ERIC Identifier: ED479353
Publication Date: 2003-09-00
Author: Schunk, Dale H
Source: ERIC Counseling and Student Services Clearinghouse
Try Harder? Motivational Effects of Effort Attributional
Feedback. ERIC Digest.
Much motivational research has examined the role of attributions, or
perceived causes of outcomes (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Attributions
are important because theory and research show that attributions have differential
effects on motivation (Weiner, 1992).
There are many different attributions; for example, ability, effort,
luck, strategy use, help from others, environmental conditions. Of
all attributions none has been studied more than effort. Effort is a commonly
used attribution and also highly valued by parents, teachers, counselors,
coaches, and employers (Schunk, 1982; Weiner, 1992).
This article addresses the effects of effort attributional feedback
on motivation and
performance. Effort attributional feedback is oral or written feedback
by others that links performance outcomes with effort (Schunk, 1983). By
understanding the role of effort attributional feedback, parents and practitioners
will be able to work with students and clients to help them develop beliefs
that facilitate motivation and performance.
THEORY AND RESEARCH EVIDENCE
Attributions were introduced to the psychological literature by Heider
(1958). Drawing on his work, Weiner (1979) formulated an attributional
model applicable to achievement contexts. In this scheme, attributions
are categorized along three dimensions: locus (internal or external to
the person), stability (relatively stable or unstable over time), and controllability
(largely controllable or uncontrollable by the person). Effort is internal,
unstable, and controllable, which is quite favorable for motivation. People
who succeed at a task and believe that they can continue to work hard are
likely to expect future success and be motivated to expend the effort.
People who do not work hard and perform poorly on a task are likely to
be motivated to continue if they believe that harder work will produce
Much research has examined whether providing people with effort attributional
feedback counteracts potentially dysfunctional attributions and enhances
motivation and performance. For example, people may perform poorly on a
task and believe they lack the ability to do well. We might expect that
providing them with feedback linking the outcome with effort (e.g., "You
didn't do well because you didn't work hard enough. Work harder and you'll
do better.") will negate potentially negative attributions and keep people
Early research on effort attributional feedback showed its predicted
(1975) identified children who had low expectations for success and
whose achievement behaviors deteriorated after they failed (e.g., low effort
Dweck gave children arithmetic problems to solve (some of which were
insolvable) to determine the extent of performance decline after failure.
Children mostly attributed their failures to low ability. During the training
sessions, children solved problems with a criterion number set for each
trial. For success-only children, the criterion was set at or below their
capabilities as determined by the pretest. A similar criterion applied
on most trials for attribution-retraining children, except on some trials
the criterion was set beyond their capabilities. When these children failed
they were told they did not try hard enough. On the posttest, success-only
children continued to show deterioration in performance following failure,
but attribution-retraining children showed less impairment.
Success-only children stressed low ability as the cause for failure,
whereas attribution-retraining children emphasized insufficient effort.
Other early investigations showed that teaching students to attribute failures
to low effort enhanced effort attributions, expectancies for success, and
achievement behaviors (Andrews & Debus, 1978; Chapin & Dyck, 1976).
Later research addressed the role of effort feedback for success. In
the context of
subtraction instruction, Schunk (1982) found that linking children's
prior achievements with effort by telling them "You've been working hard"
after they succeeded enhanced their task motivation, self-efficacy (perceived
competence), and skill acquisition better than linking their future achievement
with effort (e.g., telling them "You need to work hard") or not providing
effort feedback. For effort feedback to be effective, students must believe
that it is credible. Feedback is credible when students realistically have
to work hard to succeed, as in the early stages of learning.
Effort feedback may be especially useful for students with learning
problems. Schunk and Cox (1986) provided subtraction instruction and practice
opportunities to middle school students with learning disabilities. Some
students received effort feedback ("You've been working hard") during the
first half of a multi-session instructional program, others received it
during the second half, and learners in a third condition did not receive
effort feedback. Each type of feedback promoted self-efficacy, motivation,
and skill acquisition better than no feedback. Feedback during the first
half of the program enhanced students' effort attributions for successes.
Given students' learning disabilities, effort feedback for early or later
successes may have seemed credible.
Young children attribute successes to effort, but beginning around age
8 they start to
form a distinct conception of ability and continue to differentiate
the concepts to early adolescence (Nicholls & Miller, 1984). Ability
attributions become increasingly important, whereas the influence of effort
as a causal factor declines. During arithmetic instruction and practice,
Schunk (1983) found that providing children with ability feedback for prior
successes (e.g., "You're good at this") enhanced perceived competence and
skill better than providing effort feedback or ability and effort feedback
Children in the latter condition judged effort expenditure greater than
ability-only children, and apparently discounted some of the ability information
in favor of effort. In a follow-up study using a similar methodology, Schunk
(1984) found that ability feedback given when children succeeded early
in the course of learning enhanced achievement outcomes better than early
effort feedback regardless of whether the ability feedback was continued
or discontinued during the later stages of learning.
In summary, providing effort feedback to students in the early stages
of learning usually is beneficial because they have to work hard to succeed.
However, as skills develop less effort should be needed and thus it is
more desirable for motivation to provide other types of attributional feedback,
linking successes to students' skills, use of effective strategies, and
It should be emphasized that inappropriate effort feedback can demoralize
Students who succeed with little effort might become discouraged if
a teacher tells them they are working hard, because the students might
believe that the teacher does not think they are competent. Students who
work hard and still perform poorly also can be discouraged by effort feedback
because they might believe that no amount of effort will produce success.
These students do not need to be told to try harder. Instead, what they
need is more instruction on basic skills and task strategies.
Effort attributional feedback will motivate people when they view it
as credible (i.e., it matches their perceptions of the situation). Effort
attributional feedback will not motivate and may be demoralizing if not
credible to recipients. To maintain credibility, attributional feedback
should change as skills develop. Effort feedback is credible in the early
stages of learning but switching to skill or strategy use is more credible
later on. If effort is not working more will not help. It also is helpful
to provide feedback on controllable attributions (e.g., effort, strategy
use) so that students do not attribute outcomes to factors outside of their
control (e.g., luck, the weather).
Attributions can exert powerful effects on motivation. Effort attributional
feedback can help shape students' attributional thinking away from dysfunctional
attributions. Effort feedback should not be overused. It is best in the
early stages of learning and on difficult tasks, when greater effort can
produce better results.
Andrews, G. R., & Debus, R. L. (1978). Persistence and the causal
perception of failure: Modifying cognitive attributions. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 70, 154-166.
Chapin, M., & Dyck, D. G. (1976). Persistence in children's reading
behavior as a
function of N length and attribution retraining. Journal of Abnormal
Dweck, C. S. (1975). The role of expectations and attributions in the
learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York:
Nicholls, J. G., & Miller, A. T. (1984). Reasoning about the ability
of self and others: A developmental study. Child Development, 55, 1990-1999.
Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in education:
Theory, research, and applications (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice
Schunk, D. H. (1982). Effects of effort attributional feedback on children's
perceived self-efficacy and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology,
Schunk, D. H. (1983). Ability versus effort attributional feedback:
Differential effects on self-efficacy and achievement. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 75, 848-856.
Schunk, D. H. (1984). Sequential attributional feedback and children's
behaviors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 1159-1169.
Schunk, D. H., & Cox, P. D. (1986). Strategy training and attributional
feedback with learning disabled students. Journal of Educational Psychology,78,
Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.
Weiner, B. (1992). Human motivation: Metaphors, theories, and research.
Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.