AWE Literature Overview

Attribution Theory -- Abstract

Causal attribution concerns how people understand the reasons for their successes and failures. Attribution theory locates all causal attributions along three dimensions: internal or external, stable or unstable, and controllable/ or uncontrollable. Those people attributing their success to internal, stable and controllable factors tend to be more highly motivated and hence continue to be more successful than those with alternative attribution styles. Some research indicates that women and men may attribute their successes and failures to different sources. Consider the following:

  • Women are more likely than men to attribute success in engineering to hard work or outside help and failure to their own lack of ability. In contrast, men are more likely to attribute their success to their abilities and their failures to lack of effort or unfair treatment (Felder, Felder, Mauney, Hamrin, & Dietz, 1995).
  • Women are more likely than men to actually value hard work over competitiveness as a route to success (Jackson, Gardner, & Sullivan, 1993).
  • Among female students who reported dropping a class because of difficulty, 100% believed that the ability to succeed in engineering was inherent – that some people could succeed and others not, regardless of effort (Heyman, Martyna, & Bhatia, 2002).
  • In the engineering classroom, students feel pressure to demonstrate inherent ability rather than to convey their need to exert effort (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).

Attribution theory provides insight into one aspect of women’s experiences in engineering: how students interpret their own successes and failures. These individual experiences are intricately embedded in the milieu of the engineering classroom and in the larger social environment. Given these complexities, we must keep in mind that interventions surrounding attribution can happen on multiple levels. Helping women to understand the importance of their attributional styles may be beneficial. Yet it is also important for educators to encourage the most productive pedagogies, such as moving away from practices such as “weed-out” courses (as defined by Seymour & Hewitt, 1997) and toward a more supportive environment for all students.


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