Motivation: What it is and how to sustain it

What it is and how to sustain it
From the Skills Team, University of Hull
What is motivation?
Motivation is a pre-requisite for all human action and there are a number of theories
which attempt to define it. Often it is a question of necessity. For example, the
principal reason we are motivated to learn our native language is that we could not
survive socially or even physically without some form of verbal communication. So, we
sometimes learn because we have to.
Gardner and Lambert suggested that there are two basic types of motivation,
integrative and instrumental.
Integrative: A willingness to learn for its own sake, because the
topic is interesting in itself
Instrumental: Study is undertaken out of a desire to reach a goal,
perhaps go into a particular career or because a given qualification is
required before some other desirable goal can be attained.
So, some people may decide to learn Japanese either because they need the basics of
the language for their company’s trade with that country or because they need it to
gain promotion (instrumental); alternatively, they may simply like the language and wish
to assimilate themselves into Japanese life and culture (integrative).
In other words, motivation is either internal or
external; you can either be self-motivated, where the
drive to do something comes from within, or be
motivated by others or by circumstances outside your
control. The better kind of motivation is usually the
former, (intrinsic), since you are doing something
because you want to, not merely because you are
obliged to. In these circumstances, you complete tasks
because of an inner drive to do so, which is more
continuous and does not rely on anyone else for
You are in Higher Education because you want to be and because your area of study is
the one you have chosen. In theory then, you already have the right kind of motivation
(integrative). It is perfectly natural that you may not always be able to maintain such
strong motivation and there may be dips in your enthusiasm at various times as you
meet different challenges. We all have off-days or periods when we find it hard to fulfil
our good intentions! The main difficulty, then, is not having motivation in the first
place, but in maintaining it.
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Why do we lose motivation?
In higher education, it can be very east to lose motivation. This is usually due to a lack
of confidence, lack of focus or lack of direction.
Lack of confidence: Do you believe you can succeed?
Lack of focus: Do you know what you want to do?
Lack of direction: Do you know what to do?
The following headings will focus on key issues that can affect your
motivation and how to tackle them
Temptation towards other activities; “putting it off”
This happens to us all and it usually revolves around the choice of more pleasant
options or the satisfaction of more immediate rewards (going out with friends is easier
than working alone).
Establish a routine, perhaps studying at the same
times each week, so that making regular progress
becomes automatic rather than spasmodic. Your
routine can be flexible, if you are ill for example,
but don’t allow an ‘interruption’ to put an end to
your routine.
You may feel from time to time that you do not have the energy to work.
It is important to look after yourself and your health. Burn-out can account for lost
motivation and taking on too much, not eating properly and not getting enough sleep
will all have a part to play. Build leisure time into your study plan. Paradoxically, some
physical exercise combats a feeling of tiredness and clears your head but don’t
exercise so much that you have no energy left for your work. Be conscious of your
body rhythms and work patterns and decide in which part of the day you are at your
best. These are the times you should reserve for study. Tell your family or friends
about these.
Perhaps you have a writing block and keep putting off doing your essay or assignment
or writing the next chapter of your dissertation or thesis. This is a delaying tactic and
is often a symptom of temptation (above). It works sometimes but places events in the
wrong order - the reward should come after the task!
Often, the hardest part of a task is starting it: the longer
you delay a course of action the harder it becomes to
start. A “settling down” ritual often helps (setting books
out, making coffee …). Once you have begun, however,
you will find making progress becomes much easier, as
long as you have planned your way forward. Remind
yourself again about your long-term goals. As Chairman
Mao once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins
with the first step.”
Solitary working environment
You may not be sure how you are progressing and would
like more feedback. This last point may be particularly true
at postgraduate level when you are likely to be working
alone for long periods at your research or dissertation and
do not have the regular stimulus of handing in essays and
projects and receiving regular comment and
encouragement. If you are studying at a postgraduate level
there may be a lack of fellow students or researchers with
whom you can discuss or share your ideas. A concern not
shared can grow out of all proportion.
