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Academic Views - Successful students have strong sense of self-control

16 June 2010

Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark, director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, is co-author of the study Are Young People's Educational Outcomes Linked to their Sense of Control?

Looking to future ... Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark.

Looking to future ... Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark.

Students who have a strong sense of self control are more successful in their education, the first major study on youth education to emerge from a ground-breaking collaborative project between leading Australian academics and the Federal Government has found.

Are Young People's Educational Outcomes Linked to their Sense of Control is a very important study because governments often rely on education to assist disadvantaged groups, boost productivity, promote economic and social development and generally enhance wellbeing.

The study was based on extensive data on the experiences of 18-year-olds, collected during the past five years by academics in partnership with the Commonwealth Government as part of the long-running Youth in Focus project.

It analyses the link between students' beliefs about their control over their lives and their schooling.

A key finding is that a student's belief in their own ability to influence life events gives them a higher probability of finishing secondary school and obtaining a university entrance rank.

The study found that not only did students who had a more internal sense of control do better at secondary school, but that they achieved higher university entrance rankings than those with a more external focus.

Sense of control is regarded as being an attitude that links a person's own behaviour to consequences. People who believe that their lives are influenced by their own efforts are said to have an internal sense of control. Those who believe that external factors, such as luck, have a significant impact have an external sense of control.

It is believed that a person's sense of control is formed during childhood and stabilises during adolescence, but that it can evolve through factors such as stress and physical and mental health changes.

Past studies have shown that a sense of personal control increases effort, motivation and persistence in problem solving - all of which were expected to improve educational outcomes.

Are Young People's Educational Outcomes Linked to their Sense of Control? confirmed widespread beliefs that that people in disadvantaged situations tend to have poorer educational outcomes. However it also found that there was no significant link between a student's family welfare history and their sense of control.

Disadvantaged students were no more likely to have an external sense of control than other young people.

An important finding to draw from the study is that a young person's sense of control is not significantly influenced by the economic circumstances of their upbringing.

The study could be very useful for those who believe that providing positive motivation to students can help them achieve better results. We know there is a link, and that we may be able to provide a temporary boost to students by using motivational techniques. But we don't know if we can do that in a way that will have a permanent impact on a young person's sense of their self-ability.

The full working paper is available to download from the Melbourne Institute website external page (will open in a new window)