
process, there may be a chance factor if you turn the wheel
and you may succeed it, but, I am sure that it is a very extreme
case.” (Wendy, 818).
“Other things are greatly effective on my motivation, as I mentioned
earlier, a silly statement of my lecturers’ or advisors’, a
very small event that demoralizes me is enough to disengage
me in tasks. This…yes might be a -good chance or bad luck- for
me.” (Wendy, 412).
Wendy, once again, attached importance to the social-motivational
determinants in representing her attributions. Her
increasing or decreasing motivation was an indicative determinant
regarding her academic attributions. Wendy mentioned
that there may be external circumstances which may alter
her motivational mood(s). Moreover, Wendy evaluated negative
and deviant social interactions as the main sources of
her decreasing motivation, in turn, diminishing motivational
mood influenced her effort attempts to achieve the required
performances adversely. Chance was an aspect of Wendy’s
attributions, however, in the sense of exposing demotivating
Roger had similar ideas to Wendy in attributing failures and
successes for a task to chance determinants by some differences
(Figure 4). He conceived the influence of the evaluators as a
chance factor in getting higher or lower grades. He uttered that
if he studied sufficiently and prepared himself well for an exam,
he never attributed his failures or successes to the chance factors.
To advocate, he talked about a course (thermodynamics)
which he took during his under graduation and when he had
difficulties in tackling with the laws of the thermodynamics, he
had demonstrated a learned helplessness behaviour (Henry,
2005; Seligman, 1975).
“Because, ultimately, exams are designed to evaluate something
that you hold in your mind. OK, you had studied hard,
even very hard, but, the evaluator can pose questions from
very extreme points of content, that’s the chance, but if I had
studied hard, I, generally speaking, never think of chance to
pass or fail in an exam.” (Roger, 546).
“I obviously say to myself, thermodynamics are over my head,
because you make an effort up to a certain point, when you
do not progress in learning, you do strain and there is high
tension, at the least I think that I have the ability to understand
thermodynamics up to a certain level, but not more than that
level, then I consider how much I learn if I make more support,
perhaps I will understand a little bit more, but I cannot exceed
that certain comprehension level in terms of apprehending
thermodynamics.” (Roger, 418).
To explain, even though Roger was formerly evaluated an
attributor for mostly efforts regarding academic achievement,
in specific cases, he may tend to attribute failures to his constrained
ability. Roger tended to attribute failures and successes
to his efforts in a general sense, however, in a case, such as
a failure in a course (thermodynamics). Roger also tended to
attribute the failure to the lack of ability and considers content
difficulty (external attribution) as a reason of the failure. Presumably,
he evaluated his initial efforts as frustrating because
of learned helplessness behaviour (Henry, 2005; Seligman,
Contextual Factors Attributions
First, for Wendy, it was noticeable that she rarely got grades
due to the abundant grading approaches of the evaluators/
lecturers (see also Figure 5). Wendy presented a comparison
of the two university-led instances for advocating her attribution.
In Wendy’s former university, she was required to design
project reports that were evaluated in a mundane, even with
a picky manner, however in her latter university; her lecturers
assigned them to design more sophisticated reports.
“You know there are some lecturers who do not spare to students
in grading them, they, generally speaking, do not desire
to mark somebody down, therefore because of these types of
lecturers, I got better marks although I did not deserve to get
that higher mark.” (Wendy, 818).
“The evaluators divide the task into small pieces, I mean that
phase is 2 points, that point is 5 points etc., then s/he searches
in every nook and cranny within the frame of rubric.” (Wendy,
Moreover, Wendy was aware in which ways they have been
graded, and she believed that scholars in her current university
have administered more analytically developed tools to evaluate
a learner’s performance in a more detailed sense. Thus,
in the sense of being informed about the concrete criterions,
Wendy was liable to make true efforts to achieve the required
performance in a desired sense, since; she held more control
on the assigned works.
