William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

Welcome to the Exam Study Expert’s ULTIMATE GUIDE to student motivation. If you’re looking for the answers to your study motivation prayers, you’re in the right place!

This isn’t just another set of “common sense” tips that you’ll have forgotten by next week:

We’re setting out to make a meaningful difference to your studies, taking you deep into how motivation works, sharing everything you need to know to start and keep studying efficiently, and get you the grades you want.

Keep reading to the bottom, because I’ve a special gift which shows you the exact learning strategy I used at Cambridge University to memorise crazy amounts of information in a very short space of time. Integrating two major pillars of learning science, I believe this is best possible system for learning effectively, fast.


Finding your WHY: study motivation through purpose

Look:

You’re going to be spending the next few weeks, months, even years studying towards your goal. Well worth taking a moment to figure out why your study goals matters to you, especially if you’re not finding the reasons particularly obvious.

Motivation for students in college, for high school students, in the classroom: wherever you’re at in your studies, you need a reason to want to achieve academic success.

So what’s your “why”?

1.     Hope for success…

… because, believe it or not, succeeding in your studies can bring you reasons to be happy.

Maybe you’re yearning:

  • For the pure joy of success: few things beat that warm inner glow of satisfaction that comes from getting the grades you dreamed of, after all that hard work. Visualising that moment could be a powerful incentive to keep going.
  • To earn praise and admiration from others: your tutors, your family, your peers. Some would say you should be doing it for yourself rather than for others, but for some of you, the respect of others is a powerful motivator, especially if you’re the sort of person that cares about what others think, and likes to please.
  • To outdo others: I’ll be honest, my biggest motivator, in my high school days at least, was wanting to beat my closest rivals in class! It may not sound as pure and wholesome as “pure joy of success”, but boy, did it work for me.
  • To advance your academic goals: whether or not you get to study the subjects you want at the institute of your choice usually comes down to your academic track record, above all else. Landing the grades you need gets you closer to MedSchool, or Harvard, or Cambridge, or the PhD you want, or whatever you’re aspiring to. Important stuff.
  • For better career / life prospects: for many of us, academic goals are a precursor to broader life / career goals. Where do you want to be in 10 years’ time? What job do you want to have? Where do you want to be living? How much job satisfaction do you want? To what level of comfort do you want to be able to provide for yourself (and your family, if that’s part of your plan)?
  • This is the end-game for most of us, and although there are other ways to a great career, academic success can open an awful lot of doors and make it considerably easier to get where you want to be.

Do any of these resonate for you?

Motivation for students to achieve academic success is often stronger the clearer your next goal in life is.

So is there anything you can do to make your goal any clearer and more well-defined? If you’ve got some ideas about what’s next, for example, can you do some more research to turn a fuzzy idea about a future university/ job into a sharply-focused ambition?

What do you want to do, where do you want to do it, and what are the grades you need to get you there?

Indulge a daydream every now and then about whatever future outcome it is that inspires you, and use that to spur you on in the present.

2.     Fear of failure…

… something no-one likes to talk about. But it can be a potent driver, particularly as motivation for students in college / University, when the workload and expectations can be at their fiercest, so we are going to talk about it.

Let’s face it, there’s so much pressure on students to perform (whether put there by ourselves or by others), that at some point, most of us find we “feel the fear”.

Given a choice, I’d take a form of “hope for success” over “fear of failure” every time: studies find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that students driven by hope tend to be happier and less stressed than ones driven by fear.

It was fear that drove me to half-decent results in my first 2 years at University: the courses were hard, and there was a very real possibility I’d bomb, which scared me. So I worked my socks off (while maintaining a balanced lifestyle, getting some rest / relaxation time, plenty of sleep, and eating well, I should add) and came home with the goods.

When the fear arrives, steady yourself, and channel it into working hard. It can be astonishingly effective!

And if you’re finding it too much to handle, you’ve probably tempted the Panic Bear out of its cave – see Part 2 of this guide for how to tame her and get yourself back to work.

3.     Making progress…

… towards your goals can be motivating in and of itself.

