Whose Fault Is It? Are Students in Control of Their Own Learning? | Toby Elmore | 2 Min Read

Might there be a way to identify those students who need extra help before the proverbial “you know what” hits the fan? Wouldn’t it be great to engage our students in meaningful meta-cognitive processes from the very beginning of the year?

While learning theories are not often at the top of teacher’s minds at the start of a school year (though some might argue that they should be), concrete and actionable practices that help students consider their own learning processes can be helpful. What if I told you that there was a tool we could provide to our students that would identify the degree to which they feel in control of their learning environment? What if I told you that research has pointed to the fact that a particular orientation helps predict student learning and achievement.

Locus of control is an aspect of motivational theory that proposes every individual exists along a continuum of believing that they are either in control of their environment (internal) or lack control over their environment (external). When we talk about locus of control, it is important to include the word “perceived” as a qualifier. This is because much of a learner’s understanding of their control is psychological and manifests itself in behavior. As mentioned earlier, studies have shown that a perceived internal locus of control can predict positive learning outcomes and achievement.

Three important aspects of locus of control make it relevant to our work with learners. First, research has shown that one’s locus of control is both fluid and domain-specific. This means that if we had some way of identifying where a student lies on this continuum, with some careful reflective and meta-cognitive work we could help move our students toward a more internal orientation. Second, thankfully, that tool exists! Better yet, Rotter’s I-E (Internal-External) instrument contains only 29 forced-choice items, a far cry from many educational psychological interventions. Third, locus of control orientation is often grounded in cultural beliefs and backgrounds, as well as gender and sexuality. Previous studies have found that different cultural groupings may hold similar orientations based on fatalism and religious beliefs, political orientation and their belief in the power of the individual, or negative emotions tied to support or rejection by family and community members.

Imagine your first week teaching a brand new ethnic studies class at a boarding school or urban day school. Your students have arrived from a broad variety of backgrounds, most do not know one another, and so much of their actions are grounded in perception; how they perceive their peers’ judging of them, how their teachers perceive them, the degree to which they belong in this given community, and their own perceptions of their peers. Not only is your topic loaded with personal and contextual complexities, but you must manage the cocktail of hormones and anxiety which sit in front of you.

Now imagine being able to present those students with quantitative data regarding their perceived locus of control and asking them the following: “Do you agree or disagree with the results of this instrument? Why or why not?” This information could help instructors, a school’s Health and Wellness team, and a Director of Equity and Inclusion identify and support students of need early in the year. I believe that this combination of data collection and meta-cognition could provide an engaging opportunity for students to develop a greater understanding of their own learning processes and help the adult community better understand and assist students in navigating the challenge of a novel intellectual community. 

Toby Elmore

Toby Elmore is studying at the University of San Francisco School of Education.

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