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  • Perceived Locus of Control and Academic Performance:Broadening the Construct's Applicability
  • Michael A. Kirkpatrick (bio), Kathryn Stant (bio), Shonta Downes (bio), and Leatah Gaither (bio)

Locus of control (LOC) is a dimensional construct representing the degree to which individuals perceive reinforcing events in their lives to be the result of their own actions (an "internal" LOC) or fate (an "external" LOC; Bandura, 1986; Rotter, 1966). LOC is meaningfully related to several variables associated with academic achievement (Bernstein, Stephan, & Davis, 1979; Dollinger, 2000; Forsyth, 1986; Forsyth & McMillan, 1981; Kovenklioglu & Greenhaus, 1978; Noel, Forsyth, & Kelly, 1987; Perry & Penner, 1990). Specifically, high scoring students identify effort and ability as causes of their success, whereas those performing poorly are more likely to cite test difficulty and bad luck as causes (Bernstein et al., 1979; Kovenklioglu & Greenhaus,1978). Internals appear to have more incidental knowledge of their environments and make better use of it (Lefcourt, 1976), which allows them to identify important cues and benefit from incidental learning situations (Dollinger & Taub, 1977; Wolk & DuCette, 1974). Thus, although other factors can mediate or qualify the impact of LOC, internal LOC generally predicts higher levels of academic success (Keith, Pottebaum, & Eberhardt, 1986).

Unlike some other influences on student academic achievement (e.g., study skills), LOC reflects a student's implicit response to fundamental philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of human life and experiential reality. For this reason, LOC offers a bridge between academic and student development concerns. Although skeptical faculty may be reluctant to devote class time to or provide academic credit for development activities more ambiguously tied to curriculum (e.g., Myers-Briggs personality assessments), the question of causality is central to most disciplines. How students perceive the causes of events in their own lives may influence how they respond to the characters in Oedipus Rex or how readily they understand scientific determinism. LOC addresses fundamental questions germane to philosophy, mythology, and literature, as well as the behavioral, social, and physical sciences. Therefore, it has a natural place in the classroom. Making a connection between basic beliefs about causality and pragmatic, short-term objectives like helping students succeed academically and socially is a legitimate challenge for faculty and an added educational value already established empirically.

Dollinger (2000) and Noel et al. (1987) replicated the positive correlation between academic success and students' LOC found by previous researchers, then constructed practical classroom interventions to help students learn. Dollinger had students complete an abbreviated LOC assessment, then quizzed them on course-relevant "trivia" such as their instructor's office location, exam schedule, and other facts not explicitly part of the instructional content but relevant to success. Final course grades were higher for internals. Internals also [End Page 486] displayed higher scores on the trivia tests, suggesting greater attention to course relevant material and higher incidental learning as shown previously (Dollinger & Taub, 1977; Wolk & DuCette, 1974). Because the assessments were easily and naturally integrated into the course content (personality psychology), Dollinger also showed that trivia can be used to help students focus their attention on cues that foster success.

The value of LOC as an adjunct to instruction and a vehicle for promoting student success was further demonstrated in studies implementing an "internalizing" influence to improve failing externals' academic performance (Noel et al., 1987; Perry & Penner, 1990). Noel et al. selected students showing substandard performance on early exams in general psychology. Half were shown videotaped testimonials of a confederate who emphasized taking control of academic outcomes in order to succeed. Controls watched a video whose model attributed success to a more general adjustment to college without internalizing control. At the end of the term, those students influenced to adopt an internal LOC raised their mean grade to C or better, whereas the controls' average remained unsatisfactory (Noel et al., 1987).

Perry and Penner (1990) exposed internals and externals to a videotaped lecture in a simulated college classroom. Prior to the lecture, some of the students were exposed to a videotaped LOC retraining session in which an instructor described the importance of effort and persistence in attaining academic success. Controls saw no video before proceeding to the simulated classroom. One week later, they all took a test on...


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