Why are you in school, anyway? No matter what you’re doing, why you’re doing it is a question to ask yourself at some point. If your choices don’t seem to be going according to plan—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 what’s motivating you. 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 for 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.
Are you internally or externally motivated?
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. They tend to push hard to succeed but may doubt themselves and question ways they may have slipped up—even on issues that were not in their control.
- People with an external locus of control (ELC) believe that outside factors largely determine their fate. They may think it’s pointless to work harder because how their effort is perceived depends on others (such as a professor or parent).
In a recent CampusWell survey, 68 percent of respondents said their primary motivation for being in college was internal and 30 percent said it was a combination of both internal and external factors.
How internal locus of control helps students succeed
If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that you can’t control everything—which is in part why research indicates ILC is associated with greater self-motivation, academic achievement, and reduced stress. “I began nursing school for myself. I love helping others, but what really motivated me was that my grandma had cancer in her jaw area and had to have supervision 24/7,” says Kristen D., a student at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. “I had to learn with a nurse how to do the basics to care for her. Then I realized I enjoyed doing it. Therefore, I went to nursing school.”
Amid the pandemic and civic unrest, so many factors are out of our control—especially when it comes to what your academic environment, financial situation, and state of mental health may look like. But beyond these extreme circumstances, external motivations and pressures can be incredibly challenging: “[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,” says Alexander N., a graduate student at California State University in Northridge.
“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:
We can’t control certain things—such as other people’s prejudice, the weather, the academic calendar, or the onset of a pandemic. “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.
Focus on the things you can control: the amount of effort you put into studying, relationships with faculty and friends, and your work. “Recognizing that you have some influence is important,” says Dr. Anderson.
In a group project, maybe 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.
We all have internal drives—wanting to succeed, wanting to be a better friend, wanting to have exciting options after graduation. It might be your own sense of identity. “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,’” says Jewel B., a student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “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.”
When you’re feeling frustrated by an external factor that’s out of your control, reminding yourself of your core internal drive can help you stay centered.
Perhaps you chose your major to make your family happy, but you want to succeed academically so that you can get a good job and have more options after graduation. When you have to take a class you’re not interested in as part of your major requirement, remind yourself that doing well will help you reach your goal of finding a good job.
Developing the habit of reviewing our actions helps remind us that we’re able to influence what happens in our lives.
“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.
You might feel frustrated that your school shifted to online classes due to COVID-19 concerns, and therefore you won’t be able to engage with an in-person campus community. While you don’t have control over your school’s academic decisions (or the pandemic), you can still create community online. Start a Facebook group for your classmates or host a weekly Zoom study group.
Keith Anderson, PhD, FACHA; staff psychologist and outreach coordinator, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
CampusWell survey, September 2020.
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