Gifted children attribute failures to lack of effort, not lack of ability

iStock_000020536048XSmallGifted children often enjoy a confidence in their abilities that comes from their experiences of success in school and from the public recognition they receive. But what happens when gifted children meet with failure? Do they doubt their abilities, or do they attribute their failures to lack of effort, bad luck, or teacher favoritism?

Working with attribution theory, a cognitive model for understanding human motivation, one group of researchers recently posed this intriguing question in a study published in Gifted Child Quarterly.

The study, based on data from 4,901 gifted students grades 3-11, found that gifted students virtually never doubt their abilities. After analyzing responses from 25-item questionnaires, the researchers conclude that gifted students usually attribute failure to “not working hard enough” (56.7%), “not doing the work the right way (32.1%) and to task difficulty (21.5%).

Attributing failure

“As a group, the sample of gifted students did not make the attributional choice of lack of ability or instructor favoritism (<2.1% for either attribution) for failure in school in general or in the specific content areas of math, science, or language arts,” the researchers write. Few (<4.8%) attributed failure to bad luck.

One concern voiced by previous research in attributional theory is that gifted students whose identities are tied to being smart or talented could be expected to become less motivated if they attributed failure to lack of ability. The results of this study seem to dispel that concern. But the researchers note that greater insight is needed in gifted students’ “lack of effort” responses. Do they see this lack of effort as situational or as a long-term personality trait? When students respond that lack of effort is situational (e.g. “did not do my work the right way”) rather than as a personality trait, that is seen as a positive in the research literature, the authors write.

Attributing success

Girls and boys did not differ meaningfully in their responses to questions about failure, but they did differ in the way they accounted for their success in school. Girls (54.9%) were more likely to attribute their general success in school to effort than boys (38.5%) while boys (41.8%) were more likely to credit their ability (“I am smart”) than girls (28.4%). This gender pattern held for math and science, and across all the grade levels.

In language arts, however, the percentage of boys that attributed their success in language arts to ability (24.6%) dropped close to that of girls (24.9%). Similar proportions of boys and girls, about 44%, attributed their success to working hard, even though it’s widely recognized that girls have long outperformed boys in language arts, the researchers note. This response, researchers say, shows how “profoundly ingrained” is the hesitancy of girls to attribute their success to ability.

“We see potential negatives for girls who do not accurately recognize their academic abilities,” the researchers say. “They may be more tentative about undertaking challenges or putting themselves in competitive situations. We encourage research on gifted girls to assess how they approach highly challenging tasks and competitive situations compared to boys.”

On a positive note, the researchers write, in math and science, girls attributed failure to not working hard enough, despite widespread publicity in recent years about boys performing better in these areas than girls.

For the study, researchers analyzed responses to a 25-item questionnaire completed by 4,901 gifted students who participated in a university-based academic talent search (grades 3-6) or qualified for a university-based summer residential program (grades 7-11). The questionnaire covered perceptions of parental involvement, learning styles, self-perception and perception of others’ abilities in various content areas as well as success/failure attribution.

Eight questions focused on student attributions for doing well or not doing well in science, math, language arts and school in general. The forced-choice responses for doing well or not doing well were:

(1) I am smart
(1) I am not smart enough
(2) I work hard
(2) I don’t work hard enough
(3) The work is easy
(3) The work is hard
(4) I am lucky
(4) I have bad luck
(5) My teachers like me
(5) My teachers don’t like me
(6) I do my work the right way
(6) I don’t do my work the right way

The researchers note that while boys may be more accurate about assessing their abilities, girls may be more realistic about the role that effort plays in success. The tendency of both boys and girls to attribute failure to lack of effort is a positive finding, the researchers conclude. “We see this as adaptive and hopefully such an attitude would minimize discouragement after failure experiences.”

“Attributional Choices for Academic Success and Failure by Intellectually Gifted Students” Susan Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, Damien Ihrig and Leslie Forstadt. Gifted Child Quarterly Fall 2006 Volume 50 Number 4 pp. 283-294.


Published in ERN March 2007 Volume 20 Number 3

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