When we first come to uni or start a new semester, most of us feel motivated to do well and enjoy the subjects we've chosen. However, there are times when your motivation might wane, no matter how interested you are in your courses, especially during remote study. Understanding potential barriers to motivation is the first step towards overcoming them. This page provides you with some useful strategies to maintain motivation and thrive at uni.
For a brief video on maintaining motivation put together by an Academic Skills Learning Adviser, follow this link.
Overcoming barriers to motivation
While there are several barriers to motivation, the good news is that there's nothing wrong with you if you feel unmotivated at times. It's important to acknowledge and reflect upon your feelings, and then be ready to act. There are plenty of ways to boost your motivation!
One barrier to motivation and productivity is boredom. You might feel uninterested in the subject or task. A way to overcome this hurdle is to actively look for what might be interesting and meaningful to you and your scholarly community about the topic and/or task. With a bit of research on the topic you are likely to find something interesting and personally meaningful. The research, for example, might help you to think about how the topic connects to the bigger picture of the subject, which is something you feel passionate about. Talking to your friends can also provide ideas about the significance of the topic for your field or discipline.
Another barrier to motivation is anxiety. You might be worried about completing the assignment incorrectly. A related barrier is uncertainty, which is when you feel lost and overwhelmed, unsure of how to do the assignment. To avoid both of these unpleasant feelings, it is likely that you will procrastinate. However, such a tactic will only increase your pain as the deadline looms.
For both the anxiety over not performing well on an assignment, and the uncertainty of how to complete it, you must take action. Reach out to your tutor, course convenor and / or fellow classmates for help. They can help clarify a task and provide feedback on whether or not you're on the right track. We highly recommend visiting us at Academic Skills, where we will also do our best to guide you out of uncertainty and anxiety by helping you to unpack the assignment question, interpret the marking rubric and provide tips for communicating your analysis and arguments more effectively. No one knows that you feel uncertain or anxious, so it is vital that you don't suffer in silence. Take that initial step to help yourself out of these uncomfortable states and into an understanding of how to move forward.
Another set of barriers has to do with your habits and competing priorities. If your habit is to lack routine, then you will most likely lack productivity and motivation. With a balanced routine of study (where you break tasks up into smaller chunks and make steady progress), regular meals, exercise, and sleep, you will create a habit of productivity. If you have competing priorities, such as caring for family, you will have to be more strategic about your study time, and what you can achieve in those periods. However, if your priorities include video games and Netflix, such passive habits can rob us of motivation. Be strategic about your priorities by making considered choices regarding your study times, caring responsibilities, and activities meant to help you relax and unwind.
The final barrier to motivation is feeling tired or lacking in energy. This feeling has to do with your physical well-being, and is a sign that you need more sleep, regular balanced meals, and exercise.
Different kinds of motivation
For a wider view on motivation and how to more actively maintain it (rather than putting out fires when barriers arise), let's consider the different types of motivation.
Extrinsic: This is when you are motivated by external rewards-getting that high mark, getting the career you want, or simply getting praise from your tutor.
Intrinsic: This is when you have an internal passion for your subject or task that is motivating you.
Self-efficacy: This type of motivation comes from your own self-belief. You believe that you have the ability to complete this task, and to do well. You can look to prior evidence (high school or work experiences, or other uni courses where you have indeed done well) to bolster this type of motivation.
Self-regulation: This is the belief that you can manage yourself well in order to achieve what you want to achieve, and that the outcome is mainly based on your efforts, rather than luck. Self-regulation is the belief that your efforts pretty much control the outcome-of your mark, of getting a job, of being chosen for a scholarship, etc.
All of these kinds of motivation are helpful, and often overlap. However, it is much better to have a greater degree of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation will take you further. Instead of chasing praise (or aiming to avoid punishment / failure), developing and following what you find pleasurable and fulfilling will be a much greater bolster against dips in motivation (Hughes 2020).
It's easy to see how self-efficacy and self-regulation overlap, because they both concern how we view ourselves, or our mindset. Try to develop an awareness of your self-talk and beliefs about yourself. If you notice that your internal monologue is saying things like, I can't do this. It's too hard. Or The person next to me is going to easily get an HD, and I'm going to get a Credit no matter how much effort I put in, reflect on this self-talk. Why do you believe this about yourself? What evidence do you have, and what evidence do you have to the contrary? If you've worked hard and done well in the past, that's evidence that you can do it again. Another way to improve your self-belief and self-talk is to develop a growth mindset.
Long-term research into mindset (Dweck 2016) has shown that the best way to deal with challenges and perceived setbacks, and maintain motivation is to develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset is when you believe that you can learn and develop skills over time, and that challenges, mistakes, and even failure are the only way to learn and grow. Its opposite, a fixed mindset, is when you believe that you can't learn anything new, that your abilities are 'fixed': set in stone. People with this mindset are afraid of challenges and failure, for such experiences might reveal that their abilities are mediocre, and will stay that way forever. However, people with a growth mindset continually seek challenges and learn from failures. Which attitude sounds better to you?
Of course, we don't have a 100% growth mindset or a 100% fixed mindset. We can have a growth mindset about our Chemistry subjects, but not our Biology ones. For some reason, we can hold the belief that I'm just not good at Biology at the university level. But feel like we can develop new skills within Chemistry, or other areas of our lives, such as hobbies or sports.
Therefore, it's important to be aware of and reflect upon your self-belief and self-talk. If you notice that you're having negative thoughts, try to use positive language instead, such as: What have I learned? What's another way to approach this? How can I improve?
The next thing to do is to seek feedback, and be open to it. That's another proven way to improve and succeed.
Dealing with challenges
Another big barrier to motivation can occur when something goes wrong. You don't get the grade you expect, or you believe that a presentation you gave goes badly. Such evaluation or self-criticism can really hamper your motivation, and make you question yourself and your abilities. However, it doesn't have to be this way.
We've just learned that mistakes are a crucial part of learning. If you knew everything already, and did everything perfectly, then why would you come to uni at all?
Another point to remember is that emotions are ok. Feel disappointed, worry and / or frustration. It's important to acknowledge your uncomfortable feelings and deal with them, rather than rushing to avoid them. However, what you do with those feelings also makes a big difference.
When choosing to acknowledge your feelings, try to avoid ruminating on them, getting yourself into a negative spiral, focussing on what has gone wrong and reliving the initial shock or embarrassment over and over again. In these situations, you might ask yourself: How is this thought helping me?
The more positive steps to take are to acknowledge your feelings, make positive critiques, plan for the next time, and take positive action. What can I learn from this? What can I do differently next time? How can I get feedback to help me improve?
All of this advice is certainly easier said than done, and developing a positive, growth mindset takes commitment and practice. Try to be kind and gentle to yourself. Reflect on your feelings, and take positive actions to continually improve, whether it be your routine, your study habits, or your mindset.
Dweck, CS 2016, Mindset: the new psychology of success, Ballantine Books, New York.
Hughes, G 2020, Be well, learn well: improve your wellbeing and academic performance, Red Globe Press, London.