Providing Attributional Feedback (page 3)
There are a number of factors that can influence students’ attributions, but teacher feedback is crucial. The implications for success and failure conditions are somewhat different and further complicated by the possibility that students may not interpret the same objective event in the same way. For example, for some students, getting a B on a paper may be a success, given their past lower grades. In contrast, for other students, including many high achievers and college students, getting a B is a failure situation. Given the importance of students’ perceptions of events in attribution theory, it is suggested that teachers attempt to give accurate feedback to the students, rather than noncredible feedback designed to encourage them and maintain their self-esteem (Blumenfeld et al., 1982). In this sense, teachers will help students to make accurate attributions for their own behavior that, in the long run, will be more adaptive.
In failure situations, teachers should provide accurate feedback to students about the reasons for their failure. One suggestion is to attribute all failures to low effort and encourage students to make this low effort attribution. This often is good advice; it communicates to students that they can do better because effort is an unstable, internal, and controllable cause that students can change. However, there are occasions when students actually do try hard and still do poorly because they lack the skills or knowledge for the task. In these situations, students know they worked hard, and to be told by the teacher to keep trying harder can be frustrating and lead to a discounting of the teacher’s feedback. It would be more accurate to point out to students the skills or knowledge that they lack, communicate that skills and knowledge can be learned, and then teach these skills and knowledge.
For example, Mr. Herther is teaching reading to a second-grade class. Fernando is having some difficulty learning to recognize words and pronounce them correctly. Mr. Herther asks Fernando to come to his desk and read to him. As Fernando reads, he keeps making mistakes and says, “I can’t do this, it is too hard. I wish it was in Spanish. It would be easier for me, and then my parents could teach me.”
Mr. Herther responds, “Yes, it might be. It certainly is easier when your parents can help you, but you know you are still very young and you are just learning English. There are a lot of children in this room who are still learning English. The important thing is to keep trying and working at it. Every day I learn new words in English, too. It takes time. You can’t give up, but you can’t expect to know everything right away. If you keep trying and working with me, we can learn together. Learning takes hard work, but everyone can learn.”
In the same fashion, teachers should not attribute student success to effort unless the teacher is confident that the student did actually exert effort. If students do well on a task, it may not be due to effort, but rather to an easy task. If this is the case, it would be better for the teacher to recognize this and provide more challenging tasks to the students. Learners who are told they tried hard on an easy task may then infer they have low ability, or they may learn to discount teacher feedback given this type of inaccuracy. On the other hand, if the task was fairly difficult and students did try hard, attributions to effort and knowledge/skill are appropriate.
Another suggestion is that when students succeed, attribute their success to a stable cause. Mrs. Sugrue teaches fifth grade and her class is working on a science project. Kathy has just completed her project and shows it to Mrs. Sugrue.
“That is excellent, Kathy. You did a very nice job on this project and it shows a lot of work. How long did you work on it?”
“Well, not too long,” replies Kathy. “It only took me 2 days.”
“Really? That’s not long at all. You must have a talent for science.”
Here, Mrs. Sugrue responds to a successful performance by first determining the amount of effort put forth and then makes an ability attribution. If the student had worked hard, an attribution to stable effort (“You are always a hard worker”) would have been appropriate. This illustrates the importance of teacher attributions being accurate. Students will not believe teacher attributions that are not credible (e.g., praising students for hard work when they did not work hard at all). Although attributing success to a stable cause is important, it is more critical to make accurate and valid attributions.
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