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Why are you in school, anyway? Why we’re doing <whatever thing> is a question to ask yourself at certain points in life. If your choices don’t seem to be working for you—the assignment, the major, the college experience—does that mean your choices were wrong? Or could you think differently about your choices in ways that make them work?

A key part of this is about understanding why you’re here. Maybe you’re in school to broaden your thinking, build knowledge and skills, and land a good job. That’s an example of internal motivation. Or maybe your primary reason for being here is your parents, who are banking on you becoming a doctor or lawyer, or your community, which is looking to you to set an example to others. That’s external motivation—and those reasons are not necessarily bad, but they may not excite you or get you through the rough patches.

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Are you currently an “internal” or “external”?

Here’s the difference
  • “Internals” (people with more of an internal locus of control) may push hard to succeed. Sometimes they may doubt themselves and question ways they may have slipped up, even on issues that were not in their control, but overall they tend to be less stressed than “externals.”
  • “Externals” (people with more of an external locus of control) may think it’s pointless to work harder, because how their effort is perceived depends on others (such as the professor). 

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How internal locus of control (ILC) helps students succeed: the research

Internal locus of control is associated with these positive outcomes, research shows:

  • Greater self-motivation and academic achievement (Canadian Journal of Counseling, 1998)
  • Lower stress in young adults; better stress management, adaptability, self-regulation, coping skills for trauma, self-esteem, and resilience (Developmental Psychology, 2010)

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Note to self: You can’t control everything

Even if you believe you drive your own life experience, keep your expectations realistic. “Trying to have complete control of one’s life could result in people feeling anxious when confronted with situations where they have less control than they imagined,” says Dr. Anderson.

“However, recognizing that you have some influence is important. So, instead of believing that if you study you will get an A, it might be more realistic to recognize that if you study, the odds of getting an A are better. However, because the teacher makes the exam, it’s hard to know everything and be assured of getting the A.”

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Why go to college? Students tell us

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 1,303 respondents described their primary motivation for being in college:

73% -- Internal (to benefit themselves), 3% -- External (e.g., someone else expects them to), 24% -- A combination of both.

What’s your motivation? Students’ stories

“The only reason I’m able to be in college right now is that I made a decision that I wanted to have a bachelor’s degree so I could get better job prospects. I find the baseline expectation that a middle-class white person is supposed to go to college completely unmotivating.”
—Finn E., fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

“Sometimes I believe that people will never see me as their equal… as though I am a black girl and all my proper mannerisms and intelligence are attributed to ‘whiteness.’ However, I have learned that I can ignore what a small group of people may say about me and who [they] believe I am. I can work hard and love people and prove that I am good enough. At the end of the day, it is me who I have to face.”
—Jewel B., second-year undergraduate, Villanova University, Pennsylvania

“[I feel seriously unmotivated to pursue my study goals] because I am from oppressed, socially-constructed groups that are looked down upon. As an undocumented Latino, I am seen as a stealer of education and not intelligent enough to succeed in life with a college education.”
—Alexander N., first-year graduate student, California State University, Northridge

“I make a list of why I’m here and how it helps me with my future.”
—Vonshia B., fourth-year undergraduate, Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island

Internal locus of control: the power to determine your own life

The sense of how much you can influence your own life is called locus of control. Understanding this concept can help you develop self-awareness and motivation. People with an internal locus of control (ILC) believe they have the power to control their own lives, while those with an external locus of control (ELC) believe that other factors largely determine their fate.

How internal locus of control helps students succeed

ILC is associated with greater self-motivation, academic achievement, and reduced stress, research indicates. College staff and faculty see how this plays out. “When students don’t feel they have much control, they tend to become a bit more hopeless,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. “They think, ‘If my effort doesn’t make much difference, there is no point in even trying.’ This type of thinking often results in procrastination or avoidance. Having some self-efficacy [belief in one’s ability to succeed] often results in better academic achievement.”

4 ways to strengthen your internal locus of control

Strengthening your internal locus of control builds your motivation and resilience (your ability to handle challenges and change yourself). Try these approaches:

Review the consequences of your past choices

Examine the good and bad consequences of your decisions. “This kind of review provides some evidence of your ability to act on your decisions,” says Dr. Anderson.

Example

Bystander action
When you noticed that someone seemed uncomfortable because of someone else’s physical closeness at a social event, you casually interrupted, making it easier for the uncomfortable person to extract himself. As a result:

  • You may have helped prevent the situation from escalating to sexual coercion
  • You demonstrated to yourself and your friends that you can help someone else
  • You helped create a more respectful and positive campus culture

Crossing way signLook for missed opportunities

“Consider what options you might have missed that, as a result, led you to feel that you had no control in past situations, when in fact you had some,” says Dr. Anderson.

Example

social decisions
For example, you got pulled into an intense game of trivia the night before an important track meet. Put on the spot, you weren’t sure how to say no. The next day you woke up feeling groggy after the meet had ended.

Next time, you’ll have a response ready: “Not tonight—I have a high-stakes event tomorrow and can’t afford to feel rough.”

Magnifying glassFocus on what you can control

We can’t control certain things—such as other people’s prejudice, the weather, or the academic calendar. We can control the amount of effort we put into studying, research, our relationships with faculty and friends, or our work.

Example

Group project
For example, in a group project, someone is ignoring emails and forgetting assignments. You can’t control their behavior, but you can keep trying to communicate constructively (including with the other group members and the professor) and working on your own piece of the project—even when you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed.

Notebook paper

 Determine realistic steps toward your goals

 Developing the habit of reviewing our actions helps remind us that we’re able to influence what happens in our lives.

Example

Time management
For example, if you’ve been struggling with time management, missing deadlines, and pulling a couple of all-nighters, you might consider trying a few highly-rated organizational systems and apps to see how much of a difference they make to your time management, sleep, mood, and academic performance.

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Article sources

Keith Anderson, PhD, FACHA; staff psychologist and outreach coordinator, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Diehl, M., & Hay E. L. (2010). Risk and resilience factors in coping with daily stress in adulthood: The role of age, self-concept incoherence, and personal control. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1132–1146.

Faitz, L. M. (2012). Individual reactions to adversity: An exploration of the relationship between self-esteem, resilience, and locus of control. Scholars: McKendree University Journal of Undergraduate Research, 19.

Haggbloom S. J., Warnick R., Warnick J. E., Jones, V. K., et al. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139–152.

Landine, J., & Stewart, J. (1998). Relationship between metacognition, motivation, locus of control, self-efficacy, and academic achievement. Canadian Journal of Counseling, 32(3), 200–212.

Manichander, T. (2014). Locus of control and performance: Widening applicabilities. Paripex­—Indian Journal of Research, 3(2), 84–86.

Miller, J. (2005). The impact of locus of control on minority students. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Ng, T. W., Sorensen, K. L., & Eby, L. T. (2006). Locus of control at work: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1057–1087.

Student Health 101 Survey survey, July 2016.

Lydia X Z Brown is a graduate student at Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts; a gender/queer and transracially/transnationally adopted East Asian, autistic activist, writer, and speaker/trainer; chairperson of the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council; visiting lecturer at Tufts University’s Experimental College; and board member of the Autism Women’s Network. Photo: Lawrence Roffee.