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How do you find and keep up your motivation to study?

The value of education has never been greater; it opens doors to everything that is important in life. This has been highlighted by the recent cancellation of the GCSE and A level exams this summer. and students’ reactions to it. 

The impact of coronavirus has meant that the majority of students are finding themselves studying at home, whether because their schools are closed or because they were studying through an online learning provider, such as the National Extension College (NEC). Staying motivated is essential for all students but even more vital when you are working from home without the structure of the school timetable. 

As a not-for-profit educational charity, dedicated to helping students for over 55 years, we understand that enthusiasm and motivation for studying can come in waves. After the excitement of enrolment and the completion of the first few assignments, other less helpful emotions can come to the fore leaving students feeling demotivated. The negative feelings can be even greater at a time like this, as some students may be coping with other worries and stresses. 

One of our students, Anna Ellis, has been through this and has come out the other side feeling stronger and understanding more about the psychology of learning. 

She is keen to share her experience and advice with students who may be experiencing similar feelings right now.

Anna is an experienced distance learner. She successfully completed two A levels with NEC back in the 1990s and last year enrolled for a third subject. This time, there was a long break  in her studies between her first and second assignments. That wasn’t the plan. Although Anna had moved to a new home and changed jobs in that time, she says these weren’t the main reasons for her lack of progress. 

The culprits were negative feelings towards studying combined with a perceived lack of time, loss of confidence and a waning interest in the subject matter. Guilt and embarrassment set in as additional barriers. It was touch and go whether she would give up the course – but Anna decided she wasn’t going to quit and she got back into studying and submitted her next assignment. She’s now well on her way through the next assignment and is progressing towards course completion by the end of the year. 

Here are Anna’s thoughts on how to stay motivated and get back on track.

Stop feeling guilty

Whether you’ve paid for your course or someone has been kind enough to fund you, guilt is a powerful emotion when you can’t make progress. Guilt doesn’t help, so take action instead. 

Examine your ‘excuses’

Don’t dismiss your excuses – these may also go under the guise of ‘reasons I can’t study’. I’m not saying that all reasons are excuses (they’re not) but a surprising number of them are! It is a mistake to brush excuses aside or accept them at face value. Think about them and then address them. Be honest and creative to find ways to overcome them. When I thought about my excuses, I discovered they fell into three categories – time, progress and focus. 

  • Lack of time. Yes. Absolutely. It is very difficult to find the time to study. I may prefer to read a book, browse social media, do some art…so many interesting things to do and so little free time. At times I noticed I was preferring to do chores such as housework, laundry and making packed lunches rather than sitting down to study. Some people I know tell me that ‘free time’ doesn’t exist for them at all and life is one long round of chores and work. But I’ve chosen to make studying one of my priorities over the next ten months. It’s not my only priority and there will be days when studying can’t happen. I don’t let myself get obsessive about it. I like to develop my study habit as one of quiet perseverance. And I find it’s important to keep the end in mind. This course lasts only so many months – not forever. What will be next? Lack of time perhaps isn’t really the problem for me, it’s just a familiar old excuse.
  • Lack of progress. I think this is a tougher nut to crack and underlying it may be a lack of confidence or lack of knowledge about how to study; I expect these two often go hand in hand. As a lifelong learner I’ve studied various courses using a range of delivery methods. Like most people, however, I need to work hard when tackling a new subject area and at the start progress can be painfully slow. There are lots of resources from NEC and elsewhere that are available to help students learn study skills. The difficulty is that these can be just another thing to study and so you end up not making any progress with the course. Use such resources wisely – pick out bits that help you, use hints and tips and buy coloured pens and highlighters to make notes if you like (I do).  But beware – don’t get side-tracked. Progress comes through working through the course materials and other materials created to compliment the specific syllabus your course follows. Just reading the material, as you may have noticed, doesn’t work. Nothing sticks and that’s a powerful reason to give up! If I’m in this frame of mind I recognise that I’m not focused as I could be. And I need to do something about it.
  • Lack of focus. I think that paying attention and minimising distractions is one of the most difficult things to achieve consistently. Like many people, I can fool myself into thinking I am studying but my mind is elsewhere – distracted by music, social media, pondering work problems, following an interesting reverie, or falling into negative news articles. We all have our own insidious ways of avoiding the hard work of focusing.  The good news is that when you do manage to focus you might tap into what people recognise as ‘the flow’ – and become completely and pleasantly absorbed by what you are doing. This is a very rewarding state of mind and in this state you will make great progress. Don’t expect to make the same amount of progress each session, though; some topics are more challenging than others and will require more time. Don’t give up; re-focus.

