Quizlet is proud to partner with real students and recent graduates to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Nicolette Kier, who just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.
All students understand that magical number: 11:59. It's the minute when the grading gods decide whether they're on your side or not. You can tell by whether your Internet connection cuts off, your file is in the wrong format, or some other unforeseen submission glitch arises to cost you the grade.
"Why not take the power into your own hands and just finish earlier?" some may say.
But it's not that easy to just "finish things earlier."
The secret ingredient to studying and completing assignments on time is very hard to obtain, and it can't be bought or sold.
It's motivation. (I know, can you think of anything harder to find?)
But I found it, and now I feel for my 11:59 submission crew. So I will share my findings. Here is how to motivate yourself to study. (And it’s not what you’re expecting to hear.)
Motivation is more about removing barriers than finding some inner willpower.
Many people think studying and completing schoolwork is about sheer willpower. They assume that if they don’t meet a self-directed study goal, it’s because they didn’t have enough motivation to get the work done.
But the truth is that simply removing the barriers to getting stuff done is actually a source of motivation in itself. If you clear the roadblocks, there’s no need to create new ways to motivate yourself.
So, what’s keeping you from completing tasks until the absolute last minute?
The top four answers (besides hunger and exhaustion) are:
- anxiety/fear of failure
- overconfidence (yes, confidence is helpful, but only up to a certain point)
If you want to get motivated, to want to study, you have to overcome all the reasons holding you back. So, let’s remove those barriers.
Related: Making and keeping New Year’s resolutions is also about removing barriers to action. Here’s how to make your resolution stick for longer than a month.
1. You’re unmotivated because you’re bored. Find something interesting about a class, and you’ll find yourself working longer and harder than before.
You probably don’t love all of your classes, because most people just aren’t interested in everything. Not everything is relevant to your life or your academic field.
For example, people studying physics are way more likely than art majors to be engaged in an electronics class. When I took the class, I was excited about breadboards and Arduinos.
But while a lot of people are absolutely jazzed about Russian literature, I was not excited about Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.
Yet there is almost always a way to make a course interesting. Try the following:
Choose more interesting subject matter to think/write about in your courses. Don’t choose the boring, easy thing to work on.
The idea of choosing an easy subject to study for an essay or test is enticing at first. You think you’ll finish the assignment quickly. But the easy thing will bore you, and that makes it harder to get motivated.
For example, in my Intro to Existentialism course, we were supposed to write an essay about morality. It would have been “easy” for me to write an argument with Kant’s philosophical ideas, because we had studied them the most in our class. But I thought another philosopher, Nietzsche, had more interesting ideas. So, I chose a more difficult, but more engaging topic, and didn’t drag my feet when it came to writing.
Set a goal for yourself. Use the course matter itself to reach this goal.
In my Russian literature class, I became determined to write the most concise, elegant essay I could. Russian literature isn’t important to me, but the perfect essay was. I did some of my best work in that class, mainly because I found a way around being bored.
And I ended up with newly mastered essay skills that benefited me in future courses.
If you write, try to write in the style of someone you’re studying right now. If you’re into chemistry, find a way to incorporate molecular structures in your artwork. Take the boring material and give it an interesting personal spin.
Learn cool facts in a class, especially ones that relate to daily life. Be impressed, and impress other people, with them.
It’s cool to understand—and be able to explain—why things are the way they are. Think about it: Someone could say, “Wow, look how pretty the leaves are.” Then you bust out your photosynthesis knowledge, which is mad impressive. (Don’t be obnoxious, though.)
2. You’re unmotivated because you don’t see a reason to care. You just have to find one.
Boredom is not the same as indifference. You can still respect the subject matter even if you find it uninteresting. The art major in an electronics class is bored, but recognizes the importance of electronics. The physics major is bored in a literature class, but can understand how writing is a reflection of life in a specific time and place.
But it’s harder to start studying when you can’t see any reason to take in the subject matter.
This is a common problem in math classes. My sister is in fifth grade right now. She thinks learning long division is useless, because we all have phones with calculators to divide for us.
