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Going back to uni? How to boost your study motivation

Motivation is a tricky business. Even though we really want something, it can be difficult to put in the effort to make it happen. Why? The brain favours immediate gratification (a night out with friends) over benefits that are far off into the future (studying for an exam to help you graduate in two years’ time).

And if you’re a busy mature age student juggling a hectic life with online study, there can be even more distractions driving a wedge between you and your degree. No motivation to study? You’re certainly not alone. Thankfully, it’s possible to manipulate motivation to make it work for your long-term goals, says Dr Liz Stewart from Deakin University’s Faculty of Arts and Education. Here’s how.

Understanding the science of motivation

Motivation really is all in your head. A neurotransmitter called dopamine is largely responsible for how our brain helps us to stay motivated. It’s released when we do something that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat the behavior. The trouble is, of course, that what makes us feel good isn’t always what we want to be doing or what we think we should be doing.

‘Dopamine responds to the feeling of completion even if that completion takes the form of your latest Instagram or Facebook upload, and this is why social media is so addictive,’ Dr Stewart says. ‘You get a satisfactory number of likes for your latest post and your brain goes, “Ah, now that’s a good job done!”’

What’s more, short-term behaviours like scrolling through social media or swapping a study session for a night out with friends are likely deliver a faster hit of dopamine than things that take longer to achieve, like completing your degree. Cue a drop in study motivation, says Dr Stewart.

‘The thing about university study is that it takes a lot of time and we often don’t get external rewards until our grades come back,’ she says. ‘Depending on the length of your course, this can feel like forever, so it’s very tempting to distract yourself with non-study related activities that will deliver a quick hit of dopamine in the short term.’

In fact, Dr Stewart says this can create a continuous cycle of procrastination, which affects as many as 60% of students.

Juggling life and study

Dr Stewart says it can be especially difficult to find your study motivation – not to mention find the time to study – when you’re doing an online course because there’s less positive feedback and human interaction, which trigger dopamine production. So the temptation to seek it elsewhere, such as through work and other non-study related activities, becomes appealing and potentially distracting.

'The thing about university study is that it takes a lot of time and we often don’t get external rewards until our grades come back.'

Dr Liz Stewart,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

And even if you’re really motivated to finish your course and enhance your career, a demanding job, busy family life and that pesky social media feed can interfere with study time. ‘If there are external activities in your life like work, family, friends, social media and Netflix that are delivering regular hits of dopamine in the short term, you will tend to prioritise them over activities that deliver infrequent and unreliable hits of dopamine such as online study,’ Dr Stewart says.

Manipulating motivation

It can be difficult to figure out how to boost motivation when you’re knee deep in assignments, family pressures and work deadlines, but Dr Stewart says the key is creating an optimum environment for dopamine production.

‘While the science of motivation is a bit more complicated than more dopamine means more motivation, essentially if you’re looking to maximise your motivation what you need to do is teach your brain to use dopamine effectively by creating and maintaining certain conditions in your external environment,’ she says.   

Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Often a lot of the activities that make us feel good and boost dopamine production are the first things we give up when we have a busy work and study schedule, so simple activities like spending meaningful face-to-face time with friends, family, colleagues and pets, maintaining regular exercise and a healthy diet, and engaging in hobbies can help to produce dopamine and improve motivation.

When it comes to your studies, other tips to stay motivated include focusing on your passions and connecting with other students, says Dr Stewart.

‘Chat to your lecturer about specialist topics that interest you and see if you can negotiate a study plan to spend more time learning about the things that naturally fascinate you – this will get your dopamine firing again,’ she says.

‘The online space can promote feelings of loneliness and isolation so it’s also vital to contribute to discussion boards and online chats. You won’t necessarily always get marks for doing this, but it will likely boost dopamine and in doing so keep you more motivated, potentially leading to better marks in the long run.’

And it might sound a bit naff, but regularly reminding yourself why you decided to become a mature age student is another motivation-boosting strategy. ‘Getting back in touch with internal motivators including our utmost passions is another way we can get dopamine firing again,’ Dr Stewart says.

Motivated to study smarter, not harder? Here’s how.

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Dr Liz Stewart
Dr Liz Stewart

Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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