Scaffolding, Modelling, and Attribution Theory

Motivation: Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is an attempt to explain the motivation process by examining beliefs that fuel the self-assessment process related to persistence with a given activity.

The readings for this topic wander into alternative territory. As you read this short story (Keyes, 1959/1970), reflect on the beliefs about the nature of learning depicted in this story.

The next reading is part of a chapter (Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2008) that introduces attribution theory. Finally, there is a short research article that provides the connection between the two previous readings (Dupeyrat & Mariné, 2005).


Keyes, D. (1959/1970). Flowers for Algernon. In R. Silverberg (Ed.), Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1 (pp. 500–525). London: Lowe and Brydone.

Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, J. L. (2008). Attribution theory. In D. H. Schunk, P. R. Pintrich, & J. L. Meece, Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 79–110). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Dupeyrat, C., & Mariné, C. (2005). Implicit theories of intelligence, goal orientation, cognitive engagement, and achievement: A test of Dweck’s model with returning to school adults. Contemporary educational psychology, 30(1), 43–59.

Introduction: Scaffolding & Modelling

From a situational perspective, one way individual learners are assisted in becoming part of various communities of practice is by scaffolding and modelling provided by more qualified “experts” in those communities. The readings in this topic illustrate the processes of scaffolding and modelling in different contexts. The first reading (Gibbons, O’Neal & Fairweather, 1997) briefly explains the cognitive apprenticeship approach, and links this to the idea communities of practice. The second reading has become well known in that the authors first proposed the application of the apprenticeship model to the learning of cognitive skills. Apprenticeship embeds the learning of skills and knowledge in their social and functional settings.

Collins, Brown and Newman (1989) propose a synthesis of traditional schooling and apprenticeship. Firstly, some shortcomings in current curricular and pedagogical practices are discussed, and then some of the structural features of traditional apprenticeships are examined. Ways of adapting these requirements to the teaching and learning of cognitive skills are considered, with examples of three successful models in the areas of reading, writing and mathematics. Finally, a general framework for the design of learning environments is given, presenting in some detail, the characteristics of ideal learning environments.

The final reading (Volet, 1991) for this topic illustrates the use of modelling and coaching in the context of learning computer-programming skills. This paper presents research conducted at Murdoch University with computer science students. The learning of students in the experimental group was enhanced through the use of an instructional package comprising a 5-step metacognitive strategy relevant to computer programming, modelling and coaching instructional techniques and a social support network based on collaboration and partnership. There was a gradual transfer of relevant high level thinking skills from an expert (instructor) to a novice (student). Theoretical justification for, and limitations of the study are presented.


Gibbons, A. S., O'Neal, A. F., & Fairweather, P. G. (1997). Management of instruction and assessment in aviation. In G. J. F. Hunt (Ed.), Designing instruction for human factors training in aviation (extract pp. 32–35). Aldershot, England: Avebury Aviation.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honour of Robert Glaser (pp. 453–494). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319–336.

Based on Schunk, Pintrich and Meece (2008)'s chapter on Attribution Theory, how can one's beliefs about their learning affect their motivation?

Outline an example or two from your own experience where you formed opinions or beliefs based on perceived causes. What action did this lead you to take? The example/s could be from an educational, social/ affiliation, sports, politics, economics or other perspective relevant to you.


(Initial comments from Sarah)
Attribution theory is the based on 2 assumptions:

1-‘individuals are motivated by a goal of understanding and mastering the environment and themselves’ (Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2008, p. 81).

2-‘people are naïve scientists, trying to understand their environments’ (Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2008, p. 81).

Schunk et al., identify that an individual’s beliefs and values are a central component to their motivational context toward a given activity. So, if I didn’t believe that I could complete an activity, or if I didn’t believe in the value of the activity, I would not be motivated to partake. I would not be motivated by a goal of understanding or mastery and I would not try and understand my environment!

For example: I have been training for a 4km fun run. In the attribution process I am attributing personal factors towards my success: I am confident that I have put in the training (effort) and that I have the ability to succeed. I have also successfully done this in the past, which is another personal attribution factor. If, for some reason I was entered into a marathon, I would attribute that my training would be insufficient (effort) and that my ability was lacking (significantly!)