It’s such a human thing to strive towards something. To conquer new ground, to improve your skills, to discover new things, to learn, to grow, to bloom: there’s something deep in our nature that finds great satisfaction in moving forward, not back.

Your studies can provide this satisfaction: whether it’s learning something new, mastering something you found hard, developing a new linguistic or mathematical skill, discovering something new about how the world works. As you get more advanced in your studies, the opportunities for reward get even greater: developing a command of very considerable bodies of knowledge, crafting original arguments, uncovering genuinely new findings in your field.

Progress in and of itself can be a wonderfully fulfilling thing, and in much the same way, lack of progress can be a real turn-off.

Maybe that lack of progress – either because you haven’t been able to get down to work, or because you have and you’re stuck – is one of the reasons you’re in a motivational pickle in the first place? If that’s you, check out Tips 10-13 on how to re-start your engines, rediscover some momentum, however slow it is at first, and start moving again.

4.     Love of the subject…

… is perhaps the best reason of all to want to do well in it.

I get that this one won’t apply to you all: that’s OK. But many of you, particularly when you start being able to have more choice over what subjects you study, will find your chosen field(s) interesting.

If that’s you, brilliant! Keep finding ways to remind yourself why you like it, and to refresh that curiosity to discover, the thrill in understanding, the fascination in the detail, whatever it is you love about the subject.

Perhaps that’s been you in the past, but your enthusiasm has waned. Can you find some ways to re-kindle that interest? Read (or re-read) an inspiring book, listen to some captivating YouTube clips or TED talks on advances /discoveries / unanswered questions in your field.

Let’s face it, though:

Not all of us are going to enjoy every part of our studies, particularly if you’re still at an earlier stage in your academic journey. How could a source of motivation for high school students be in the subjects themselves if you haven’t even had much say over what they are?

But perhaps you could find satisfaction, not in the subject matter itself, but how you apply it – you’re not particularly into Math, but you find the problems a fun mental challenge (on a good day, at least). Or you don’t really see the point in the Latin, but the logic and rules appeals to your inner sense of order and structure in the world.


Overwhelmed by your study challenges?

“If you reach for the heavens, you’ll get the stars thrown in” 

Mary Poppins

Sometimes the challenge just seems too big and hairy, you’re put off even engaging with it.

5.     It’s vital to have the right goals in the first place…

… to make sure they pull you forward not hold you back.

Sure, you want to stretch yourself when you set a goal, but there’s no point in being totally unrealistic.

When setting a goal for your studies, take into account:

  • Your track record: if you’ve consistently got strong grades throughout your course, you should aim to meet or beat those in your final assessment
  • Your history of effort: if you’re someone who, let’s be honest, hasn’t put in the work so far, you might decide you’re going to step up a gear or two in how hard and / or how smart you work now. If that’s you, I’m delighted to be here as you make that choice – and you can expect to be rewarded with better grades than you’ve got so far. Your goals should reflect that.
  • Your temperament: if you’re someone prone to anxiety and distress, an overly-ambitious goal could be a turn-off. Maybe better sticking with something that’s a bit more manageable that you feel calmer about. On the other hand, you might find, as many people do, that reaching for a goal which is just on the edge of what feels comfortable brings out your best.

The right goal can do wonders for you:

  • Makes you more efficient: less procrastination and more working, and when you are at your studies, keeping your attention more sharply focused on the topics and tasks that are going to deliver the biggest grade improvements
  • Makes you try harder: sweating it out to get it right
  • Makes you persevere for longer: not giving up on that tough problem

So take a moment, and reflect on what your goal is.

3.9 GPA? 5 As? A First? 3Cs 2Bs? Five 7-9s? Distinction? Pass with minor corrections?

Whatever it is for you, write it down, check it’s realistic (do you think you’ve got a decent chance of pulling it off, based on the above?) and run towards it.

6.     Don’t settle for how good you think you are…

… you CAN change your lot in life.

I routinely hear various forms of the idea that “some people are talented, and some are not”. That “some are good at Math and others are not”. That “some are clever and some are not”.

This is called a “fixed mindset” – “I am what I am and I can’t (significantly) change”, and it’s a very natural assumption to make.

