Journal of Nursing Education

Research Briefs 

Exploring the Influence of Students’ Attributions for Success on Their Self-Regulation in Pathophysiology

Karee E. Dunn, PhD; Cara Osborne, SD, APN, CNM; Hope J. Link, MS

Abstract

Pathophysiology is a difficult course both for students to take and for instructors to teach. However, little research has explored learner characteristics that teachers may address through targeted instruction to make both the teaching and learning experience better. This study examined the influence of students’ causal attributions for success on their self-regulated learning, which is strongly associated with positive learning outcomes. Results indicated that ability, effort, and luck attributions for success collectively influenced Pathophysiology students’ self-regulated learning and that ability was the most potent influence. The findings and the implication for teaching are discussed.

Abstract

Pathophysiology is a difficult course both for students to take and for instructors to teach. However, little research has explored learner characteristics that teachers may address through targeted instruction to make both the teaching and learning experience better. This study examined the influence of students’ causal attributions for success on their self-regulated learning, which is strongly associated with positive learning outcomes. Results indicated that ability, effort, and luck attributions for success collectively influenced Pathophysiology students’ self-regulated learning and that ability was the most potent influence. The findings and the implication for teaching are discussed.

Dr. Dunn is Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, Educational Statistics and Research Methods, and Dr. Osborne is Assistant Professor, Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Ms. Link is Doctoral Candidate, Educational Psychology and Research, University of Memphis, Nashville, Tennessee.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Karee E. Dunn, PhD, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, Educational Statistics and Research Methods, University of Arkansas, 248 Graduate Education Building, Fayetteville, AR 72701; e-mail: kedunn@uark.edu.

Received: November 01, 2011
Accepted: February 29, 2012
Posted Online: April 20, 2012

Nursing students perceive Pathophysiology as one of the most difficult courses in the nursing curriculum (Elberson, Vance, Stephenson, & Corbett, 2001). This course is also one of the most important for preparing nursing education students for safe and successful clinical practice (Salamonson & Lantz, 2005). Thus, it is important for nurse educators to understand student variables that may be addressed through instructional design and practice, which may also support success in this daunting course. Academic self-regulation is one such learner characteristic that has been repeatedly shown to dramatically affect academic success in a variety of courses (e.g., Malpass, O’Neil, & Hocevar, 1999; Perels, Dignath, & Schmitz, 2009; Perels, Gurtler, & Schmitz, 2005; Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Zimmerman, 1990). Research has indicated that students’ causal attributions for successes and failures may powerfully influence students’ academic self-regulation (Schunk 1996; Schunk & Cox, 1986; Shell & Husman, 2008). Thus, the purpose of our research was to explore the influence of nursing students’ causal attributions for successes and failures on their academic self-regulated learning in a Pathophysiology course.

Self-Regulation

Academic self-regulation is a form of learning that is guided by metacognition and is partially intrinsically motivated and strategic (Dunn, Lo, Mulvenon, & Sutcliffe, 2011). According to social learning theory, self-regulation involves the planning of behaviors that are self-generated and cyclically adjusted to attain personal learning goals (Zimmerman, 2000). The three phases of self-regulation are forethought, performance control, and self-reflection. The forethought phase includes motivational beliefs required for self-regulation of learning, including self-efficacy, outcome expectations, task interest, and goal orientation, as well as two self-regulatory processes, goal setting and strategic planning. The performance control phase involves self-regulated learning strategies in which the learner orchestrates learning efforts and skill performance and then monitors learning efforts and skill performance. Finally, the self-reflection phase occurs after task performance and includes self-judgments and self-reactions for which the learner assigns emotional responses to perceived outcomes and then determines the causes of those outcomes. These self-evaluations are important because they influence the interpretation of and response to the learning experience, which inform future self-regulatory behaviors (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2004). The current study focuses on the performance control phase and the self-reflection phase of the self-regulation cycle.

