Attribution Theory And Motivation

There are numerous studies which investigate the application of attribution theory to instrumental music achievement. Attribution theory is the way an individual attributes causes to success or failure. These causes are ability, effort, task difficulty and luck. These causes are also described as either internal, external, stable, unstable and controllable or uncontrollable. The combination of causal ascriptions has implications for how an individual will perceive their ability to complete future tasks.

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This table outlines various attributions and their causal dimensions (Weiner, 1979).

DIMENSION

Attribution

Locus

Stability

Controllability

Ability

Internal

Stable

Uncontrollable

Effort

Internal

Unstable

Controllable

Strategy

Internal

Unstable

Controllable

Interest

Internal

Unstable

Controllable

Task Difficulty

External

Stable

Uncontrollable

Luck

External

Unstable

Uncontrollable

Family Influence

External

Stable

Uncontrollable

Teacher Influence

External

Stable

Uncontrollable

How does this apply to instrumental music students? Studies suggest that music students causal attributions for success are and failure are internal. A teacher’s perception of student success or failure is generally centred around effort which is internal-unstable, whereas as a students’ attribution for success of failure is centred around ability which internal-stable (Asmus, 1986).

Effort is an unstable dimension which means the student can modify their effort and change the outcome, which is how many teachers view success or failure. The student’s causal attributions for success of failure tends to be based on ability and this is a dangerous ascription to make, as ability is considered stable and therefore unchangeable. Effort promotes task achievement through persistence to a successful outcome, whereas ability does not.

At every step, we must encourage student to make effort related attributions to their progress. We live in a society dominated by the prodigy or musically gifted myth, where this type of ability designation is how instrumental musicians achieve success. This promotes internal-stable ability attributions which are considered unchangeable. Either you are born with it or you are not. It is a door-shutting rather than door-opening mindset for success in music.

For music education to be effective and long lasting, teachers need to be aware of what really motivates and promotes achievement in their students. Simply making competitive statements or comparisons, or saying do more practice because my other students do, is not getting to the heart of what makes students want to be successful in instrumental music.

Many of our students will be young and have yet to form a learning identity, let alone develop the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that will enable them to become effective learners. Its our job to get behind those processes and develop effective learning strategies in our students.

Asmus, E. P., Jr. (1986). Student Beliefs about the Causes of Success and Failure in Music: A Study of Achievement Motivation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 34(4), 262-278.

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.

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