Things that might help you keep up your motivation to study

I like to make studying as enjoyable as possible by using more than one resource. In your study time make sure you are using either the NEC course materials, specified texts or links provided by NEC, or other materials written specifically for your syllabus. I find that using just one source can be dreary – like a monotone droning on and on. Then again, you might start to wonder why something written by Smith makes sense to you, when something written by Jones left you befuddled? It might be a matter of your preferences and/or their writing style. For GCSEs and A levels you’ll find plenty of appropriate resources and many of them are free. 

If you enjoy reading, then do research and read other related books and articles as this will widen your knowledge base and make learning more rewarding. You should do this only for pleasure and not as part of your allocated study time – because it probably won’t directly help you to get a better grade in the exam. If it gets you more interested and knowledgeable in the topic the benefits will be there in your increased enthusiasm for your subject. Mix things up if you can – but resist the urge to get side-tracked during your allotted study time. 

I also find it useful to talk to other people about things I’ve learned in the course that I find particularly interesting or difficult to comprehend. I’m often surprised how willing people are to engage in conversations and they often have very different views to me! That’s valuable because you can consider another angle or point of view. By talking something through you’ll also discover how good a grasp you have of a topic. Younger students may find support from family and friends especially helpful, but a good discussion is a great way for anyone to hone their critical thinking skills.  

If, like me, you get stuck in an early part of the course, my tip is to make use of the next assignment to help you move forward. Print out the assignment. There are usually several parts to each assignment. Tackle each question by using your course materials and other materials you have available, combing through them for the answer to the question. Then move on to the next question and repeat. Don’t worry too much about the quality of your work and don’t keep endlessly revising it or staring at a blank page. Write your answer as best you can and move on to the next question. When all the questions are completed then submit the assignment to your tutor. You’ll feel brilliant when you hit the submit button!

Use your tutor’s feedback. If you get a disappointing mark, accept that this is just a stepping-stone to keep you going and you’ll learn a lot from any mistakes you’ve made. Be polite to your tutor by not repeating the same mistakes in the next assignment. If you get a good mark you’ll have a tremendous spur on to the next assignment.

Be aware that if you use this method to get unstuck you will probably be skipping through some essential material you will need to know for the exam. You’ll be revising anyway so it’s not too much of a problem for now. Move onto the next section of the course and this time try working through it all in order before submitting your assignment. By the time you reach your fifth assignment you’ll be half way through your course (yay!) and you’ll have the impetus to keep going rather than waste all the time and effort you’ve invested. Challenge yourself to make each assignment a little better than the last. Your knowledge base will be expanding, and things will gradually start to make a lot more sense.

One caveat – if you are taking a maths based subject then your only option is to do the work in a systematic manner. Work through each sum and resist looking at the answer. If you get a different answer you need to know how to work out what you’ve done wrong by following a worked example if necessary. There’s no problem in getting it wrong – in fact a large part of studying maths is identifying where you’ve gone wrong and working out why. I took GCSE maths in 2018 and passed with a grade 6. It was hard work but it was tremendously satisfying too.

Good luck to all students studying in 2020. You can do it!

Anna Ellis left school at sixteen to work with horses. When she was 18, she had a riding accident and spent a long spell in hospital because of a broken pelvis. Once she’d recovered, she went to work in an office. Having children and putting her career on hold made her think again about how to earn a living. Looking back at her time in hospital as a teenager, she made the decision to become a nurse. She had already studied A levels with NEC and topped up her qualifications with maths GCSE. After a period of work experience as a part-time health care assistant, Anna was accepted to study for a degree in nursing. On qualifying, she worked in the community and at her local NHS Trust as a staff nurse in the oncology department.

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