Attribution Theory and the Classroom

In this post, we will look at attribution theory from the perspective of the classroom. Attributing behavior to various causes is something that we all do. Therefore, for teachers, it is essential to understand how this can be useful and sometimes detrimental.

Attribution Defined

Students and teachers are motivated to understand what causes certain things to happen in the classroom and at school. This idea is known as the attribution process. For example, if a student is disruptive, a teacher will determine what is causing this behavior. They may conclude that it is due to inattention, another student, family problems at home, etc. If a student sees that another student is given an award over them, they may attribute this to perhaps their race, gender, etc., and decided that there is no hope in achieving the same reward themselves.

Attribution can also be divided into two categories, which are external and internal causes. An example of an internal cause may be that a student was a hard worker, and thus this is why they received an award. An external cause may be that the student was lucky in getting the award. There are many different ways in which people can attribute the behavior and things that happen around them.

Ways Attributions are Formed

According to research, teachers and students can attribute or explain their environment around them from at least three perspectives: consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. Consensus is how much a person’s behavior is in alignment with the group. 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. If the entire class were disruptive, the teacher would have to attribute the bad student’s behavior to something else.

Consistency is whether the behavior is normal for the student. If a student is usually well-behaved but suddenly is out of control, the teacher will probably attribute this to something external to the student. However, if the student is behaving normally, the teacher will probably attribute this to some internal cause. This also applies to the teacher. If the teacher’s behavior changes, the student may begin to investigate and ask questions. On the other hand, if the teacher behaves normally, the students may attribute this to the teacher’s character.

Distinctiveness is how varied a person’s behavior is as the situation changes. Low distinctiveness means the person’s behavior never changes, while high is the opposite. For example, some teachers are always calm, no matter what. Therefore, if they are excited suddenly, students will probably look for an external cause for this behavior change. In addition, some students are always difficult and disruptive. If a student is quiet and working one day, the teacher may become suspicious because of this behavior change.

Attribution Error

Making conclusions like this can naturally lead to mistakes. The error of discounting external causes and overly emphasizing internal causes is known as fundamental attribution error. As teachers, we often blame students rather than looking at our classroom management style when they are disruptive. In other words, people like to blame individuals rather than look at factors that led to the behavior.

Another attribution error is self-serving bias. Self-serving bias attributes success to one’s actions while blaming others for failure. For example, when students do well academically or behaviorally, a teacher will often take credit for this. However, when students are misbehaving, it is the students’ fault and not the teachers.


Attribution theory is one of many factors that can play a role in the classroom. Educators need to be aware of the mistakes we can make when trying to understand our students.

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