The good news is, this isn’t right!

You in fact have massive capacity to change: the brain is very flexible, and good practice (i.e. studying regularly, in the right way) can make new connections, strengthen existing ones, and even change how the brain looks.

Want an example? Taxi drivers in London – who know how to navigate tens of thousands of streets in a sprawling 2000-year-old city without map or satnav – actually have a bigger area of the brain that deals with memory and navigation. Were they born with that? Of course not. It grew and strengthened through years of practice.

Believing you can change, and putting in quality work in pursuit of that change, is called “growth mindset” – that’s what I want you to strive towards.

7.     “Talent” isn’t everything…

… get gritty.

In her book on perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals – or “grit” – Angela Duckworth shares her findings from researching where success comes from, across a huge range of fields: from top corporate salespeople, to spelling bee champions, to exceptional performers at military academy.

Talent does play a little bit of a role in exceptional performance, sure, but way more important was how “gritty” people were in pursuit of their goals, in other words, how much quality effort they put into achieving them.

So how to develop grit? You want to look at four things, many of which we’ve already talked about:

  1. Find a greater purpose in what you’re doing (see Tips 1 and 2)
  2. Improve a little bit each day (see Tip 3)
  3. Develop a fascination with what you’re studying (see Tip 4)
  4. Don’t accept what you’re given: believe you can change (Tip 6). Just knowing and understanding this could be your first step towards a new you, and a new future.

Keep reading the next couple of tips for more practical advice on how to internalise your new mindset.

8.     Ditch any limiting beliefs…

… they ain’t doing you any good.

So what’s holding you back?

Spend some time writing down all the things you believe about your ability, work ethic, and ability to achieve. I mean, actually do this, right now, on a real piece of paper (or, ok, fine,the “notes” app on your phone if that’s all you’ve got). Maybe your list has things on it like:

  • I’m bad at French
  • I’m not one of those people that can work hard
  • I always make silly mistakes in an exam and undo some of my hard work
  • Geography is pointless because it has nothing to do with what I want to do
  • I don’t need to be good at school / to get good grades to succeed

Then spend some quality time unpicking these limiting beliefs for you. Look back over your list, be super-critical, and for each thing you’ve written down, figure out a good reason why each one of those beliefs is just a myth, and why you’re not going to let one more day go by with that holding you back. Here’s some ideas to get you started:

  • I’m bad at French: brains can change and grow. I’m going to study well, and I will get better.
  • I’m not one of those people that can work hard: but that stops now. It’s in my control to have a good work ethic, and I will. (perhaps with the help of the tips in this article!)
  • I always make silly mistakes in an exam and undo some of my hard work: I’m going to do so much exam practice I kick that habit, once and for all.
  • Geography is pointless because it has nothing to do with what I want to do: maybe, but colleges, universities and employers will still see the grade for decades to come. I’m going to get it right now, and be able to hold my head up high in years to come.
  • I don’t need to be good at school / to get good grades to succeed: well, maybe – but getting those grades keeps options open for the rest of my life. And besides, getting into the habit of being an achiever now, proving to myself that I’m the sort of person that succeeds, not quits, is a great mindset to get into that will spill over into all areas of my life: fitness, entrepreneurship, sport,career…

With thanks to the inimitable self-experimenter, distiller of wisdom and model human Tim Ferris for the inspiration for this system.


9.     Re-program your brain to believe in yourself …

… and teach your heart to know you can do it!

All this stuff about belief in yourself is well and good, but how do you actually do it?

A great way of reprogramming attitude is to pay close attention to the language you’re using. Correct yourself mentally, or out loud, and even correct others (especially if they’re talking about you!):

Adapted from “Carol Dweck Revisits the “Growth Mindset” 

Before long, you might be surprised to find yourself, almost like a charm, internalising these beliefs and re-setting those attitudes to something more positive.


The motivation to get going

“That’s one small step for man…”

Neil Armstrong

The hardest part is so often the first step. Here are some top study motivation tips for students out there who are stuck in a rut, and need to rediscover a way to get going again.

