Staying motivated for your studies

In this post, Professor Velda McCune, head of the Learning and Teaching Team in the Institute for Academic Development, discusses how to stay motivated for your studies.

Having interviewed many students over the years, I’ve learned that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we might become are really important. The first time I learned about this I was talking with some biology students who had been on work placement. These students started to talk about themselves as feeling like scientists or being scientists, rather than being students. This shift really helped them to be more motivated and to have more confidence in their studies. In another project, I spoke with mature students who had returned to university and were planning to go back to specific careers. One advantage these students had was that they had a really clear vision for why what they were learning mattered and this really helped them stay motivated.  

So maybe there is something you can do to help you imagine possible futures more clearly? That’s not just about jobs: What kind of difference do you want to make in the world? What kind of friend, parent or volunteer would you love to be? Reading blogs or biographies by people whose lives you aspire to might help. So might talking with people in roles that interest you. If you are from a group of students who have been under-represented or excluded from a particular area then seeing all the possible futures might be tougher, so your teachers at university should be working especially hard to help you see possibilities. There are also some good resources you might like such as:  

Women also know stuff ( 

Women in science ( 

Shades of noir ( 

Something else I’ve learned is that the stories we tell about why things go wrong in our studies are crucial. If you get stuck on a piece of work, then how you interpret that makes all the difference. If you think you struggled because you are just not clever enough then that could be really demotivating. There lots of evidence that struggle is a natural part of learning for everyone and that we can all learn how to learn more effectively. So if you get stuck it’s much better to tell yourself that you just haven’t learned how to tackle this particular challenge yet and that’s OK.  

One experience from my wider life that has really helped me with my motivation is regular mindfulness practice. There are plenty of free classes and apps if you want to try this. A good place to learn is the Chaplaincy. Meditating can be a challenging experience though, so if you are currently experiencing mental illness you might want to ask your doctor or counsellor if it’s the right time for you to start. One way that mindfulness can help your motivation is that it can give you the experience of sticking with a good habit. I suggest starting with a really easy goal, such as 5 minutes per day, and sticking with that till it feels secure. Mindfulness teaches us to be present with discomfort rather than trying to run away from it. That’s a really great skill for many aspects of life including studying tough topics! Finally, mindfulness has taught me a lot about understanding my thoughts and emotions and how I can work with them towards a better life.  

Professor Velda McCune leads the Learning and Teaching Team in the Institute for Academic Development. One area of her research focuses on how students experience learning and how they think about themselves as learners. Another focus is on how academics understand themselves as teachers. Velda has studied and worked at the University of Edinburgh since she was an undergraduate, with the exception of three years working at the University of Glasgow. Her hobbies include wildlife photography and canicross running with her two spaniels.