In a way, she is right. I had to find another reason for her to learn division, because “you need to know it” wasn’t motivating.
For some reason, we got on the subject of rounding and significant figures. (Chem people, where are you at?) We talked about how estimation makes a difference in our lives. She found this fascinating, and was motivated to finish her work.
There is a reason for learning everything. Your teachers probably tell you that to motivate you—but that’s not the only reason they’re saying it. They’re also saying it because it’s true.
Now you just have to find your reason to care.
If you need an external reason to care, think about how terrible it would be to have to repeat a class. Think about doing all that work again.
If wasting your time, energy and (for college students) money isn't enough to make you care, I don’t know what is.
3. You are afraid of possibly failing. Don’t turn “possibly failing” into “definitely failing.”
If you’re not bored, and you do care, why is it that you still sometimes procrastinate on studying?
You might be experiencing anxiety-induced procrastination. You feel so far behind that there’s no way you’ll be prepared for an exam, essay or assignment. Or in your mind you just “know” you’re going to fail, so why start?
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you think about it: You’re so afraid you might fail that you set yourself up to fail by not studying. If you do fail, you prove yourself right. Then you’re really unmotivated to pick yourself up and try again.
Thinking you’re destined to fail is a cognitive distortion. It’s a thing your brain tells you that isn’t necessarily true. In this instance, the cognitive distortion is “fortune telling,” as you’re predicting your own destiny.
To get away from anxiety-induced procrastination, you have to stop assuming you’re going to fail.
When you start thinking that you’re not smart enough to pass the class, or you’re going to forget everything you’ve ever learned right before the test, or that you literally cannot put all of this information in your brain, ask yourself:
- What evidence is there to prove your thoughts are true? Did you understand the concepts you’re studying at some earlier point in the class? If you did, then you can understand them again. If you did not, that doesn’t mean you’re incapable of learning now.
- You thought about the worst thing that could happen (you fail this test, this course, you get kicked out of school, etc.) What’s the best thing that could happen?
- What’s the most realistic scenario? Are you, in reality, going to complete everything you’ve ever learned in a course you’ve been in for four months? Probably not.
Think about what a realistic outcome would look like if you did spend more time studying. Your realistic goal can turn from doomsday to a decent, even excellent, score if you take the time to study.
Believing that you can study and pass can be motivating enough to make you actually try to. It will also give you a boost of confidence before and during an assignment or exam.
4. You thought you were so knowledgeable that you underprepared, and knew nothing. Show yourself, and others, that you are knowledgeable. Earn that higher level confidence.
It’s nice to walk into an exam thinking you’ve got this. It’s not nice to realize that you don’t actually have anything because you didn’t study.
If you think you know everything, you won’t be not motivated to go through your materials. Then you might fail because you didn’t study, and also didn’t know everything.
There are a few ways the overconfident student can get motivated to study.
Prove to yourself, on paper, that you know everything you think you do. Don’t trust that overconfident feeling. Demonstrate that you understand all the concepts you need to know to do well in your course. One easy way to do this is to find (or make) a Quizlet set with the material you need to know and see how you do on Learn or Test.
Prove to others that you have all that good knowledge. But don’t be arrogant about it. Instead, become the classmate that anyone can approach and ask for help. Be the go-to study buddy everyone hopes for.
Once you’ve proven your academic skill to everyone else, flexing it on an exam or essay will be easy. You can submit your work and then strut from the end of the hallway and back, to capture the in-person feeling of sauntering out of an exam room early.
We can all find a way to move past whatever is holding us back. For example, if chemistry-related boredom is your barrier, try to go viral on TikTok with a rap of the table of elements. Or use your new knowledge of how chemical bonds work to send a corny joke to your crush. (We at Quizlet do not condone doing this.)
Best of luck in this new semester, whether you’re learning remotely or in-person. Quizlet believes in you. I believe in you.
Nicolette Kier just made it to the other side of a degree in physics and writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She reaped the usual rewards of college: knowledge, a job, and debt. She thinks it was worth it.