Responding to Critical Feedback by Challenging Pessimistic Attributions: A Cognitive Tool for the Dissertation Journey

Responding to Critical Feedback by Challenging Pessimistic Attributions: A Cognitive Tool for the Dissertation Journey

Aaron Samuel Zimmerman (Texas Tech University, USA), Stephanie Millett (Texas Tech University, USA), Chau H. P. Nguyen (Texas Tech University, USA), Ngan T. T. Nguyen (Texas Tech University, USA), Texas Tech University (Texas Tech University, USA), Stacey Sneed (Texas Tech University, USA) and Joseph Mbogo Wairungu (Texas Tech University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9707-0.ch002

Abstract

During the dissertation journey, graduate students must expect to receive critical feedback. And, yet, in order for this critical feedback to be productive, graduate students must be able to perceive this feedback as helpful rather than as discouraging. This chapter explores the interpretation of critical feedback through the cognitive framework of attributional style. This chapter presents six anecdotes and six reflections as recounted by six graduate students. By presenting these authentic examples, this chapter demonstrates how reflecting on attributional style can assist graduate students in reappraising the critical feedback they receive throughout their dissertation journey.
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Introduction

All students should expect to receive critical feedback from their teachers. Indeed, formative assessment is one of the most significant predictors of students’ learning and achievement (Marzano, 2007). Thus, teachers (at all grade levels) should give students feedback that highlights student errors and misconceptions. This is especially true during the journey of graduate studies, when critical and constructive feedback is especially vital to students’ learning and academic progress (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000; Heinze & Heinze, 2009; Wang & Li, 2011).

However, in order for this feedback to be productive, students must perceive this formative feedback as helpful rather than as discouraging. Specifically, even when teachers take the time and effort to provide students with meaningful, critical feedback that highlights students’ errors and misconceptions, this feedback may be unproductive if students perceive this feedback to be an authoritative judgment of their overall ability. This chapter explores how the manner in which graduate students interpret the critical feedback they receive is critical to their progress during their studies and their dissertation work.

In this chapter, the authors explore the interpretation of feedback through the framework of attributional style (see Peterson, Semmel, Von Baeyer, Abramson, Metalsky, & Seligman, 1982). Much research has shown that the attribution that an individual makes for an event (i.e., Why did this event happen?) influences an individual’s emotional reaction to the event as well as how the individual subsequently responds to the event through behavior (Connor-Smith & Flachsbart, 2007; Gohm & Clore, 2002; Joseph, Williams, & Yule, 1992).

Cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman (2006) identified two distinct attributional styles: an optimistic style, in which the individual attributes adversity to external, variable (i.e., subject to change), and specific causes, and, in contrast, a pessimistic style, in which adversities are attributed to internal, stable, and global (i.e., generalized) causes (see also Dweck, 2006). For example, if a student fails an exam, this student may make pessimistic attributions by concluding that this failing grade indicates that he or she possesses low academic ability and that he or she is likely to do poorly in the future. For example, the student may conclude, “I’m not smart…I don’t have what it takes to be successful.” When attributions of this kind are made, it is unlikely that the student will extend extra effort towards improving for the next exam, precisely because the student has concluded that such efforts are likely to be useless. In other words, if the student’s failure is due to an internal and stable trait – i.e., if the failure is interpreted to be a function of low ability rather than a function of lack of effort – then future failure may be anticipated as unavoidable.

In contrast, an optimistic attribution to the adversity of failing an exam would be to attribute the failure to an external and variable cause. For example, maybe the student recognizes that he or she did not study sufficiently or did not get enough sleep before the exam. If this explanation is accepted, then the student can anticipate that improved study habits will prevent future failure. If students make optimistic attributions in response to their academic adversities, then these students may be optimistic about the future (e.g., “I now know what I need to do to be successful, and, once I do those things, I will be successful next time”). Given that these students believe that their efforts will have a direct impact on their future success, they may be more likely to persevere in their studies.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Reflection: Using a deliberate process of reflection, individuals can think back on their actions and the events they experience in order to learn from them and to construct new action in the future.

Pessimistic Attributional Style: A pattern of attributions in which an individual tends to attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes.

ABCDE Framework: This is a specific framework of reflection within the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. This framework of reflection focuses on adversities, beliefs, consequences of those beliefs, disputing those beliefs, and energizing oneself with new beliefs.

Feedback: Feedback is an important component of learning. Feedback can occur through written or verbal interactions with peers or with teachers.

Attributions: People make attributions in order to explain cause and effect in the world. In other words, when an event occurs, people intuitively construct a theory of why the event happened.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach to behavior change that focuses on thoughts and beliefs. By examining beliefs, and by challenging counterproductive beliefs, individuals can reshape their intuitive responses to events.

Optimistic Attributional Style: A pattern of attributions in which an individual tends to attribute negative events to external, variable, and specific causes.

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