Do You Have the Power to Succeed?
Locus of control and its impact on education

by Mandy Grantz


How can you apply locus of control to education?

        It has often been said that obtaining a good education is the key to being successful in the world.  But what determines being successful while in school?  While many things may contribute to school achievement, one variable that is overlooked is locus of control.  In the context of education, locus of control refers to the types of attributions we make for our successes and/or failures in school tasks.  If someone believes that his or her successes and failures are due to factors within their own control, such as effort or ability, then that person is said to have an internal locus of control.  On the other hand, if someone believes that his or her successes and failures are due to factors outside of their own control, such as fate or luck, then that person is said to have an external locus of control.  An example may best illustrate this distinction.  John and Katie each receive a D on a class test.  John has an internal locus of control and attributes his grade to lack of studying.  Katie has an external locus of control and attributes her grade to a poorly made test and an ineffective teacher, both of which are out of her control.  Although it may seem like a trivial issue, locus of control can have a profound impact on school achievement.  What did your quiz results tell you about yourself?  If you scored high on externality, do you see yourself acting like Katie?  If you scored high on internality, do you see yourself acting like John?  After looking at the consequences of adopting either an internal or external orientation, a specific look will be taken at learning disabled students and adult students, as well as explaining a suggested intervention for changing a student’s locus of control.

Are achievement and motivation affected by LOC?

Research has shown that having an internal locus of control is related to higher academic achievement (Findley & Cooper, 1983).  Internals earn somewhat better grades and work harder.  This includes spending more time on homework as well as studying longer for tests.  This makes sense because if you believe working hard will pay off, then you are likely to do so.  What may cause someone to develop an external locus of control?  According to Bender (1995), “Continued failure in spite of continued attempts at school tasks leads to an external locus of control.  Further, a high external locus of control, in turn, leads to a lack of motivation for study and school in general.”  If someone has an external locus of control, he or she may feel that working hard is futile because their efforts have only brought disappointment.  Ultimately, they may perceive failure as being their destiny.  Have you ever had the experience that no matter how hard you tried you just couldn't get that A in a class?  If this type of experience happened often, you would likely develop an external locus of control.  Developing an external locus of control also makes it easier to excuse poor performance without hurting the individual’s self-esteem (Basgall & Snyder, 1988).  By attributing their failure to fate, chance, or to the fault of someone else, they are able to escape the potential damage that may come from attributing it to personal flaws or lack of ability.  Can you remember a time when you received a poor grade on a test and your immediate reaction was "this test was impossible" or "the teacher didn't explain it well"?  I know I have.  This allows us to dismiss the belief that we are inadequate, keeping our self-esteem in tact.  However, if we consistently use this excuse, we may lose our motivation to improve.

        Anderman and Midgley (1997) noted that “students who believe that their poor performance is caused by factors out of their control are unlikely to see any reason to hope for improvement.  In contrast, if students attribute their poor performance to a lack of important skills or to poor study habits, they are more likely to persist in the future.”  In other words, students with an external locus of control are more likely to respond to failure by giving up hope and not trying harder, whereas those with an internal locus of control are likely to respond to failure by trying harder to improve.  In the introductory example, John would be more likely than Katie to study harder for the next test and do better.  Katie doesn’t see any reason to try harder because her poor performance was due to something out of her control.  If students are taught to have a more hopeful attitude (develop an internal locus of control), their grades tend to rise (Noel, Forsyth, & Kelley, 1987).

Do you respond differently to success and failure depending on LOC?

      Locus of control also has an impact on responses to success.  In one study (Kernis, 1984), subjects were led to make either internal or external attributions for their success at a given task.  Those who made an internal attribution performed better on the same task than on a different task when tested again, whereas those who made an external attribution performed better on a different task than on the same task.  This suggests that internals are more likely to continue working at a task that they have succeeded at, while externals are likely to stop working on the successful task and move on to a different task.  Similarly, locus of control differences dictated response to positive verbal feedback in a study of elementary students (Lonky & Reihman, 1980).  After participating in a self-chosen activity (i.e., an intrinsically motivated task), students received positive verbal feedback.  Later, they were given the opportunity to participate in the same task again.  Students with an internal locus of control spent more time at the task the second time around, whereas those with an external locus of control spent less time at the task.  This suggests that if praise is given to externals for an intrinsically motivated task that their motivation actually declines when the praise is stopped.