In the attribution process, I am also attributing environmental factors towards my success: My personal trainer has provided feedback that I can run 4km.. It is a social norm amongst my peers to be able to run ..ect.

I found this useful to make a little more sense of this theory:

Volet (1991) conducted a study into the effects of modelling and scaffolding on a tutorial group of computer programming students at Murdoch. Among the findings, Volet (1991) found that retention rates, assessment performance, motivation and learning satisfaction all improved in students undertaking the new modelling approach.

From your readings on modelling and scaffolding, why do you think this occurs. Also, what effects do modelling and scaffolding have on self efficacy?


(Superb response by Julie)

In my additional reading I came across some work by John Abbott (referenced below) and one of the things he references is the well known Chinese Proverb - “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, let me do and I understand.”

It is such a simple proverb but I do agree is a powerful way of summarising why the ideas behind apprenticeship approaches are so effective.

Throughout the process where we first use modelling to examine how one does something and build conceptual ideas around how to achieve the tasks. My thoughts are that motivation would be assisted through modelling as it gives you as the learner clarity around when and how to approach a task or apply the knowledge whereas in more information passing centre learning approaches it is often hard to see the real world, practical applications.

In the article ‘Cognitive Apprenticeships: Making Thinking Visible’ (Collins, Brown and Holum, 1991) the following was stated:
“While there are many differences between schooling and apprenticeship methods, we will focus on one. In apprenticeship, learners can see the processes of work: They watch a parent sow, plant, and harvest crops and help as they are able; they assist a tradesman as he crafts a cabinet; they piece together garments under the supervision of a more experienced tailor. Apprenticeship involves learning a physical, tangible activity. But in schooling, the "practice" of problem solving, reading comprehension, and writing is not at all obvious-it is not necessarily observable to the student. In apprenticeship, the processes of the activity are visible. In schooling, the processes of thinking are often invisible to both the students and the teacher. Cognitive apprenticeship is a model of instruction that works to make thinking visible.”

I love this statement as it resonated with me. Personally as a learner I have always had difficulty in learning environment where I could ‘see’ the application of what I was learning.

Scaffolding provides the mechanisms that allow development in a safe and supported way. This topic links directly into previous considerations about Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development and I am reminded of the statement I came across where scaffolding was described as "a way of operationalizing Vygotsky's (1987) concept of working in the zone of proximal development” (Wells, 1999).

Modelling and scaffolding in my view have a significant impact on self efficacy. Through the modelling process not only has the learning become visible but we become more confident in our understanding about how and why things may be approached in such a way. Scaffolding then allows us to try and stretch our skills, apply our new knowledge but in a supported way which helps remove fear of failure.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Holum, A. (1991) “Cognitive Apprenticeships: Making Thinking Visible” in Winter 1991 issue of AMERICAN EDUCATOR, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers. Washington,

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Newman, S.E. (1989). "Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing and Mathematics! In L.B. Resnick (ed.) Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essa in Honor of Robert Glaser Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, and in Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P.(1989). "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning." Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Abbott, John and Terry Ryan. (2001). The Unfinished Revolution: Learning, Human Behaviour, Community,and Political Paradox. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Shabani, K., Khatib., M, Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers' Professional Development, appearing in English Language Teaching Vol. 3, No. 4; December 2010 through

(My response with a bit of historical recollection)

The Volet article was a real trip down memory lane for me, and it also made me question my own recollection of the period; it just so happens that I was enrolled in introductory computer science courses at Murdoch University when the study was conducted! Given the paper was published in 1991, I am making a guess that the study was conducted in 1990. I am also assuming that it was conducted at Murdoch University, although this is not stated. My third assumption is that it was for the first year, first semester course Introduction to Computer Science which, if memory serves me correctly, used the Turbo Basic programming language. Having received prior warning about how such unstructured languages where more harm that good, I chose instead to undertake the first year, second semester course, Principles of Computer Science, which used Turbo Pascal apparently "the advanced computer science course the semester after the intervention".

(To be fair to Turbo Basic, it did allow some structured programming features, such as subroutines, but I can't remember whether it allowed passing of variables like a genuinely procedural language).

Now for a variety of reasons, mainly due to my utterly obsessive involvement in student politics at the time (we used to joke that the Guild offices were a "graveyard of degrees"), it wasn't until my third enrolment in the course that I actually completed it. But there was a line which struck me in Volet's paper: "Students were required to plan their solutions by writing algorithms for their programs before entering the code into the computer. This was not normally required in the introductory computing course."

My recollection of these courses differs - and handing in pages of hand-writen algorithms is not something I'd forget - as introductory computer science students we most were required to hand in algorithms in pseudo-code along with the actual programs themselves, which is, of course, as the article says very good practise.

In any case, there was actually three main parts of the instructional package, one of which consists of modelling (the "5-step metacognitive strategy", i.e., writing the pseudo-code), the second part being the engagement on the tutorials as a broad collaborative exercise, and the third being the close partnership. In each case it seems somewhat unsurprising that there was the successes noted. When engaging in a project, it is always a good idea to engage in an modelled simulation of the effects to do at least an initial scan of problems. Because no individual can pick up all errors, putting them to general peer review will capture a few more, and finally, having a close collaborator will ensure a deeper testing of issues. As Eric Raymond has famously remarked "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (Raymond, 1999).

The interesting connection with self-efficacy is that the modelling group participation actually enhances this. It is erroneous, as has been illustrated Schunk, Pajares, 2004) to assume that self-efficacy represents a sort of autodidactic approach to learning. Rather it refers to the capacity to judge one's own capabilities. The judgement receives evaluation, confirmation, and affirmation through the modelling process, peer, and collaborator feedback. Through this process there is increased opportunity to calibrate between actual ability and perception of ability.

Additional References

Raymond, E., (1999), The Cathedral and the Bazaar, O'Reilly Media, 1999

(Interesting clarification by Tracy)

I found scaffolding a bit hard “to get” mostly because the term has been used incorrectly around me when working with information literacy (modelling was used as opposed to scaffolding so it turns out), which I guess in itself shows one of the potential negatives of social constructivism! Scaffolding is a term in education that relates to the way in which a knowledgeable instructor helps someone they are informing to learn, internalize and realize ideas, concepts and information. Similar to the way in which construction scaffolding works it is a structured and developmental method of teaching, which helps the learner to understand where they are going, and how they are going to get there. Like scaffolding found in construction, the framework is taken away after the novice student has attained a level of satisfactory learning mirrored in the teacher’s presence. As the end goal is achieved through the scaffolding it is slowly taken away leaving the student as an independent learner. Scaffolding mainly derives and is strongly linked to the concept of “The Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) presented by Lev Vygotsky. This theory links with steps in all forms of learning, where the zone is the most realistic jump in difficulty that you can present to whomever is learning. Anything outside this zone proves too difficult and will be unattainable by the student, where as something too easy lies too far in the zone and the result doesn’t render any progression. The entire purpose of scaffolding within the idea of the ZPD thus is so that the learner can become an independent, self motivated problem solver who by clear instruction from the teacher understands the origins of a concept and builds upon that idea over time to complete their understanding holistically.

The use of successful scaffolding methods ensures a positive effect on the participants self-efficacy and motivation. People can generate more or less motivation depending on what their self-efficacy is. If someone has a high self-efficacy then they will be more confident and enthusiastic towards their tasks and goals and can easily become more motivated to achieve them.

(More on the scaffoling and modelling correlation and conflict by Natalie)

Through the readings there appeared a strong correlation between modelling and scaffolding, self-efficacy and attributional theory.

Within the attributional theory as described by Schunk, Pintrich and Meece (2008), are the perceived causes of outcomes. Dimensions of these causes include; Stability (belief in one's aptitude), Locus (whether the cause is external or internal) and Control (how much control the learner has over the outcome).

Schunk, Pintrich and Meece (2008) illustrate how stability (belief that one's aptitude remains stable), together with the locus of control being an internal feature (derived from within the learner) and uncontrollable (the learner does not have control over the outcome) combine together to have the most detrimental effect upon future expectations of success. This combination undermines, self-efficacy. Self-efficacy being the level of confidence an individual has in their ability to execute certain causes of action or achieve specific outcomes' (Bandura 1977, 1982, 1997 as cited by Schunk, Pintrich and Meece 2008).

From my viewpoint scaffolding and modelling have the opportunity to influence a learner's 'stability'. As Schunk, Pintrich and Meece (2008) demonstrate, it is the stability dimension and how the learner perceives the stability of the attribution (their aptitude) that has the greatest impact on future expectations.

