Staying motivated when studying

It’s time to return to school for the majority of Year 11 and Year 13 students this week, after eight long weeks of remote learning and online lessons. Although most are looking forward to seeing friends and teachers in the same room again, the cancelling of exams means that there is still uncertainty for many over the exact dates and nature of their assessments this year. 

It’s hard enough staying motivated when revising for ‘real’ exams – this year it’s likely to be even more challenging. In the article below I’ll look at three of the main reasons why students struggle to revise and what you can do to get your study-mojo back. 

Problem 1: Spending too much time on one activity

The word revision is really rather misleading, and one I try to avoid with my students. Why? Well, let’s look at the literal meaning of the word – ‘to see again’. This is what students will often spend their time on – looking back over past material. However, reading past material is an extremely ineffective – and boring – activity when it comes to learning. Instead, you should try to make sure you split your activities into three main areas:

Note making

Instead of passively reading notes again, you should be actively involved in making your own notes. Effective note making means condensing the material into key points that are expressed in a way that makes sense to you

There are lots of different styles of note making and you will probably find that you prefer some over others, or even that some ways suit some subjects or topics more than others. However, be wary of just choosing the methods that feel ‘easiest’ – if you’re not having to work your brain hard during note making, there’s really no point doing it!

Six different styles of note-making are summarised in my handy Study Activity Guide which you can download for free.

Knowledge retrieval

Students spend too much time trying to get knowledge into their heads, and not enough time practising getting it back out again! I tutor and teach so many students who could probably improve their attainment by a whole grade, just by spending a little more time trying to recall the information they need to know. 

At its simplest, knowledge retrieval involves any activity that forces you to bring knowledge back from your long term memory. The more often you retrieve knowledge, the stronger the connections in your brain become. The best thing about retrieval? Even if you can’t remember a definition or fact correctly, or if you get the answer to a quiz wrong – it’s still way more effective than reading or note making!

There are six retrieval practice ideas, including some useful websites, in my handy Study Activity Guide which you can download for free.

Exam or test preparation

The single biggest factor that influences student success in any type of assessment is not the notes they make, how many hours they put in or even their intelligence. The main predictor of success is the time spent practising for the actual exam or test itself. Even though formal exams have been cancelled this year, assessments will be based on the same sort of questions other students have faced, and the only way to prepare for those is to do those questions under similar conditions.

You might think you’re doing ‘practice questions’ if you print off a few pages of past papers and go through them with your notes in front of you – and of course that’s better than just reading or making notes. However, you need to allow time to practise without your notes and in timed conditions. At first, this may feel like it is yielding terrible results. If you really are staring hopelessly at every question with no idea of what to do, then it’s time to put the paper aside and go back to note making and retrieval practice to build your confidence. 

Image by tjevans from Pixabay

When you do complete a set of practice questions properly, make sure you also spend time carefully examining the mark scheme. Don’t just check the first box to see where you got marks. Look at the other notes too. ‘Reject’ means you have used language incorrectly and would lose the mark. ‘Allow’ means you got the mark this time, but your language is imprecise and could be improved. ‘Ignore’ means you have included unnecessary information.

You can find a list of useful websites for past paper questions in my handy Study Activity Guide which you can download for free.

Problem 2: Getting distracted

This is perhaps the most obvious problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to solve. Distractions are everywhere and they can feel particularly urgent or interesting when we feel unmotivated to study. There are a few key ways we can help prevent digital distractions from interrupting our study time:

Acknowledge it’s a problem

We’d all like to think we can choose not to look at our phone or online messages, and maybe some people can – but I know that I, and the average person, can’t. When we are aware of the problem, we can be more proactive in solving it. Use ‘do not disturb’ or ‘focus’ modes on devices and, where possible, remove them from the room entirely.

Image by Firmbee from Pixabay
Set a clear time limit on activities

It’s easier to convince your brain to stay focused if you start with an easy time limit. Set a timer for a manageable amount of time – somewhere between 25-45 minutes is a good starting point. During this time you must stay completely focused on the task at hand. Often, having set this time, you’ll find that you are able to concentrate for even longer. Many students find using a simple kitchen timer useful for this.

Don’t wait to feel motivated

How many times a week are you overcome with the urge to do some studying? When do you wake up, or come home from school, feeling like you really want to get on with some more work?

Students often look at others who are getting better grades than them and think that those students are somehow always interested in their studies and keen to prepare for tests and exams. But the truth is, successful students don’t have to be 24-7 motivated and they rarely are – they just plan their study time and do it, regardless of how they’re feeling. 

If you let your feelings get in the way of your study behaviour, you will just end up feeling worse in the long run. Plan a time to study and stick to it – you might feel tired, or a little bored, or that the work is difficult. But if you allow these feelings to stop you working, you won’t feel any better about the work and will have additional feelings of guilt and inadequacy to add to the mix!

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Problem 3: Planning when to study, but not what

Of course, making a study timetable is essential when preparing for exams or assessments. It removes the ‘I’ll do it when I feel like it’ problem mentioned above. But even with the best will in the world, if you just write down ‘chemistry’ in an hour’s slot, or even a specific topic to study, you’ll waste time and energy working out what to do when you get to that time. It’s also likely that you’ll spend more time on the easier activities, such as making notes, and not enough time on retrieval practice or exam technique. 

So as well as planning your time so that you dedicate specific study sessions to specific subjects, allocate specific activities to that time slot. For example:

  • Instead of: ‘one hour of chemistry’
  • You could plan: ‘30 minutes notes on covalent bonding; 15 minutes flashcards on atomic structure; 15 minutes exam practice questions on calculations’

The second option feels much more motivating: you know you are going to do something specific, and also you’ve planned more than one type of activity so you’re less likely to feel bored or tired.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

At the start of your study timetable, you will need to focus more on note making and knowledge retrieval; as you get closer to the exam or assessment you should be working on retrieval and exam practice. 

To reduce the stress and time wasted in trying to choose activities, I’ve included a summary of six different note-making activities, six retrieval practice ideas and six different resources for practice questions in my handy Study Activity Guide which you can download for free.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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