10.  Break it down

Don’t take it all on your shoulders at once.

Studying well is a long game, and the big picture can sometimes be very big indeed. So big it’s scary. Like a big elephant.

As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

So don’t look at it all at once: pick it off in manageable chunks. Bite off what you feel you can chew that hour, that afternoon, that day, and no more. If you’re just getting into your study routine, start by being very conservative in how much you take on – better to take on less in a session and be pleasantly surprised when you’re done early than take on too much to begin with and find yourself disheartened on Day 1.

11.  Easing gradually in…

… and before you know it, you’ll be flying.

There’s a technique in the psychology of persuasion called “the slide”, used by salesmen all over the world, say in a car showroom. You start with something easy and attractive (a free test drive) and progress through stages (a detailed discussion about engine performance) to the end goal (a massive cheque from the customer for a fast car).

You can use the slide on yourself to get you down to work. Here are the steps I often used myself to get the ball moving:

  1. A “fresh start” today, not tomorrow: “I’ll start my diet tomorrow” – oh no you don’t, you’re starting today. We have a tendency to want to start things with a clean break – the start of next week (“my essay starts on Monday”), the start of next year (“my New Year’s resolution will be to study more”). But these calendar allocations are entirely arbitrary – I give you permission to create a“fresh start” for yourself, here and now, today!
  • Assemble the things you need: books, paper, stationery, so you don’t need to spend hours going back and forth to the library or stationers once you get started. Don’t go overboard with this – I don’t need to see your books arranged in size order, your pens in rainbow formation or your notes alphabetised. Know the difference between laying useful groundwork and just wasting time.
  • Do “just a little bit”: set a timer for five minutes, and just do five then stop. You can commit to five minutes, right? Then you’re allowed to go back to whatever you were doing. But chances are, once you’ve done five minutes, you’ll find it wasn’t as bad as you thought, and want to do a bit more.

Or if you need something even REALLY extreme, try “easing yourself in” by getting in position to study regularly, then not doing any, at least to start with.

I knew someone who wasn’t a gym-goer, but “eased himself in” to a habit of going every day by first turning up at the gym every day, with all his gym kit, dressed, without doing any workouts at all. The idea was that he would get used to building gym into his daily routine, get used to bringing all the right kit with him, and remove some of the “practical” barriers to working out. Then after a few days of this, he felt like doing some exercise while he was there – and because a gym visit was now part of his daily routine, started to get some quality exercise in every day.

If you’re a chronic library-avoider, why not commit to going to the library every day, even if you leave quickly without doing work? Chances are, pretty soon, you’ll feel like staying to do some work – especially with all those hard-working faces around you…

If this sort of thing is resonating with you, you may enjoy this fascinating read from an ultimately highly successful academic who overcame a severe “work problem” (as she put it) by re-building a work habit by working for just fifteen minutes a day.

12.  Process not performance…

… take the expectations away and watch your reluctance to work melt away too.

If the goals you’re setting for that day sound difficult to achieve, sometimes you’re put off working towards them out of fear of failing them, or because you can’t find the energy to strive toward them.

If that’s you, try adjusting your short-term goals to something that’s totally within your control. So in practice, this might look like:

  • Instead of “I’m going to loose 2 stone”, try “I’m going to run for 30 minutes 3 times a week”
  • Instead of “I’m going to learn 100 words of French today” try “I’m going to learn French for 2 hours today”
  • Instead of “I’ll finish my literature review for my dissertation”, try “I’m going to choose 10 key papers and read them”

Feels less daunting, doesn’t it? And while we’re on a roll:

13.  Start with the easy stuff…

… and don’t worry if the work isn’t good quality for now.

If your objective is to learn something, you know you should really be doing active revision and testing yourself, but man, that feels like effort! So you do no revision at all. If that’s you, much as I want you to be revising effectively, I’d much rather you did some ineffective revision than none at all – and hey, there’s a place for study time that’s perhaps high on interest (topping up your “fascination for your subject) even if it’s not the most effective, high-yield thing to be learning at that moment.

