Teacher communications and student interpretations: effects of teacher responses to failing students on attributional inferences in two age groups


School of Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91905, Israel.


This paper was designed to shed light both on the ways in which teachers respond to student failure attributed to low ability or to low effort and on the ways in which primary school pupils interpret and react to these responses. In Study 1 60 Israeli primary school teachers stated what they would say to and feel about a student presented as failing because of low ability or low effort. As expected, teachers were more likely to respond to the low ability pupil with pity and offers of help and to the low effort student with anger and demands that he/she should have done better. Study 2 then asked 178 3rd and 6th grade children to infer teacher emotion, attributions for student failure, and subsequent achievement behaviours after reading that a teacher responded to a same-age pupil in one of the following ways: ‘I expect to hear better answers than that from you’; ‘Let's see if someone else can help out’; and ‘Let me help you see where you went wrong so we can work out the answer together’. These responses were derived from Study 1 and were expected to create low effort, ‘helpless’ low ability and ‘constructive’ low ability attributional conditions respectively. The results for Grade 6 were consistent with attribution theory, since children rated teacher anger and effort attributions higher in the low effort than in the helpless low ability condition, and over all conditions greater inferred teacher anger enhanced predictions of subsequent effort by promoting causal attributions of student failure to insufficient effort. In contrast, Grade 3 children inferred greater anger in the low effort condition, but attributed failure to effort in all conditions and inferred teacher anger was directly and negatively correlated with predictions of subsequent effort. In addition, the results indicated that predictions for future achievement strivings were most positive at both ages in the constructive low ability condition. Implications for the development of attributional understandings and for practitioners interested in maintaining motivation after failure are discussed.