Positive academic outcomes follow successful management of learning through this cyclical model of self-regulatory processes (Bembenutty, 2008). In the active stage of the performance control phase, students engage in active self-regulation via the use of learning strategies. Students who use self-regulated learning strategies tend to be more confident (Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1988), whereas students who are weak academic strategic learners may have poor attributional beliefs (Schunk, 1996). Students who are more confident are more likely to attribute the causes of their successes and failures to variables that support future academic successes (Bandura, 1997; Schunk, Pintrich, & Meece, 2008; Weiner, 2000). Thus, theory and research have supported a connection between self-regulated learning and attribution theory in contexts outside of nursing education.

An essential assumption of the attribution theory is that learners attempt to identify what caused the outcomes of the experience (Weiner, 1986). Individuals attribute perceived successes or failures to ability, effort, context, or luck (Hamilton & Akhter, 2002; Lefcourt, Von Baeyer, Ware, & Cox, 1979). These perceived causal determinants of outcomes fall within three dimensions—locus, stability, and control (Weiner, 2000). For example, luck is external (locus), unstable, and uncontrollable. These types of attributions affect how individuals cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally respond in future situations (Weiner, 1994).

Research supports the relationship between student attributions and academic self-regulation (Schunk, 1996; Shell & Husman, 2008). For example, Shell and Husman (2008) found significant correlations in undergraduate students for self-regulated strategy use and attributions to effort, to ability, and to obtaining help from friends or teachers. Schunk (1996) noted that “effective self-regulation requires…positive attributions” (p. 2). No existing literature was found that examined these variables in nursing students. Because students’ causal attributions may influence their future self-regulated learning and subsequent success in Pathophysiology, it is important to better understand the influence of students’ causal attributions on their self-regulated learning in this difficult and important course. Thus, the purpose of our research was to answer the following question: Do Pathophysiology nursing students’ causal attributions for ability, effort, context, and luck significantly influence their self-regulated learning?

Method

Sample Demographics

The sample in this study consisted of undergraduate nursing education students enrolled in the Pathophysiology course. The midwestern university’s nursing program from which the sample was taken is fully accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Permission to conduct this study was given by the university’s institutional review board. Of the 81 students surveyed, 72 returned their survey responses. Respondents ranged in age from 20 to 47 years (M = 26 years). Ninety-two percent of the respondents were women (n = 66) and 8% were men (n = 6).

Measures

To measure students’ aptitude for use of self-regulated learning in the Pathophysiology course, participants were asked to complete part of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1993). Specifically, the General Strategies for Learning (GSL) subscale was used. The GSL is a modified version of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire subscales for Effort Regulation and Metacognitive Self-Regulation. The GSL subscale used was based on the analysis presented by Dunn et al. (2011) in which validity issues related to some of the original scales were addressed. The GSL consists of five items and uses a seven-point Likert scale. The GSL assessed learners’ aptitude to metacognitively and strategically manage resources and self-regulate learning by using the processes of planning, monitoring, regulating, and managing resources to achieve learning goals (Dunn et al., 2011). Nunnally’s (1967) cut-off criterion of 0.60 for Chronbach’s alpha (reliability coefficient) was used in this study to determine acceptable levels of reliability for the scales used. The reliability coefficient for the GSL scale was acceptable at 0.70.

The achievement subscales of the Multidimensional-Multiattributional Causality Scale were used to measure the degree to which students attribute successes to: (a) ability, (b) effort, (c) context, and (d) luck (Lefcourt et al., 1979). Each scale consists of six items and is rated on a five-point Likert scale. Cronbach’s alpha was used to measure internal consistency. Internal consistency was acceptable for three of the four achievement subscales—ability (α = 0.60), effort (α = 0.70), and luck (α = 0.76). Internal consistency was not acceptable for the context subscale (α = 0.48). Thus, context was excluded from further analysis.