Take it easy to start with, and try:

  • Re-reading your notes passively
  • Searching for some interesting videos on your topic on YouTube (but stay on topic!)
  • Find a good podcast on your subject and listen to it (maybe even while going for a walk to assemble the books / stationary you need?)

Or if you’re writing an essay, perhaps worrying about the quality of your writing is stopping you from doing any writing at all. Free yourself from that burden, and just start by writing anything, anything at all, even if it’s going to need a lot of editing later.

Just get down on paper what’s on the top of your head, and don’t worry about:

  • The quality of your language not being good: you can come back and edit it later
  • The structure / flow of your work: you can change things round later
  • Leaving gaps where you haven’t got a relevant fact / point of evidence: there will time to fill those soon, and you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for
  • Doing all your referencing properly: you can do that later too

And don’t even feel like you need to start at the beginning – pick a section you’re particularly interested in, think will come easily, or where you’ve got a point you’re especially looking forward to making.


Crush study procrastination and excuses

“Good things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle”

Abraham Lincoln

So we’ve got to take those excuses away, and overwhelm them with incentives to just get on with it!

Here are my top tips for beating Apathy Bear back into its cave on this front.

14.  But I don’t even NEED to study …

… I’ll be OK!

If this sounds like you, you’re likely in one of two camps.

  1. The “I’ve got plenty of time – I can study another day” camp

Time passes faster than you think. Life gets in the way: friends, family, holidays, hobbies, illness.

You can’t predict what will be on your plate over the days / weeks / months to come, so don’t leave it to chance!

Besides, if you think you’ll be OK even if you start tomorrow, just think what you could achieve if you start today! Can you raise your goals and strive to reach even higher, to shine even brighter?

     2. The “I know it all (or enough) already” camp

There are those who don’t put in the work simply because they feel they don’t need to. You feel you could take the exam tomorrow and cruise through on the basis of what you already know.

If that sounds a bit like you, are you absolutely sure you’ve got this in the bag? Have you taken multiple mock exams in test conditions and easily got the grades you want? Could you raise your goals? And how do you know it will work out on the day – you might be ill, or get nervous under pressure. If preparing more feels like over-preparing, that’s great – see it as an insurance policy against the unexpected on exam day.

For more on taking care of yourself during exam week, not choking under pressure on the day, and exam-taking strategies to unlock the highest possible marks for you, get yourself a copy of the Exam Study Expert’s ultimate guide to exam technique: Outsmart Your Exams.

15.  Switch off your monkey brain…

… and let your study brain regain control.

Your “monkey brain” is what I call the parts of your brain that evolved to crave fun, novelty, and easy rewards.

In the modern world, your monkey brain doesn’t always serve you well: it loves nothing more than gaming, YouTube, social media, messaging friends… basically anything other than the studies you’re supposed to be doing!

If you’re struggling to get down to work because your monkey brain keeps wanting to play, try this trick to shut it down and shift the power to back to your study brain:

  1. Sit at a desk or table with an actual, physical piece of paper (no electronic substitutes for this – risk of distractions is just too high!)
  2. On one half, write down all the reasons you want to study: all the good things you expect to happen if your studies go well
  3. On the other, write down all the undesirable outcomes of not studying: all the things you wouldn’t be so happy about if it doesn’t go well (though I’d say if you’re a bit anxious / panicky too, maybe skip this step and focus on the good things)

This serves two purposes: first, it gets you visualising outcomes in detail, what you want and what you don’t want. That in itself should be motivating.

Second, the act of thinking through your list and visualising outcomes will wake up the “thinking” areas toward the front of your brain – that’s the bit that you want to take charge when you get studying. Once you start thinking carefully through something, your monkey brain will go off and sulk, and you should finally be able to get some work done!

16.  Use this study hack to bundle temptation…

… and let “a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down!”

A great source of self-motivation for students if your heart isn’t in the work itself is by creating an unbreakable “work-fun” bundle rule, so you can never have one without the other.

As much as I want you to love your studies, for most students, there’s a decent-sized list of things you’d rather being doing than your studies.

