Student success is a question of attitude

Teaching students to attribute their failures to factors within their control can lead to big gains, say Rodney Clifton, Gabor Csepregi and Masha Krylova

October 5, 2017
Lecture hall with students
Source: Getty

In Western Canada, many university students fail to graduate. In fact, figures suggest that between 20 and 30 per cent of students at many North American universities do not progress beyond their first year, and less than 60 per cent of those enrolled in three- and four-year degree programmes graduate within six years.

Canadian universities have often neglected this waste of talent and time because they receive block funding from provincial governments irrespective of how well students perform. In addition, there has been a never-ending supply of both domestic and foreign students to fill lecture halls and to supply a continuous stream of tuition fees.

However, there are academics contributing to the development of policies needed to change this situation. Specifically, the Emotion, Motivation, and Control Research Group (EMCOR) at the University of Manitoba has been examining the success of undergraduates for the past 30 years. Its concern has been to help students by using specifically designed cognitive interventions that enhance their academic achievement by restructuring their reasoning about the causes of their successes and failures.

This has resulted in higher test scores, increased grade point averages and shortened time to graduation. Within their first year, for example, students typically improve their final course grades by an average of 10 percentage points. And, remarkably, this improvement persists throughout their university careers.

How is this possible?

According to the well-grounded theory developed by psychologist Bernard Weiner at the University of California, Los Angeles, humans are preoccupied with asking “why”. What he calls “attributions” are the explanations that people give for their successes and failures. These result in a sense of competence (high or low) that, in turn, contributes to people’s motivation. And motivation, of course, is the driving force for setting and achieving goals, whatever they may be.

If, for instance, students fail a mathematics test because they believe that they lack ability, they will probably never feel good about studying maths – and, particularly, about taking maths exams. As a result, they will have little motivation to improve their maths skills, so will probably not study as diligently as they should.

According to Weiner, there are several ways that people can explain their failure. They can attribute failure to events that they either can or cannot control (the controllable/uncontrollable dimension); that either will or will not change (the stable/unstable dimension); and that stem from either inside or outside themselves (the internal/external dimension).

A perceived lack of ability is an attribution that is internal, stable and uncontrollable. Of course, students can attribute their failure to other causes, too; by complaining about the unfairness of life or blaming professors for giving difficult exams, students would then make uncontrollable and external attributions.

As it turns out, the key to long-term success is for students to attribute their failures to controllable, unstable and internal attributions: those that can be directly influenced by their behaviour. In the example of a failed maths test, such attributions may be bad note-taking, poor time management or insufficient effort.

Building on this theory, the EMCOR team has developed “attributional retraining” (AR) treatments. These advance students’ success by shifting the way that they think, replacing uncontrollable and unchangeable attributions, such as “bad luck” or “poor lectures”, with controllable and changeable attributions, such as “I didn’t study enough” or “I missed the lectures”. The change in attributions, not surprisingly, contributes to the students’ perceived competence, which boosts their motivation and helps them to do better.

Such programmes have been shown to consistently benefit thousands of first-year students. They take less than a one-class period – about one hour – but improve students’ GPAs and graduation rates for up to three years. Nor are students the only potential beneficiaries of such interventions: they have also been used to help athletes, the elderly and people with physical and psychological difficulties.

The potential of AR is truly immense. It offers universities across Canada – and, indeed, the rest of the world – the chance to improve their students’ scores – and, ultimately, their life chances – with a very small investment.

Rodney A. Clifton is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba and senior editor at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Gabor Csepregi is professor of philosophy at the Université de Saint-Boniface. Masha V. Krylova is a psychology honours student at the University of Manitoba.

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