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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Self attribution and self awareness

Linked to self-efficacy are the ways in which students evaluate their own performance and to what they attribute relative success or failure (1).

Self-Attribution and Self-Awareness

Linked to self-efficacy are the ways in which students evaluate their own performance and to what they attribute relative success or failure (1). For long term success and wellbeing, how students think about their performance can be more important than the performance itself. Whether successful or not, if students attribute performance to aspects that are outside of their control, they are unlikely to be motivated to take action which improves or maintains their performance (2). How students attribute their performance can also have emotional and psychological impacts on their ongoing wellbeing (3, 4).

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If a student underperforms and attributes this to stable factors beyond their control, such as their innate ability in a subject, they have no reason to be motivated to do anything to improve future performance (5, 6). For example, if they think, “I’m just bad at statistics and there is nothing I can do about that,” why would they expend extra effort or try different strategies?

Equally, if students attribute success to unstable factors outside their control such as luck or an overgenerous marker of their work, then they are left without clarity about why their work was good and how they can use their strengths in future. This can lead to doubt about their true ability and anxiety about future performance (7).

It is important to recognise that in attributing causes, our thoughts are often not logically connected to reality. A student can dismiss good performance on the basis that the assessment was just easy – even though no one else came close to their result (8). Or can believe that they underperformed due to lack of innate ability, even though more effort or a better strategy may have led to a significantly better outcome.

Realistic awareness and self-attribution, which gives a sense of control over the future, is necessary for successful self-regulation (9). Students need to be able to assess their own strengths and weaknesses and recognise how they can improve in the future, if they are to improve their learning and performance. Otherwise, they may take steps that undermine learning and wellbeing, such as avoiding work (which can elevate anxiety) or persisting with strategies that are ineffective (working longer hours using ineffective study approaches, leading to exhaustion, disappointment and poor self-concept) (10).

Research has shown students’ first responses to academic performance are emotional. Emotions tend to precede cognitive thought and can shape the beliefs that follow (11-13). If students respond with disappointment, anger and upset they are then more likely to develop a narrative that establishes a pattern of unhelpful future behaviour. This creates a cyclical response of negative emotions, leading to negative attributions leading to further negative emotions.

Developing students’ ability to assess their own learning and performance in ways that are helpful, therefore becomes an important part of the curriculum. Feedback and classroom demonstration should focus on identifying aspects of performance that are within students’ control (14). This may include:

  • disciplinary and process knowledge. Students may simply underperform because they do not know the most successful strategies and approaches. For example, they may believe that reading notes is an effective revision strategy, when research has clearly shown it to be ineffective.
  • utilising available resources; both internal and external. For example, students may not recognise the positive impact of taking breaks, studying in short chunks and maintaining sleep for academic performance. Or they may benefit from using online tools to improve their referencing.
  • appropriate effort. Students may benefit from beginning work on an assignment at an earlier point, to allow for incubation and the development of their ideas. Or they may benefit from not working so many hours, late at night, that they end up exhausted and not able to think clearly.

Self-assessment is a skill that can be improved through teaching, modelling feedback and practice activities such as feedforward or peer assessment exercises (15, 16). Encouraging students to take a strengths-based and future-focussed approach to their learning can help them to focus on factors that are within their locus of control. This, in turn, can raise motivation, self-belief, hope and wellbeing.

Key lessons

  • How students think about their learning and performance can have a more influential impact on future behaviour and performance than their actual level of performance.
  • If students attribute their performance to aspects they cannot control, they will not be motivated to improve and this can impact negatively on their learning and wellbeing.
  • If students are guided to develop their ability to recognise those aspects they can control, they can more effectively self-regulate future behaviour and have greater hope and belief in their ability to succeed.
  • A greater sense of control over their learning and achievement can improve self-efficacy, sense of competence and motivation, thereby improving wellbeing

Top tips

  • Use feedback and feedforward processes to focus students’ attention to those aspects over which they have control – provide specific steps they can take to learn more effectively.
  • Use students’ work in the classroom to model effective practice – reflect holistically on the process through which students produce successful work and emphasise this over innate ability.
  • Ensure the curriculum includes specific guidance on how to complete tasks effectively.
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  2. Drago A, Rheinheimer DC, Detweiler TN. Effects of locus of control, academic self-efficacy, and tutoring on academic performance. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. 2018 Feb;19(4):433-51.
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  14. Hattie J, Timperley H. The power of feedback. Review of educational research. 2007 Mar;77(1):81-112.
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  16. Bourke R. Self-assessment to incite learning in higher education: developing ontological awareness. Assessment & evaluation in higher education. 2018 Jul 4;43(5):827-39.