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed using the multiple regression with simultaneous data entry method due to the modest sample size (Brace, Kemp, & Snelgar, 2006). An exploratory analysis was completed to test the assumptions underlying the application of multiple linear regression. General Strategies for Learning scores were entered as the dependent variable, and ability, effort, and luck were entered as the independent variables. The significance and size of the coefficient of determination were examined to ascertain whether the set of independent variables had a significant influence on self-regulation, and the magnitude of effect for each independent variable was interpreted.

Results

The means, standard deviations, and correlations are presented in Table 1. Preliminary examination of the results indicated there was no extreme multicollinearity in the data (all variance inflation factors were < 4). Exploratory analysis of the histogram and scatterplot indicated that the assumptions underlying the application of multiple regression were met.

Correlations, Means, and Standard Deviations of the GSL and Achievement Subscales of the MMCS (n = 72)

Table 1: Correlations, Means, and Standard Deviations of the GSL and Achievement Subscales of the MMCS (n = 72)

The regression results indicated that the set of independent variables significantly influenced 13.1% of the variance in GSL (F [3, 69] = 3.17; p < 0.05). Of the independent variables, only ability contributed uniquely to the variance (t = 2.96, p < 0.01). Beta weights and partial correlations are presented in Table 2.

Results of Regression of GSL on Variables (n = 72)

Table 2: Results of Regression of GSL on Variables (n = 72)

Discussion

Results indicated that the collective influence of Pathophysiology students’ causal attributions significantly affect their self-regulated learning. In other words, students’ causal thinking does affect the degree to which they regulate learning activities. This is an important finding, as multiple lines of research note the effect that self-regulation has on student outcomes (Malpass, et al., 1999; Perels, Dignath, & Schmitz, 2009; Perels, Gurtler, & Schmitz, 2005). Moreover, the current study’s findings are important because no research has previously investigated these variables in the nursing student population or in the special situation of the challenging Pathophysiology course.

The partial correlation findings presented an interesting portrait of the relationship of effort attributions to self-regulation when one controls for the influence of luck and ability attributions. The zero-order correlation indicated that effort alone shared a nonsignificant positive relationship with self-regulation. However, the partial correlation indicated that when one controls for the influence of luck and ability on self-regulation, the relationship between effort and self-regulation is negative. The relatively small sample size may have hindered stronger findings with regard to this issue. The current findings indicate that the interplay of the attributions for achievement and effort requires further exploration.

The results of our study revealed a nonsignificant relationship between luck and self-regulated learning; thus, the contribution of luck pertains only to the collective influence of the independent variables on self-regulation. The results indicated that ability had a significant positive influence on these students’ self-regulated learning. Thus, as students’ ability-based attributional tendencies increased, so did their self-regulated learning in Pathophysiology. Although the collective attributions of effort, luck, and ability affected self-regulated learning, ability-based causal thinking had the single most powerful influence on students’ perceived self-regulated learning.

Previous research indicated that attributing one’s academic successes to ability is positive (Dweck, 2000). Students who attribute their academic successes more to effort than to ability may believe that they must exert more effort because they believe they have insufficient skills (Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999). Siegle and McCoach (2007) also found that attributions to ability are actually more beneficial to student confidence. Researchers have suggested that attributions may be addressed through targeted training (Doctor, 2004; Wilson & Linville, 1982, 1985; Yan, 2009). The authors focused their recommendations for instruction on ability-based attribution training for three reasons: (a) research supports the importance of ability-based attributions for academic success, (b) research highlights the trainable nature of attributional thinking, and (c) current findings indicate that ability attributions are positively related to self-regulation.

