Causality Orientations Theory

Neuroeducation, or more broadly Mind, Brain, and Education Science, is a nascent field that seeks to converge our knowledge of biological processes with the practices and pedagogies of education. Truth be told, the online format presents particular hurdles to learning from a neuroeducational standpoint—if students are distracted and not engaged, they don’t persist. The good news is that we can incorporate findings of neuroeducation to help students thrive in an online modality and ultimately persist through to graduation.

Housed within neuroeducation is a theory relating to student motivations called causality orientations theory. According to researchers Richard Koestner and Miron Zuckerman, this theory

“distinguishes among three broad classes of behavior and motivationally relevant psychological processes: autonomous, control-determined, and impersonal. Autonomous behaviors are initiated and regulated by choices that are based on an awareness of one’s needs and integrated goals. People who function autonomously are hypothesized to seek out choice and to experience their behavior as self-initiated. Control-determined behaviors are initiated and regulated by controls in the environment such as reward structures or by internally controlling imperatives indicating how one ‘should’ or ‘must’ behave. People who are oriented toward control are expected to seek out controls and to interpret their environment as controlling. Impersonal behaviors are those whose initiation and regulation are perceived to be beyond a person’s intentional control. People with an impersonal orientation are likely to believe that they cannot control their behavior and consequently cannot obtain desired outcomes.”

So how does this categorization help us when trying to figure out how to retain online students? As with any learning environment, students who function autonomously tend to establish themselves as high-achievers early in the educational process. However, it is also true that those with control-determined and impersonal orientations establish themselves early, and their orientation tends to manifest through a number of indicators. Since the online modality often includes less real-time structures and personal interactions, these students are at particular risk of falling prey to the distractions in their personal and familial lives.

Increase Metacognition

So what to do? While many seek to outwardly regulate students with structural elements like deadlines, deliverables, and log-ins, the answer likely lies in helping students regulate themselves—or, in neuroeducation terms, helping students increase their metacognition. The term metacognition simply speaks to the students’ awareness of, and ability to understand, their own thought processes. Or, put more succinctly by researcher and author Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa in the book Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science:  “Activities that stimulate metacognition do one of two things: they either enhance knowledge about cognition, or they enhance monitoring of cognition.

Rather than increasing a number of external motivators to encourage the retention of online students, institutions should move to increase metacognition. Doctoral student Charles Cadle asserted that, “Perseverance is not just a long-range and goal-oriented outcome, it is also a process operationalized by cognitive presence.”

The Answer?

Outreach is an answer to increase metacognition in online students, and thus increase their chances of retaining. The way we approach increasing student metacognition is through data-driven coaching.

While the indicators for a student with autonomous orientation are often glaringly obvious—for these students, the outcomes of performance exceed what they need to do and they do it consistently—the control-determined and impersonal types tend to reveal themselves through more nuanced indicators.

Through the three pillars of coaching—life, academic, and career—coaches use questions to help bring an awareness of thinking and behavioral patterns that might be getting in the students’ ways. These questions align with the strategies for developing metacognitive behaviors as described by Tokuhama-Espinosa, strategies such as:

  • Identifying what you know and what you don’t
  • Talking about thinking
  • Planning and self-regulation
  • Debriefing the thinking process
  • Self-evaluating

By first identifying who might need a little extra help, then by using data to inform and refine the coaching process, coaches can increase metacognition and hopefully help move the student to a more autonomous cognitive orientation.

More plainly, by helping students regulate their thinking and performance, institutions will be poised to mitigate the diminishing retention rates of online students.

About the Author:

Sarah Horn ( is the VP of Student Retention at Helix Education ( Under Horn’s leadership, private and public universities have seen dramatically improved first-year retention results, enrollment growth in differentiated programs, and streamlined operational processes.

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