First it must begin with an educator's belief that a learner is capable, a trust in the student that they can learn and achieve. This in itself may plant the seeds for instability in how the learner perceives themselves. Any actions that create instability in their aptitude open a doorway to future hopefulness that future outcomes can be altered.

Scaffolding and modelling provide careful, specific guided learning in a context that is supportive, instructional and provides cognitive learning strategies. Place this in a social context that includes support from one's peers and educators and faith in the learner's ability to learn and achieve , suddenly there are many seeds planted for a learner to question the stability of their aptitude. As a learner develops skills via the scaffolding and modelling approach, skill acquisition has the potential to destabilise their perception of their ability.

The modelling and scaffolding approach helps to create an environment where students may realise their potential to learn and potentially stretch their their zone of proximal development.

In summary, modelling and scaffolding, particularly within a social context that is supportive and trusting of the learner's ability has the potential to alter one's self-belief in their aptitude and destabilise their stability dimension as a perceived cause of their outcome.

This technique provides an avenue for the learner to attribute their success or failure to more external, controllable factors. These provide fertile grounds upon which a learner is capable of adapting their behaviour to enhance the potential of future positive outcomes and success. Moving form a sense of hopelessness to a sense of hopefulness and motivation.


Schunk, D.H., Pintrich, P.R., & Meece, J.L. (2008). Attribution theory. In D.H.Schunk, P.R. Pintrich, & J.L.Meece, Motivation in education: Theory, research and applications (pp.79 -110). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


1. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (fantastic book if you have time in your busy schedule) is based on a man with a low IQ and through an experimental process the man is shaped into a genius.

From the examples given in the relevant reading, discuss the attribution model and the statement ‘Individuals are motivates to understand and master their worlds to make them more predictable and controllable’

2. Attribution theory takes into account many elements. One of these elements is personal factors that is then divided into 4 general categories

- Casual Rules and schemas
- Attributional biases
- Prior knowledge and
- Individual differences

With this in mind, research shows that individuals are likely to make biased attribution. As teachers how we can be aware of this, avoid making bias and ensure that we maintain our focus on all four general categories of attribution theory?


RE Q 1. "Flowers for Algernon" remains one my favourite short-stories from high school days, and yes, the extended version is a great book as well. The awards it has been granted are well-deserved.

In relation to the attribution model Charlie is an example of a person who is highly motivated ("Im trying very hard"), even at times when he recognises his inabilities (c.f., individual differences in attribution theory) and is prepared to explore alternative attributions, even if they are incorrect ("maybe I need new glasses").

As a character, this relatively high level of attribute accuracy is somewhat at variance to some empirical studies (e.g., the Dunning-Kruger effect), which suggests that incompetent people assume that they are far more capable than they actually are (Kruger, Dunning, 1999), as they lack the ability to correctly evaluate their comptence levels or the attributions for these levels. It is perhaps Charlie Gordon's childlike honesty of his own capacities that generates notable reader sympathy.

This evaluative ability, interestingly, doesn't change once he starts losing his intelligence. He knows what is going, and why, as frustrating, frightening, and aggrataving as it might be.

As an aside, for those who enjoyed "Flowers for Algernon" (knowing that enjoying doesn't necessary mean that it makes one happy), may I also recommend a somewhat similar book of intellectual struggles, and even less cheery, entitled "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife" by Dr. Sam Savage. With just a little bit of magical realism, this is a story of a street rat that acquires the ability to read (by munching through 'Finnegan's Wake'), yet lacks the ability to talk, making for a tale of terrible existential loneliness, unhelped by popular prejudices, and a short lifespan.

Additional References

Kruger J., Dunning D., (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.

Savage, S., (2006) "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife", Coffee House Press, Coffee House Press

2. It's important to recognise that the personal factors are part of a broader category of antecedent conditions, which include the various enviromental factors (specific information, social norms, situational norms). Whilst attributional biases have been allocated by Schunk et. al., with the personal factors, it is worthy of consideration on whether environmental factors are also worthwhile investigating for attributional biaes. Likewise the investigative model sugggested for environnmental factors (i.e., distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency) could also be applied to the personal factors.