Instructional Recommendations

Attribution retraining involves improving students’ beliefs about the causes of failures and successes to enhance future motivation for achievement. Research has indicated that attribution training is beneficial in the majority of cases; however, no one form of attribution training has emerged as a model for best practice (Siegel & Shaughnessy, 1996; Siegel-Robertson, 2000). Research has indicated that more direct-training approaches have advantages over indirect approaches (Siegel-Robertson, 2000). Direct approaches involve attribution instruction; that is, direct instruction about what attributions are and what they should be (Fowler & Peterson, 1981). For example, previous research indicated that an instructor can alter students’ attributional tendencies by presenting a case where attributional thinking has become detrimental to student performance (e.g., crediting a high examination score to luck) and what adaptive attributions should be adopted (e.g., crediting a high examination score to ability and effort) (Wilson & Linville, 1982, 1985). Other research has revealed the positive effects of training techniques, such as computer-assisted instructional attributional retraining (Siegel-Robertson, 2000). Hall, Hladkyi, Perry, and Ruthig (2004) found that two types of attribution retraining programs significantly improved both high-achieving and low-achieving students’ attributional thinking. One type used cognitive strategies in which students were taught to understand their thinking processes (metacognitive strategies). The second type used affective strategies in which students were taught to understand their emotional reactions to successes and failures. Thus, by helping students reflect on their causal thinking and their emotional reactions to successes and failures, as well as how those cognitive and emotional patterns affect their future behaviors, nurse educators may help nursing students alter maladaptive causal thinking and thus subsequent behavior.

Based on the existing literature, it is recommended that nursing professors attempt to identify what maladaptive attributional tendencies Pathophysiology students may hold (i.e., attributing successes to luck or attributing failures to ability). To do so, nurse educators may use the measure (Multidimensional-Multiattributional Causality Scale) presented in the current study or simply discuss with students whether they view their academic outcomes as successes or failures and to what causes they attribute those outcomes. The detrimental effect of these maladaptive attributional tendencies (e.g., decreased motivation and diminished academic performance) should be discussed with students, as well as the recommendations for the adoption of more positive attributions and the positive outcomes associated with these more adaptive attributional tendencies. More specifically, instructors should highlight students’ ability to succeed and the role that effort, not ability, plays in failures (e.g., via in-class or online modules). As instructors consider the inclusion of these techniques when teaching Pathophysiology, it is important that they attend to the unique caveats associated with ability attributions.

Addressing ability-based attributions can be challenging, as simply providing students with praise for their ability may actually increase student fear of failure, decrease efficacy, and result in students avoiding challenging tasks because they desire to preserve the belief in their abilities (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). If ability–praise is the only attributional training tactic applied, students may also become more performance-oriented rather than mastery-oriented (Siegle, Rubenstein, Pollard, & Romey 2010).

Conclusion

The results of our study indicated that students’ causal attributions for successes in the Pathophysiology course significantly influenced their self-regulated learning in Pathophysiology. By retraining students’ maladaptive attributional tendencies, Pathophysiology may become less difficult for instructors to teach and for students to take. Future research should investigate specific training techniques for improving students’ attributional tendencies, the effects of such training on attributions and self-learning, and, ultimately, the effects of attributional training on student performance.

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Correlations, Means, and Standard Deviations of the GSL and Achievement Subscales of the MMCS (n = 72)

Measure1234
1 GSL1.00
2 Ability0.321.00
3 Effort0.050.291.00
4 Luck–0.100.18–0.101.00
Mean23.3614.0115.429.52
Standard deviation5.293.403.503.98

Results of Regression of GSL on Variables (n = 72)

VariablebBetaPartialt
Ability0.580.370.352.96a
Effort−0.12−0.08−0.08−0.64
Luck−0.22−0.17−0.17−1.39
Authors

Dr. Dunn is Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, Educational Statistics and Research Methods, and Dr. Osborne is Assistant Professor, Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Ms. Link is Doctoral Candidate, Educational Psychology and Research, University of Memphis, Nashville, Tennessee.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Karee E. Dunn, PhD, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, Educational Statistics and Research Methods, University of Arkansas, 248 Graduate Education Building, Fayetteville, AR 72701; e-mail: .kedunn@uark.edu

10.3928/01484834-20120420-01

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