Whether you’re a top-performing athlete, a virtuoso on the violin, or a polished professional in the business world, success generally doesn’t “just happen.” It takes hard work, determination, and confidence. The same is true for success in college: students who want to reach their academic goals need to have a mindset that keeps them focused on the skills, behaviors, and habits that lead to achievement.

In her book Essential Study Skills, Eighth Edition, Linda Wong describes the role that one’s locus of control plays in developing a success-oriented mindset. She writes: “Locus of control is a belief pattern that shows whether a person believes external or internal forces control circumstances in his or her life” (48). Whereas a student with an external locus of control tends to blame others for their actions (and the results of those actions), a student with an internal locus of control takes responsibility for his or her actions and uses problem-solving skills to change, correct, or improve their behavior as needed. When students can develop an internal locus of control, they’re far more likely to have the confidence they need to take steps towards success. (Wong, 48)

Adjusting the Locus of Control

Wong shares three steps that students can take in order to start taking more ownership over their attitudes and their success in school, at work, and in their relationships:

  • Ask themselves: Do I have an internal or external locus of control? Do I “own” my actions, or do I tend to blame others for what happens to me? If they answer these questions honestly, they’ll be more ready to make changes.
  • Become more aware of negative thinking—and reverse those thoughts as soon as they come to mind. Encourage students to adopt a more positive attitude. If they catch themselves saying “They always…” or “She never…,” they should pause and reframe the statement, expressing their thoughts and feelings in a positive manner.
  • Focus on “I.” Develop strategies for action that begin with “I will…,” “I can….” “I am going to…,” or other phrases that indicate ownership, responsibility, and a confident belief that they can have a positive impact on the situations they’re facing. (48)

Putting a New Attitude into Action

Want to help students develop an internal locus of control? Try this activity adapted from Essential Study Skills. If you’re discussing this topic in your course, it can serve as an in-class exercise; it could also be useful if you’re working with a student who has come to you for advice regarding how they can improve their attitude and develop a more positive, success-focused mindset.

  • Have students create a two-column list on a sheet of paper. At the top of the left-hand column, have them write “External Locus of Control”; the right-hand column should be labelled “Internal Locus of Control.”
  • Prompt them to consider a particular situation (e.g., applying for a job, dealing with conflict that arises in a group project, or addressing issues in a personal relationship) and write that above the two columns on their paper.
  • Then, ask the students to fill in the two columns of their paper with six pairs of statements, each representing the opposite sides of a response to the above-named situation. One item in the pair should represent the thoughts of someone operating from an external locus of control; the other should represent an internal locus of control. For example, if a student was considering how to deal with inter-group conflict, one externally focused response might be: “Everyone else in this group is so hard to work with!”; its opposite could be: “I will learn how to work with people whose study habits differ from mine.” (49)


Reference: Wong, Linda. 2015. Essential Study Skills, 8th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

How do you motivate students to take on a more positive mindset? Share your strategies in the comments section below.