For that matter, even though Wendy attributed her successes
to her true efforts, the nature and structure of the assessment styles provided by the scholars may have an influence on the
amounts of given effort on the part of Wendy and could shift
her attributions to effort. Additionally, according to Wendy,
when course-related assignments are moderately challenging,
this forms a propelling motivation to study hard to complete by
getting better grades. However, if course-related assignments
are not cognitively challenging, Wendy underestimated the
assigned performances although she had been scored by lower
grades. Therefore, moderately challenging course-related
assignments leaded Wendy to attribute her successes to the
given effort instead of content of the assignment as a contextual
determinant of one’s academic attributions.
“In my first university year, I took a course namely ‘Turkish Language
Learning’, and if you ask me how much I made an effort
to pass it, there is no need to discuss it, and I got higher marks
in third year’s lecture, but in terms of Turkish my mark was 70,
you know an average one.” (Wendy, 146)
Roger discerned evaluators’ grading approaches as a partial
indicator of his failure or success. According to Roger, self-enhancement
should attach more importance compared to evaluators’
straightforward and prescriptive evaluative criterions.
Moreover, making an effort should be the major determinant
in explaining his successes and failures instead of evaluators’
solid assessments. To justify, Roger monitored his learning and
made an individual meta-assessment of his self-progression in
mastering on a specific task (see Figure 5).
“I am a postgraduate student. I understand something more
profoundly. I believe that assessing my performance through
evaluators’ assessments and judgments are believable only to
a certain extent, but not much! Making effort for the self-progress
is more significant and a sufficient criterion for me. Recently,
there is no regard of marks anymore. Instead, I am monitoring
myself by considering how much I learned the subject!
Of course, examinations and scales administered by evaluators
reflect my learning progress to some extent; I am not denying
that point… But it is not evaluative and indicative to conduct a
classical exam only by considering a 600-page book’s content
and posing questions based on this book that are not by any
stretch of the imagination. My performance cannot be evaluated
through administering a classical exam.” (Roger, 544).
Furthermore, he was strikingly influenced the decisiveness of
grades in attributing his failures and successes to other determinants.
As Roger expressed, if the importance of the grades
was up to some extent in determining one’s failures or successes,
and if Roger’s performances are evaluated in multiple ways
instead of administering only solid paper-and-pencil exams, he
was apt to attribute his successes or failures to effort through
self-monitoring and self-judging processes. On the other hand,
if the exams, tests, or grades are centralized, he was liable to
attribute the faced failures and successes to his ability or earlier
mentioned externally-oriented contextual factors.
DISCUSSION and EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS
An in-depth examination of the participants’ attributions to
their academic attributions pointed a number of facts. First, particularly
for Wendy’s cases, it was confirmed that social
relations and interactions may play a major role in modifying
one’s attributions. Wendy frequently emphasized how her
social-academic settings have influenced her attributions that
were mostly externally-oriented.
To our knowledge, external determinants are mostly associated
with uncontrollable and stable attributions (Weiner, 1985).
This argument is not completely valid for Wendy’s cases, however.
To explain, people are liable to consider, for instance, task
difficulty for their failures as an external determinant (Weiner,
2005, 2006). Conversely, people may also conceive their families,
friends or peers as persons who may contribute to the
occurrences’ positive consequences, in turn, more internally-
oriented attributions that are qualified as mostly controllable
and unstable can be emerged (e.g., Liu, et al., 2009; Ng, et
al., 1995). Social determinants therefore can function contrary
to task difficulty even though these are clarified as external
In the current study’s context, there were mixed findings for
the cases of Wendy. For Wendy, externally-oriented social-contextual
determinants serviced as similar to the task difficulty
by lowering her motivation in making an effort to attain a task,
or vice versa. To justify, she had suffered from disturbing social
determinants (undemocratic, insincere social interactions)
whereas more warmth and civil social relations contributed
to the Wendy’s internally-oriented academic attributions. As
a whole, social happenings (better interpersonal relations) may alter social-interactive contexts in which a person may
drastically shift his or her academic attributions to the ability
(Weiner, 1994, 2000), at the least confirmed in this study.