If you are a postgraduate student - Network! Find other postgraduate or research
students on campus, perhaps via the Graduate School, with whom you can
communicate. Arrange to meet them over a coffee - students of different disciplines
often have similar concerns and other people’s ways of resolving difficulties may often
be useful to you too. Full details of the Graduate School at the University can be
found at Use e-mail or telephone to make contact with
other students. Form a study group and fix a regular time and day to have face-toface meetings.
If you are an undergraduate student – build a peer network. Get involved in
extracurricular activities like societies, volunteering and sports. The Students’ Union is
the best place to start and can be found at
You reach a less interesting part of your studies
You may find some parts of your course less interesting than others or more difficult
than you expected and find that you do not want to do your work either because you
are bored with a particular aspect or are not confident about what you are doing.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It is normal that sometimes you will make slower
progress. Be patient and accept that a consistent rate of progress is not always
possible. Most things develop in fits and starts over time. Do only a little at a time,
taking more breaks than you would normally.
Something else on your mind
If you have a problem not connected with your academic work - perhaps money or a
relationship - try to do something about it.
There are numerous support services on campus to assist
you. Student Support Services (Disability Services, Student
Loans and Hardship, Student Counselling, Mature Students
Adviser and Pastoral Care), ICT (Service Desk), Careers
Service and HUU Advice Centre (debt, funding, housing,
academic issues, employment issues and consumer
You could also share any worries with friends or with people who care about you.
Often verbalising worries makes them seem smaller and a heart-to-heart with a
sympathetic but objective person can be enormously helpful.
“This is going to be difficult” or “I don’t think I understand this”
It will be difficult if you tell yourself so!
Once understood, you will wonder why
you found it so difficult in the first place.
If you do not completely understand
something, don’t be afraid to go back to
basics - talk it over with others or with a
Lack of a sense of direction or purpose
Remind yourself why you are here and of your
end-goal. Having a goal to work towards is
perhaps the greatest motivator of all. Turn
your long-term goal into a series of short-term
ones, thus giving yourself specific, easier
targets to achieve, step by step. Make a list of
things to be done in order of priority
(according to deadlines or importance) and, as
each task is completed, give yourself the
satisfaction of crossing or ticking things off as
they are completed.
“I’ll never do all that!”
Expectation overload, leading to panic and (partial) shutdown.
You can do it if you break it up into manageable chunks well before the relevant
deadlines. Completing tasks in stages is much less onerous and demanding than
trying to do them all in one go. It also contributes to better quality since it allows time
for reflection on each part that you write. Write down these stages and put them on
the wall, fridge door or in your diary. You don’t have a diary? Buy one! We all need
routines but we also need change - the two are not incompatible. Use the diary to
plan the coming week or month. A wall planner is also a good idea - it’s more
“I’m not as good as others on this course”
It is better to compete with yourself than with others. Be concerned only with your
own previous performance, not with that of fellow students. If you are making
progress, isn’t that all that really matters? Your confidence will grow as you progress
through the course.
“I don’t think I’m doing as well as I should”
Being too perfectionist can be de-motivating. Don’t regard a setback as a failure but
remember what you have achieved and give yourself a pat on the back. Promise
yourself a reward after completing each piece of work. Making mistakes is often a
natural part of the learning process. Sports people ought to learn more from a loss
than from a win!
Further reading
Carter, Bishop & Kravis (1998) Keys to Success: how to achieve your goals. Prentice-Hall,
New Jersey
Elphinstone & Schweitzer (1998) How to get a Research Degree: a survival guide. Allen &
Unwin, London (Ch. 1, 4 & 5)
Evans (1995) How to Write a Better Thesis or Report. Melbourne University Press,
Melbourne (Ch. 2)
Gardner & Lam bert (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning.
Newbury House, Rowley (Mass.)
Maslow (1954) Motivation and Personality. Harper & Rowe, New York
Produced by Phil Farrar, updated and edited by Lee Fallin
Photos by:
Varvara: ( (@ktvee): (
Adam DeClercq: (
Rennett Stowe: (
Marc Wellekötter: (
Dierk Schaefer: (
The information in this leaflet can be made available in an alternative format on request
– email [email protected]