Social Psychology of Education

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 157–174

What causes failure and success? Students’ perceptions of their academic outcomes


    • The Jepson School of Leadership StudiesUniversity of Richmond
  • Paul A. Story
    • Auburn University at Montgomery
  • Karl N. Kelley
    • North Central College
  • James H. McMillan
    • Virginia Commonwealth University

DOI: 10.1007/s11218-008-9078-7

Cite this article as:
Forsyth, D.R., Story, P.A., Kelley, K.N. et al. Soc Psychol Educ (2009) 12: 157. doi:10.1007/s11218-008-9078-7


How do students’ conceptualize the causes of their own academic successes and failures? Taking a phenomenological approach, students identified the causes of their performance immediately following return of a graded examination. We then used factor and item analyses to organize causes that were identified by a substantial number of students into meaningful conceptual clusters, and confirmed those empirically derived clusters in a different sample of students using confirmatory factor analysis. That analysis indicated that students’ descriptions of the causes of their outcomes were consistent with a hierarchical model in which specific causes such as effort and ability are subsumed in one of two more general clusters—facilitating causes and inhibiting causes—but many students explained their outcome by identifying causes from both categories. At a practical level, measuring unitary causes proved to be a reliable and valid way of assessing spontaneous thoughts about what causes academic outcomes.


Causal thoughtAttributionsStudent reactions to success and failureGrading

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008