Secondly, Roger generated different attributional tendencies
compared to Wendy, however. He mostly attributed his
successes and failures to effort. In other words, except a few
specific academic events, he was liable to attribute his achievements
to the effort instead of the academic ability. To illuminate,
individuals may have inherent dispositions to attribute
their successes mostly to effort, except a few single personal
achievements (Bong, 2004; Liu et al., 2009; Weiner, 1985).
However, Hsieh and Schallert (2008) indicated that the ability
may be the greatest estimator of the attributional style and
contributor to the one’s self-pride and self-efficacy. Roger’s
cases incorporated this dichotomy, since; there were variances
for his academic attributions. For Roger’s cases, effort-related
attributions were seemed to be the strongest predictor of his
future achievement orientations in addition to ability attributions.
To support, according to Kelley (1973), individuals may
hold causal schemas and make attributions by operating these
causal schemas when there is no sufficient information for the
reasons regarding the successes and failures.
The causal schemas are twofold: multiple-sufficient and multiple-
necessary. For Roger’s cases, he was seemed to operate his
multiple-necessary schemas implying both his personal efforts
and academic abilities were in action when he was attributing
to the causes of academic events (Weiner, 1992). Roger’s attributional style incorporated an adaptive strategy for his future
achievements. As Elliott (2005) suggested, people who make
attributions to their successes both in terms of effort (mastery-
oriented) in general, and ability (performance-oriented) in
particular, may adopt the most adaptive strategy in estimating
their achievements (Ames & Jennifer, 1988; Ames, 1992). As a
result, ability plus effort attributions may be more serviceable
in determining future decisions and actions of Roger as an
Another argument may also explain the specific case of Roger.
Ames and Felker (1979) proposed that if an individual holds
substantially greater competence for an academic subject and
when s/he faces with a failure, s/he may be liable to attribute
his or her failure to insufficient effort or task difficulty instead
of lack of ability. For Roger’s cases, in a course regarding thermodynamics,
he attributed his failure to his lower performance
and constrained academic abilities. Consequently, in the presence
of control dimension (controllability-uncontrollability)
Roger derived learned helplessness behaviour, since; initially,
he was of the idea that he could not control his achievement
for the course regarding thermodynamics (Peterson, Maier &
Seligman, 1993; Weiner, 1986). In a responsive manner, Roger
generated a well-structured coping strategy for the learned
helplessness behaviour. According to Roger’s strategy, he was
seemed to overlap the motivational (provides information on
progress and competence; may include social comparison and
persuasion) and attributional (links student performance one
or more attributions) self-feedbacks (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
Thirdly, attributions of people may also be considered as idiosyncratic
that was valid for the participants of the current study.
To justify, there were a few common attributions of Wendy and
Roger regarding effort, ability, chance and contextual factors.
To illustrate, the qualitative data was collected independent
from any specific academic fields. The participants therefore
were allowed to represent their distinctive experiences. They
also provided topic-specific instances regarding their attributional
reasoning while explaining the perceived causes of the
events faced with.
Wendy gave specific examples from Human-Computer Collaboration,
Computers in Educational Technology whereas Roger
mentioned about the theoretical frameworks of Science and
Science Education. Conversely, there were also common attributions
about different aspects of perceived causes of events
for Wendy and Roger’s cases. For instance, the achievement
perceptions of Roger were seemed to be changeable in the
presence of the more controllable factors (knowing the assessment
styles of the evaluators) for her. For Roger, when external
factors (initially being stated assessment criterions, presenting
multiple assessment methods of evaluations of the tasks or
performances) were more manageable, this permitted Roger
to alter his externally-oriented attributions into internally-oriented
ones. This was also evidently valid for Wendy. Familiarity
of the assigned tasks was seemed to shift the direction of the
causal attributions Wendy declared from the externally-oriented
to internally-oriented attributions.
