One of the most stressful aspects of teaching is managing student responses to their grades. It is often the case that students externalize blame for their poor grades, rather than accept responsibility. And, this blame is easily directed to instructors. If students accept responsibility for their poor performance, they can gain a sense of control over their grades and begin developing a study plan to improve future performance.

How much control you feel you have over a situation is a personal belief that is called the locus of control. Locus of control represents a continuum: At one end is the belief that you are basically in control of life’s events and that what you do influences the situation; this belief is called an internal locus of control. At the other end is the belief that change and luck mostly determine what happens and that you do not have much influence; this belief is called an external locus of control.

A student’s locus of control can have a profound impact on academic achievement and sense of personal responsibility. Persons with an internal locus of control attribute poor performance to a lack of important skills or to poor study habits, and are more likely to persist in the future. Persons with an external locus of control may feel that working hard is futile because his/her efforts have only brought disappointment. There is extensive research supporting an association between an internal locus of control and increased academic performance, beginning as early as childhood.

Let’s consider a student who accepts responsibility for her poor grade and believes she can do better. After receiving a poor grade, she begins to seek help from the instructor, attends all of the classes, reads each chapter twice, and uses the study guide. This student is using problem-focused coping, which means she is trying to decrease frustration and anger by solving the problem through seeking information, changing her behavior, or taking whatever action is needed to resolve the difficulty. Not surprisingly, there is an abundance of research supporting an association between the use of problem-focused coping and higher academic performance.

Now, let’s consider a student who fails to accept responsibility for his poor grade and externalizes blame. After receiving a poor grade, he goes home and complains about the unfair and ridiculously difficult exam to friends and family all day. On the next exam, he receives another low grade. This student is using emotion-focused coping, which means he does things primarily to deal with his emotional distress, such as seeking support and sympathy or avoiding or denying the situation. As expected, research generally finds that the use of emotion-focused coping is associated with lower academic performance.

Taking into consideration research outcomes on the academic benefits of having an internal locus of control and using problem-focused coping, I aim to foster these beliefs and skills in my students. Below are two abbreviated excerpts from what I tell students when returning graded exams:

“Some of you may be thinking that because you have taken pages of notes and studied very hard, that the reason for your low grade could not be you. So, you blame the instructor who obviously gave an unfair and tricky exam. But when you think about it, blaming the instructor for a low grade on an exam doesn’t make much sense. In fact, you’ll find that many students answered correctly the very same questions that you missed or thought unfair. Instead of blaming anyone for a low grade, think about developing a plan for how to study for the next exam. Your plan might include taking better notes, coming to all of the classes, asking questions in class, or seeing me for studying tips. Don’t blame anybody – instead, develop a study plan.”

“If you received a low grade and feel bad, you have two choices. You can easily prolong your bad mood and spread it to others. Maybe you’ll find someone else who also got a poor grade and complain together. Or, you can say, “I will allow myself to make five complaints and stay in a bad mood for ten minutes. After that, I will work at getting out of this bad mood by talking to a friend about something pleasant, by doing some favorite activity, or by spending time in some stress-reduction activity.”

After implementing the above strategy, I frequently have students voluntarily tell me that their low grade is their fault and they will work harder to do better in my class. Hearing these words from students confirms that my efforts to promote an internal locus of control and foster problem-focused coping in students is a worthwhile endeavor.


Cohen, M., Ben-Zur, H., & Rosenfeld, M. J. (2008). Sense of coherence, coping strategies, and test anxiety as predictors of test performance among college students. International Journal of Stress Management, 15, 289-303.

Findlet, M. J., & Cooper, H. M. (1983). Locus of control and academic achievement: A literature review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(2), 419-427.

Gordon, D. A. (1977). Children’s beliefs in internal-external control and self-esteem as related to academic achievement. Journal of Personality Assessment, 41(4), 383-386.

MacCann, C., Lipnevich, A. A., Burrus, J., & Roberts, R. D. (2011). The best years of our lives? Coping with stress predicts school grades, life satisfaction, and feelings about high school. Learning and Individual Differences, 82(1), 405-432.

Messer, S. B. (1972). The relation of internal-external control to academic performance. Child Development, 43, 1456-1462.

Struthers, C. W., Perry, R. P., & Menec, V. H. (2000). An examination of the relationship among academic stress, coping, motivation, and performance in college. Research in Higher Education, 41(5), 581-592.

You are reading

Get Psyched!

Narcissists Are Aggressive Jerks!

It is a common myth that aggressive people have low self-esteem.

Praise, like penicillin, must not be given haphazardly!

Person praise and inflated praise can backfire in low self-esteem children.

It’s time to kill the death penalty

The U.S. should join over 100 other countries and ban the death penalty.