Cognitive Theories of Motivation

Attribution Theory
Expectancy-Value Theory
Links to Other Theories


Attribution Theory

Attribution theory tries to explain how people interpret events, and it assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do.
In this context, attribution is a three-stage process:
    1. behavior is observed
    2. behavior is determined to be deliberate, and
    3. behavior is attributed to internal or external causes (Kearsley, 2011).

This attribution applies to how we interpret other people’s behaviour as well as our own. In the context of education, it is especially relevant to how teachers interpret students’ behaviours and how students interpret their own behaviours. For example, when a student is continuously late for class, a teacher would be thinking that it is just the usual behaviour when the student is late the next time (the behaviour is attributed to internal causes). However, if a student who is usually on time is late, a teacher would probably think that it due to some extenuating circumstances (the behaviour is attributed to external causes).

The same attribution process happens when we interpret our own behaviours, one of the most interesting being achievement. Achievement is most commonly attributed to

    1. effort,
    2. ability,
    3. level of task difficulty, or
    4. luck (Kearsley).


This theory is important because it helps to explain the difference between high and low-achieving students. Studies into this area are fascinating but have yielded different results. Generally speaking, high achievers attribute successes and failures correctly to internal or external factors (predominately to internal ones) (Addiba, 2004), whereas low achievers tend to incorrectly attribute successes to external factors and failure to internal or external ones (Addiba; Kearsley). Here is an example:

High achievers
Internally attributed,
e.g. high ability, high effort

Externally attributed,
e.g. easy test
Internally attributed,
e.g. not enough effort

Externally attributed,
e.g. difficult exam
Low achievers
Externally attributed,
e.g. luck, teacher felt
pity for me (but it isn't true)
Internally attributed,
e.g. no ability (but it isn't true)

Externally attributed,
e.g. difficult exam (but it wasn't)

Another important aspect of this theory are the “causal dimensions” of attribution (Kearsley, 2011).

1. Locus of control: As in the example above, we attribute behaviour to internal causes or external causes. This can be confused with the third point, controllability, but it looks at where the behaviour originate. Did it come from the person or from the environment. For example, was an “A” due to ability and effort (internal) or due to luck or the teacher giving everybody an “A” (external).

2. Stability: When attributing behaviour, we look at whether causes change over time. In the first example coming late for class, the chronic latecomer would be thought having stable causes for coming home late, whereas the one-time-only student would be thought to have an unstable cause.

3. Controllability: This dimension contrast causes one can control, usually internal ones like effort and skill, and causes one cannot control, often external ones like luck and other people’s behaviour but also internal ones like moods and aptitude. Again, this is an important aspect in education; for example, if students believe that no matter what they do, they will not be able to achieve, then they will not be motivated to put forth any effort. In other words, assignments and tests have to be achievable for students to be motivated to fulfill them.

Overall, attribution theory is highly useful when trying to improve motivation. Self-esteem is linked to academic performance, so in order to change students’ motivation, it could be useful to discover how they attribute achievements and failures and develop realistic self-concepts.

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Expectancy-Value Theory

This theory expands on the Achievement Theory with the following formula (Huitt, 2001):


All three must occur in order for motivation to occur:

Expectancy: How the probability of success is perceived from the student's perspective is important. A task, for example all the assignments in a given course, may seem doable to the teacher but insurmountable by the student.

Instrumentality: There has to be a connection between the assigned task and the goal to be achieved. For example (and it is a true example from elementary school), a student may fail to see how making crafts with glitter and glue has anything to do with learning.

Valance: The goal to be achieved has to be worth it. Some students may not care whether or not they get a good grade on an assignment.

Here is a great article on this theory.

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Links to Other Theories

Achievement Theory
Cognitive-Dissonance Theory

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Addiba, F. (2004). Study of attribution of low achievers and high achievers about the perceived causes of their success and failure [Abstract]. Rawalpindi: Pakistan: University Institute of Education & Research, University of Arid Agriculture, Retrieved February 9, 2011, from

Huitt, W. (2001). Motivation to learn: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved February 2, 2010, from

Kearsley, G. (2011). Attribution theory (B. Weiner). In The Theory Into Practice Database. Retrieved February 2, 2011, from

Pictures for the Attribution Theory: Motivation in Education Part 2. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18,2011, from

Picture for Expectancy-Value Theory: Carpenter et al. (n.d.). Chapter 14.2: Process-based theories. In Principles of Management [ebook]. Retrieved February 18, 2011,