Moreover, moderately challenging assigned task contents
appeared to have more positive influences on the persons;
particularly when they make attributions to effort. Briefly, persons
may be liable to make more plausible estimations about
more known and recognized events, tasks, performances,
homework, and so forth (Weiner, 1985, 1992, 2000, 2005).
When people are more knowledgeable regarding the happenings
around them, it would be easier to take them in hand,
consequently; more controllable and unstable attribution tendencies
would be emerged in the presence(s) of more visible
or predictable occurrences (Weiner, 1986, 1994, 2006, 2010).
This specific argument of the AT confirmed in this study may
also be explained by another supporting theoretical model.
According the abnormal conditions attribution model of Hilton
and Slugoski (1986), people, most of the time, are liable to
ponder about the events when the outcome is unexpected. In
other words, if there is an unexpected outcome of an event,
people try to provide attributions to abnormal entities in order
to determine the perceived causes of events (Hilton & Slugoski,
1986). For example, for Wendy’s case, when she encountered
with a familiar situation which she has experienced the situation
repeatedly and regularly; by the help of automatized strategies,
she did not make an attribution to effort, even though
she made moderate effort to achieve it. To put it differently,
as a sequence, when she studies regularly for tasks and exams
good enough, expectedly, she achieves the exam or assigned
work and this outcome has not been in her mind as in the form
of expectations; as a result, there has been no abnormal situations
(studying hard, then failing exams or performing poorly).
As a whole, in the context of higher education, attributions of
persons may be socially-regulated: positive higher academic
contexts and sincerer interpersonal relations may have power
to change attributional typologies of the graduates, as shown
in this study. It can be asserted that even though being an academic
researcher is a solid and rigorous professional occupation
in the context of higher education, for more plausible and
healthy attributions, the scholars are also in need of humanistic
interrelations. Moreover, ability-related and effort-related
academic attributions work better together in the context of
higher education. Since; people have both internal and external
motivational needs and urges (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
In the context of higher education, future academics may not
be aware of their faulty or detrimental attributional typologies.
However, being informed about one’s attributional reasoning
may be drastically powerful in reviewing the perceived causes
of the events when s/he makes crucially important decisions.
Therefore, as a suggestion for higher education context, attributional
retraining programs may also be mutually impressive
for graduates to eliminate their fallacious attributional habits
for prompting them for being more optimistic and mentally
powerful persons (Hladkyj et al., 1998; Hunter & Perry, 1996;
Menec, Perry, Struthers, Schonwetter, Hechter, & Eichholz,
1994; Perry & Penner, 1990; Perry & Struthers, 1994; Ruthig
et al., 1996).
Finally, more controllable instructional contexts within higher
education may drastically influence graduates’ attributional
tendencies. Since; people in higher education are inherently
motivated to estimate the outcomes of events. As a social
agreement within the context of higher education, if graduates
are more being informed regarding, for instance, analytical
and holistic assessment criterions, they will be controlling their
decisions and accompanied actions. In other words, the more
information verifies, the more meaningful attributions there
Implications for Further Research
There may be featured recommendations for the further
research. First, this study can be considered as a prototype for
researching into the success attributions of the graduates. For
permitting external readers in making generalisations to their
own circumstances, different contexts, cases and groups in
which these types of attributions are made should be considered
and examined. Secondly, in addition to one-to-one interviewing,
other types of data collection tools can be effectively
conducted in augmenting the scope the arguments derived
in this study. Beyond, in addition to the qualitatively-oriented
studies, quantitatively-oriented explorations can also be carried
out, for instance, in order to find out how and to what
extent civil and social relations estimate the attributional
reasoning of the graduates in ensuring whether there may be
causal relations between aforesaid variables.
This study was conducted under the support and collaboration
of the Application and Research Centre of Higher Education
Studies (YUAM, Ýstanbul Aydýn University) and the authors are
grateful to Prof. Dr. Hamide ERTEPINAR for her sincere and
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