The Attribution Theory In eLearning: Types, Dimensions And Stages

The Attribution Theory In eLearning: Types, Dimensions And Stages
Summary: The Attribution Theory relies heavily on cause and effect, motivation, and human behavior. In this article, I'll explore how these 3 elements combine to create a potent eLearning mix by highlighting the types, dimensions, and key stages that the Attribution Theory can applied in eLearning.

How To Apply The Attribution Theory In eLearning

Heider first introduced the Attribution Theory in 1958, which assumes that learners inherently try to uncover why people exhibit certain behaviors. They must then determine if the behavior is linked to the situation itself or internal factors. Individuals also attribute outcomes or achievements to specific traits or conditions. For example, they may draw the conclusion that the other person was simply lucky or has strong work ethics.

Heider summed up the application of the Attribution Theory in educational settings and its impact on learning motivation by stating: "Causal attributions determine affective reactions to success and failure. For example, one is not likely to experience pride in success, or feelings of competence, when receiving an ‘A’ from a teacher who gives only that grade".

Types of The Attribution Theory

According to the Attribution Theory there are two types of attribution that individuals use to explain a specific behavior or action:

  1. Internal
    This form of attribution involves internal factors, rather than external sources. For example, a learner who witnesses someone exhibiting a specific behavior might attribute it to the person’s belief system or traits. They do not, however, automatically assume that it was caused by an external trigger.
  2. External
    This type of attribution is linked to an external event or stimuli. For example, an individual might watch one of their peers behaving in a certain manner and attribute it to the situation they are in or the behavior of those around them.

The Attribution Theory Dimensions

Bernard Weiner suggested that there are four key factors that have a direct impact on attributions: effort, luck, task difficulty, and ability. He went on to state that these factors can be divided into three distinct dimensions:

  1. Locus of Control
    This is defined as a learner’s belief that their behavior is motivated by internal or external causes. Locus of control has a direct impact on the emotions tied to the attribution. For example, if an individual truly believes that they have passed a test because they studied and worked hard, then they will feel a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, if they attributed it to luck or believe that the test was not difficult enough, they would not get those same feelings of achievement.
  2. Stability
    The likelihood that the attribution cause will change over a period of time. For example, if a person fails to get a job promotion they might attribute it to a lack of ability. This indicates that there is instability, because the individual could develop their skills and gain experience in order to change the outcome eventually. It is not a permanent situation, but one that can be changed by modifying behaviors.
  3. Controllability
    Directly relates to the individual’s perception of control over the behavior, action, or situation. For instance, if an employee believes that they were passed over for a promotion because their superior does not like them, this would not be something they could control. As a result, they might simply give up due to the fact that the situation is "out of their hands".

Applying The 3 Stages Of The Attribution Theory In eLearning

The attribution process involves three stages that must be present:

  • Stage 1: Observation
    The individual must observe the behavior first-hand. This includes perceiving the actions, environment, and reactions or behaviors of others in the situation. One of the most effective and interactive ways to use the Attribution Theory in eLearning is by integrating a branching scenario. Online learners then have the opportunity to observe the behavior of a fictional character and view every aspect of the circumstances, such as the context, situation, and the behavior of those around the character. Then, they can then make choices that factor in all of these elements to see where the path leads them.
  • Stage 2: Belief
    The individual must believe that the behavior or action was performed intentionally, instead of accidentally or involuntarily. After the online learner observes and perceives the behavior within the eLearning scenario, they can then analyze the situation and gather their thoughts. In this stage, they would also determine whether the behavior was accidental or intentional. This requires that they carefully assess the character’s motivations and any other factors that may have a direct impact on the outcome.
  • Stage 3: Cause
    The individual must assess their thoughts and opinions to determine whether the behavior was caused by internal or external attribution factors. If the behavior was unintentional they would attribute it to the situation or environment. If the behavior was intentional they would attribute it to internal traits, motivators, needs, or beliefs. Cause is the culmination of the online learner’s evaluation of the situation, their personal thoughts, and their perception of the character’s internal and external traits. They have the opportunity to watch as the eLearning scenario unfolds, based on their choices, to determine how all of the factors can be attributed to the behavior. For example, if the character fails to address the complaint of the customer in an online sales scenario, they can figure out what factors and causes led to that outcome. Thus, they will not be likely to repeat it in the real world.
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Motivation is an essential component of any eLearning course, regardless of the desired outcome or subject matter. Applying the Attribution Theory in eLearning offers you the power to show online learners that hard work and dedication can go a long way when it comes to achieving their goals.

Attribution Theory is just one of the many Instructional Design approaches that you can use for your eLearning course design. Read the article Instructional Design Models and Theories that offers a detailed overview of the top Instructional Design models that you may want to consider for your next eLearning course.