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Create Meaningful Motivation

Create and review a Learning Goals Sheet

  • Why this works: If you worry a little less about demonstrating your competence and think substantially more about what you want to learn, research indicates you’ll enjoy fuller engagement, deeper learning, and greater persistence.
  • How to do it: Get a single sheet you plan to review periodically. First, write down the main thing you’d like to understand by the end of the course, for example, “I’d like to really understand the development and treatment of conduct disorder in children.”

    Second, write down one thing you want to learn from the next lecture. From now on, before each lecture, add to this list. That is, before the lecture starts, write down what you want to learn from it. After the lecture, you can reflect on how close you got to learning what you wanted to learn. This will motivate you, and you’ll end up with a list of cool learning goals you set.

    Bonus motivation: show your Learning Goals Sheet to your instructor or TA and get their input on your goals. They’ll probably like that.

Create and review an Homework Enjoyments list

  • Why this works: “Homework Enjoyments” are things you like about doing your homework while you are doing it, whether problem set, paper, or reading. The easier, faster, and stronger you can remember the enjoyments of your homework, the easier it will be to get started.
  • How to do it: On a sheet you’ll look at regularly, write down 3–5 things you like about doing your homework (pset, paper, or reading). Student examples of Homework Enjoyments include “once I’ve setup the physics problem, I’m usually interested,” “I like solving the problems—they’re like little puzzles,” “I enjoy the research,” “I feel good once I have a first draft and the structure is clear,” “I feel proud sometimes when I read my own paragraphs,” and “finding quotations is fun.” Each day, add one Homework Enjoyment to your list. Bonus motivation: write down the number of minutes until you were “into it.”

Create and review a Homework Benefits list

  • Why this works: You can increase your motivation by getting a strong grasp on every benefit of the homework assignment, or the total set of assignments, offers.
  • How to do it: On a sheet you’ll look at periodically, write down three benefits you get from learning from the homework. Your benefits might be learning about ideas that help with current or future courses, developing writing or reasoning skills that can help you in your career, and learning ideas that give you a different way to look at current events or give you good conversational fodder. Even writing down something like “Getting a B in this class will help me maintain the GPA that will help me get into XYZ.” can be helpful. Specifying what GPA can help you achieve a meaningful goal can help you keep in mind that the GPA is a statistical estimate of your past grades. Your GPA is not a predictor of your future potential to improve your learning strategies, to grow your intelligence, or to develop a rewarding career. Put this sheet where you’ll see it daily.

List and review your values

  • Why this works: You have ways of feeling and acting, i.e., values, that you like and that are relevant to learning. If you regularly reflect on them, you can increase the desire to feel and do them, increasing your motivation to use good learning and time management strategies.
  • How to do it: Write three things that describe the kind of attitudes you want to cultivate and behaviors you want to perform as a student. Student examples include: curious, courageous, diligent, engaged, self-disciplined, organized, resilient, humble, and proactive. Then write something you can do for each one. For example, what would you do if you were curious and courageous? Perhaps curiously take a peek at the material before the lecture, courageously tolerate any anxiety, and write down one question for the lecture you want to learn about. 

Caveat on creating meaningful motivation

Focusing on goals, benefits, and values may help motivate you. But, focusing on goals, benefits, and values may also demotivate you if you’re thinking you can’t achieve your goals or meet your values. So, use your judgement. 

If applying the above strategies is helping, great! If not, you may wish to focus on the behavioral motivational strategies in the other sections. For example, you may think while doing a pset, “This is too hard; I can’t understand this; I’m not achieving my learning goal” and feel bad and want to give up. Don’t give up! Instead, read about the Pomodoro Technique on the other page (25 minutes work, 5 minutes rest). Then say to yourself, “I can do another 25 minutes.” That will give you a little motivation. Proceed to do so. You’ll probably feel better after you finish the 25 minutes, and that will give you more motivation! 

Don’t forget about the uber strategy for motivation—get an Academic Coach! Athletes use coaches consistently for maximum learning and performance. You can do the same.


A note about habit change

If you are like most people, doing any of these strategies consistently will mean breaking old habits and making new habits. Therefore, you can expect that integrating any one strategy into your learning practice will be challenging and take a couple of weeks or more. If you are not following through with a particular strategy, please don’t get discouraged and think you are the only one. Struggle is normal. Instead, troubleshoot the challenge with someone, or make an appointment with an Academic Coach. It’s our job to help you put the strategies in place to feel good about your learning and progress toward your academic goals.