An Attributional View of Student Outcomes: What Do Teachers Think?

By: Margaret D. Clark

Parents watch their child's progress through school with care and concern. When their child does well and has positive outcomes, such as good test scores or placement in a grade-level reading group, parents tend to be pleased and to expect more of the same. But when things go wrong: A test is failed, their child doesn't learn important information, or starts to fall behind in reading parents begin to ask "Why?" Similarly, when their child's outcome isn't what is expected: a sudden failure on a math quiz when a child has always done well, or a passed spelling test by a child who has always struggled, parents begin to question what has happened differently.

Likewise, both general education and special education teachers watch the children in their classes with similar interest and concern, and ask the same questions: Why did a child fail ? What happened to change a typical outcome? When monitoring the progress of children with learning disabilities, these teachers must often try to determine why a child fails, and to search for reasons why failures occur so they can plan instruction that will enhance a child's opportunities to be successful.

Attribution theory in the classroom

Attribution theory helps us understand how these thought processes occur, and how teachers can be expected to respond to children who fail. Teachers intuitively follow a sequence of thought that leads them to a conclusion about what causes a student's outcomes. Let's look at what happens when a student named Leo has a negative outcome:

Leo takes a social studies quiz and performs poorly, something that happens occasionally. Quickly and unconsciously, his teacher, Mrs. Smilie, begins a mental search of what she knows about the Leo as a student; how hard he typically tries, how bright he is, what his mood was the day of the quiz, what was different about the format of the quiz and so forth. She quickly arrives at a reason for his failure. Let's imagine Mrs. Smilie has intuitively decided Leo's outcome is the result of poor effort on his part; he simply didn't try very hard on the test. How will she respond?

Teachers respond to student outcomes on the basis of three characteristics common to all causes of academic outcomes: The origin of the cause (is it a child-based cause or one originating in the child's environment?), the permanence of the cause (will it persist over time or is it transitory?) and whether a child can control a cause. Controllability is particularly important because it helps a teacher establish whether a child is responsible for an outcome: Children whose outcomes are controllable are viewed as responsible for their outcomes, and visa versa. In Leo's case, we know effort is a child behavior (internal), Leo's effort is changeable from day to day (unstable), and under is his control (controllable). We can now expect specific thoughts, emotions, and behaviors on Mrs. Smilie's part. First, Mrs. Smilie will hold Leo responsible for the quiz result. Secondly, she will experience some anger in response to Leo's outcome.

Thirdly, she will punish him (or possibly withhold a reward), she will blame him rather than praise him, and may withhold help. Lastly, and very significantly, Leo will interpret Mrs. Smilie's responses in terms of his own capabilities as a student. In this case, Leo will view Mrs. Smilie's behavior as a clue that he can do better next time ("Mrs. Smilie is mad at me. She must think that if I try harder I can do better on my quiz next week"). We see a very different pattern of response when teachers feel an outcome is due to innate ability, which originates within the child, is far more stable, and uncontrollable. Teachers tend to feel pity for these children, will offer praise and help, and reward outcomes, despite failure. Children interpret this pattern very differently ("Mrs. Smilie gave me a sticker even though I failed but she's mad at Leo. She must think I'm pretty dumb"), resulting in a child's belief failure will continue.

A significant body of research has demonstrated that these patterns are common to most American teachers. In addition, some researchers contend this behavior among teachers is culturally universal, that is, that teachers will respond to students in this way regardless of their culture or nationality, whereas others question this supposition.

The questions

Prior attribution research has demonstrated that teachers most typically attribute academic outcomes to one of two causes: A students' innate ability (an internal, stable, and uncontrollable cause) and effort (an internal, unstable and controllable cause), but has not examined whether teachers think of disability as contributing to these outcomes. The first study presented here was designed to examine whether teachers also consider learning disability as a cause of outcomes, and if so, does their knowing a child has a learning disability alter the way they respond to failure among their children. The second study was designed to look at whether patterns identified in the first study were common to teachers of another nationality, in this case teachers in Guatemala.


In the first study, a group of general education teachers responded to a series of vignettes each of which described a boy who had just failed a test; four of the boys had learning disabilities. The teachers were asked to provide reward or punishment, rate how angry they felt and how much pity they felt, and to make a prediction about how likely the outcomes were to happen again. In the second study we repeated the first study in Guatemala, and compared the responses of the two groups of teachers.

Some findings discussed in the articles

The findings demonstrated two important points:

  1. among the American teachers, learning disability does alter the pattern of responses by teachers, with teachers more likely to avoid punishing the boys with learning disabilities and rating themselves as feeling less anger and more pity for the boys with learning disabilities; and
  2. the pattern among the Guatemalan teachers again took learning disability into account, but in different ways than their American counterparts.

There were also some interesting differences when boys' outcomes were attributed to effort versus innate ability. American teachers seemed to place more emphasis on effort as the most important cause of academic outcomes, whereas the Guatemalan teachers tended to place more emphasis on ability. In most cases, the patterns of responses differed between the boys with ill and the boys without ill, suggesting teachers do pay attention to ill as a cause of student outcomes.

Finally, we found ill alters the degree to which general educators expect children to fail on future task dramatically.


Results of the first study suggest teachers do pay attention to ill when they search for the causes of their students' outcomes. What is unclear is whether ill is viewed as a cause in and of itself, or whether it tempers teachers' responses to outcomes due to student ability or student effort. Also unclear are what characteristics LD as a cause of outcomes may have.

The results indicate general education teachers in both nations expect children with LD to fail to a much greater degree than those without LD. It appears that LD may be closely linked with failure by many general classroom teachers, and leads to some interesting suppositions about why general education teachers refer the students they do.

The results of the second study lead us to conclude that teachers' attributional patterns do vary by nationality, and possibly culture. It may be the difference in emphasis on effort versus ability by the two groups of teachers reflects cultural differences among the teachers regarding what student characteristics are most important for success. These findings are significant for major diverse, urban districts where teachers often come from diverse cultures, and merit further exploration.

Related articles by Margaret D. Clark

To read A Cross-National Study of Teachers' Attributional Patterns (2000) by Margaret D. Clark and Alfredo J. Artiles.

To read Teacher Response to Learning Disability: A Test of Attributional Principles (1997) by Margaret D. Clark.

Summary by Margaret D. Clark