So for an extra shot of motivation, create a strong temptation to work because of a special reward. This works best when you bundle something you really don’t enjoy with something you do. Some ideas to get you started:

  • You don’t like practising integration in Math. But you’re addicted to Game of Thrones. So from now on, you’re only allowed to indulge in an evening Thrones episode if you’ve put in 2 hours of quality integration problem practice that day.
  • You don’t like reading novels in Spanish. But you love the coffee they serve in that new coffee bar on the high street. So you’re only allowed to indulge in the coffee if you take your Spanish reading along and read 20 pages while you’re there.

This idea of “temptation bundling” (the link takes you to Katie Milkman’s research on the subject) works in other areas of your life too, by the way. Hate the gym but are captivated by that new real-life-murder podcast? OK, you’re only allowed the podcast in your ears when you’re in the gym.

Seeing your Auntie Flo is always pretty tedious but craving the burgers from the cool joint near where she lives? Fine – arrange to meet her at that place from now on.

You’ve got to be strict with yourself on not letting yourself access your chosen indulgence at any other time.

You’re not allowed the burgers unless you’re seeing Auntie.

No Thrones before the Math problems have been done.

You get the picture. Have fun, get creative – and let me know what you come up with in the comments.

17.  Hold yourself accountable…

… especially when it doesn’t come naturally. Some people really struggle to stay true to their goals: life’s just too messy, too interesting, or just too damn fun sometimes, creating real barriers to study motivation for students in college / University in particular.

It’s OK, I get it.

But… I also want you to get the grades you want.

So what’s to be done?

You need to ramp up your accountability – raise the stakes day to day to make sure you stay true to yourself and to what you’re trying to accomplish. Here are some ideas:

  • Find an accountability partner: they could be study buddies from your own course, or from a different course. You don’t have to work together – just share your immediate goals, like “I’m going to finish my translation this weekend”, or “I’m committing to working 6 hours a day every weekday”. They could even be a friend / family member who genuinely wants you to succeed, and who you trust to hold you to account in a positive way.
  • If you need a more robust regime, there are tools available which force you to stick to your plans, or risk a penalty! Such as a cheque to charity every week you fail to get 2000 words of thesis written. You can even appoint an external “referee” to judge whether you’ve hit the goal or now. Apps like Beeminder do a great job of managing this for you.
  • You could even do your own DIY version of this for specific applications – I know someone who has a pre-programmed tweet everyday set to go out at 6.05 am offering $20 for the first respondent unless they are up in time to delete it. Brutal.

If you’re a serial “I’ll do it later” offender, you might need to keep these schemes in place for a long time (possibly until you achieve your goals); others might just need this as quite short-term scaffolding while they’re in the process of building their work routine.

18.  Go somewhere where the excuses can’t touch you…

… the library!

Or your college study room, or any other space where you’ll be surrounded by people studying hard.

For me, getting myself down to such a place almost guaranteed I’d get some quality work done – there was just something about that studious atmosphere that made me feel positively out-of-place if I didn’t get my head down. Humans are social creatures and we want to fit in – so use that to your advantage and find yourself an environment where “fitting in” means “studying”!

Think about it: you’re surrounded by people, whether you know them or not, who will judge you if you just sit there crushing candy on your phone. (Or at least, you’ll feel as if they’re judging you – and that’s all you need.) So you should find it much easier to keep your focus from straying into distraction territory.

And not to mention the practical benefits of being in a library if you need access to books for your studies.

Got all that? What are you waiting for, now it’s time to just START!

You’ve got your “why”.

You’re happy with your goals, and you’ve shed your limiting beliefs.

You’re understand how to beat “too daunted to start”, by easing in, and breaking it down.

And you’ve smashed any excuses NOT to study.

Great.

I can help no further, it’s time to go. Do it RIGHT NOW:

  1. Write your overarching goal for your studies down
  2. Pick a task that will advance you towards that goal
  3. Put your phone / laptop down, and JUST DO IT

Start with just 5 minutes if you have to (see tip 11), though I’ll be even more proud if you can give me 45.

Once you’re done, let me know how it went in the comments. What are your motivation issues? How do you solve them?


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Until next time friends, wishing you the absolute best of luck your studies.

William Wadsworth