As with all forms of evaluation, one significant requirement is ensuring that the right data is available. The example attributional biases provided in the article illustrate how, from different perspectives, both teacher and student make incorrect evaluations based on limited data. By actively considering alternative viewpoints and, if appropriate, seeking these out, at least some attributional biases can be avoided.


1. As outlined in Gibbons, O’Neal and Fairweather (1997) to ensure that learning is at its highest potential as teachers, we need to be able to create a certain environment for our learners to get the best possible outcomes. How do you think this influences your teaching style and what are some examples of application of environment that you have used to promote effective learning?

2. The statistics shown in Collins, Brown and Newman (1989) show that ‘Reciprocal teaching’ is an extremely effective example of scaffolding. In the study the focus is on individual students who had difficulty reading. Do you think that this is an appropriate method to use for adult learners? If so provide examples on how you would engage your learners with this method.


1. As outlined in Gibbons, O’Neal and Fairweather (1997) to ensure that learning is at its highest potential as teachers, we need to be able to create a certain environment for our learners to get the best possible outcomes. How do you think this influences your teaching style and what are some examples of application of environment that you have used to promote effective learning?

The short selection from Gibbons, provides some very practical advice. Certainly the application of 'real-world' problems and situations makes good sense, and it is something that I have increasingly applied in my own teaching environment with a much greater level of conscious design, as opposed to examples which are merely interesting challenges.

The introduction of an apprenticeship model is also something which is currently under investigation, aptly helped (and this is unintentioned side-effect) as our data storage and computational infrastructure is increasingly moving to a project-based orientation, rather than a user/institution orientation.

2. The statistics shown in Collins, Brown and Newman (1989) show that ‘Reciprocal teaching’ is an extremely effective example of scaffolding. In the study the focus is on individual students who had difficulty reading. Do you think that this is an appropriate method to use for adult learners? If so provide examples on how you would engage your learners with this method.

There is certainly some features from Collins, that are applicable for both adult and child learners. Certainly the direct association of th scaffolding-modelling model for proximal development is appropriate. Likewise the focus on the social environment; as mentioned in the first week, I am very interested in elaborating theories of proximal development into networks of knowledge, where a person may not know the answer to a problem but knows someone who does (a literal rather than cognitive proximity!).

The Reciprocal Teaching system's success is due to (a) summmative and constructive cognitive activities, rather than just recognition., and (b) the process of formulation, summarising, and clarification, leading to predictions., and (c) the direct and immediate application of strategies to the problem (and with immediate and direct results)., and (d) the use of teacher scaffolding., and (e) the student's taking up the dual role of critic and producer.

As none of these contain cognitive abilities that are alien to the adult mind, it is reasonable to assume that they are equally applicable. An immediate possibility for application in my own context would be a complex problem where the solution is revealed by a collaborative team and confirmed by scaffolding, especially in terms of the opportunity to engage in partial solutions (e.g., the output of computational task A, serves as the input to B, and so forth until the entire problem is resolved).

(Response from Belinda)

1. The learning environment is obviously a very important aspect for optimum learning. There are many ways to promote such a learning environment, as outlined by Gibbons et. al. (1997). Teaching style and the learning environment seem to go hand in hand. An apprenticeship environment has proven useful in training technical advisers in the realm of archaeology. Much the same as for the training of a surgeon (Gibbons et. al. 1997 p33), coaching and scaffolding decrease over time as the student gains more knowledge, and articulation of that knowledge is encouraged through problem-solving. Reflection, self-assessment and exploration then play an integral part in securing the knowledge. Relationships between learners and supervisors are also strengthened in this environment.

2.Reciprocal teaching involves both modelling and coaching, with both teacher and student taking on the role of teacher. I agree with Lev, there are many features that can apply to both adults and children in a learning context. Definitely the modelling and scaffolding are applicable to adult education. I know my son (who is 5) is learning the fundamentals of reading, which involves recognition of the reading text, formulation of questions and making summaries and predictions about the text. It seems very productive for teaching of children, I can see where it could be useful in the teaching of adults as well. In any adult learning context, this process can help with formulating questions, or making sense of the information, and summarizing and comprehending what is being learned. It also teaches the student to formulate a hypotheses and develop a strategy for making predictions. All very useful traits in adult education.