 What about the relation between learning disabled students and LOC?

      Now that we have looked at various consequences of adopting either locus of control, it is time to take a special look at learning disabled students.  Children and adolescents who are learning disabled tend to be more externally oriented than those who are not learning disabled (Huntington & Bender, 1993).  It is understandable that youth with learning disabilities feel less in control of their own lives than do nondisabled youth (Gregory, Shanahan, & Walberg, 1986).  Given this relation, it seems important to understand its implication.  After all, these students are already having learning problems, and their locus of control orientation may be serving to either escalate the problems or to make it more difficult to help the students.

        As it has already been discussed, there is low motivation for students with an external locus of control, and this holds true for students who are learning disabled.  Teachers may feel frustrated in trying to motivate them.  The learning disabled student has been told repeatedly by the school system that he is a failure (e.g., due to being placed in too difficult of classes), and having an external orientation could be a survival mechanism, allowing the student to believe that this message may be a mistake.  There is very little class participation from these externals even if they know the answers to posed questions.  Feeling that the school system will still brand them a failure, they think to themselves, “Why bother?” (Bender 1995).

        Educational methods can be modified using the research that has been done on locus of control.  A study (Bendell, Tollefson, & Fine, 1980) using learning disabled students with internal and external locus of controls evaluated the effectiveness of two types of teaching strategies:  high and low structured.  It was found that externals performed better under high structure conditions and internals in low structure.  Testing students for locus of control may lead to more effective teaching methods and a better fit between method and student.

Can a student's LOC be modified?

        Attribution training, which concentrates on strengthening the student’s internal locus of control (Deshler, Schumaker, & Lenz, 1984), may be helpful in increasing motivation.  Attribution training has been shown to increase internal locus of control & improve task persistence (Shelton, Anastopoulos, & Linden, 1985).  Usually the implementation of attribution training utilizes some form of self-instructional sets of statements.  Students are trained to say positive things to themselves, first out loud, then in a whisper, then silently to themselves.  For example, as a student is working on a task, he or she is taught to say things like “this is tough, but hard work pays off” or “I did a good job on that one.”  This type of training is easy to implement & requires no special materials.  For some students, attribution training can have a considerable impact on their overall efforts at school.  When students are struggling or not putting forth much effort, it would be wise to consider locus of control as a possible contributor to the problem.  A teacher’s effort to motivate a student may prove futile if the child has an external locus of control.  Teaching children from a young age that hard work can pay off would be beneficial.  If they are taught to believe in their own ability to control their lives and the reinforcements in their lives, they would be more likely to succeed in school.  If you have children or plan on having children in the future, it would be wise to begin early instilling this type of positive attitude in your child.  For a further discussion of attribution training and the theory it is based on, click here.

How does LOC apply to adult students?

      Another unique segment of the student population is that of adult students.  A study was conducted to investigate the relationship between locus of control and course completion in Adult Basic Education.  Rotter (1966) states that people who feel that reinforcements are controlled by forces outside of their control develop an external locus of control, while those who feel their own behaviors determine reinforcements develop an internal locus of control.   Taylor and Boss state that given the types of life experiences that many people in ABE programs have had, it is likely many have adopted an external locus of control.  They investigated whether this was related to course completion.  It was speculated that the internally oriented people would be more likely to complete the course, given that they believe themselves to be in control of their reinforcements.  The results indicated that those students who completed the course were significantly more internal than those who did not.    Those who completed the course were more able to overcome various problems such as transportation and conflicting work schedules.  They were also more likely to have started the course as a result of their own decision rather than being referred to the program by a social service agency.  Knowing of this relationship between course completion and locus of control, it may be possible to counsel external students in increasing their feelings of self-efficacy, thereby raising the chances that they will complete the program.

        As you can see, locus of control plays an interesting role in education.  Understanding its effects can lead to more effective and worthwhile schooling for students and less frustration for teachers.

Clipart found at  this public domain site.
Photographs provided by Mandy Grantz.

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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 1999 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).  Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:06:38. This document has been accessed 29,683 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman