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What is motivation anyway and why do we need it?

What is motivation anyway and why do we need it?

Motivation is a common issue for students. Even students who love their subject can find themselves lacking motivation at one time or another during their studies. Loss of motivation was an especially prominent and pressing issue at universities during the pandemic, with different studies reporting a ‘general loss of motivation’ worldwide among students [1], [2]. A small survey conducted by the Study Hub at the end of the academic year 2020/21 reported similar results, with 1 in 4 students identifying ‘staying motivated’ as one of the biggest challenges of the past year. Now that we’re slowly coming out of the pandemic and returning to in person teaching and learning it may seem that it will be easier to stay motivated, but some might still struggle with a lack of motivation.  

But why is being motivated so important?  

Lack of motivation can worsen well-being, contribute to poor academic performance, increase procrastination and reduce productivity [3],[4],[5],[6]. According to Afzal H. et al, ‘students’ motivation is a vital part of students’ success’. These studies highlight that motivation is crucial to the overall quality of students’ wellbeing and academic performance.   

But what exactly is motivation?  

The word motivation is derived from the Latin word movere which means ‘to move’. Madsen, (1974) defined motivation as ‘the ‘driving force’ behind behaviour’. Thus, be it literally or figuratively, motivation calls us to move and energizes our behaviour [7]. Colloquially, we define motivation as the why or the reason for us doing something. Charles G. Morris gives more detail to what happens when we are motivated, calling it ‘a chain of motivation’. Similarly, Donad B. Lidsley defines motivation as a ‘combination of forces’ that ‘initiate, direct and sustain behaviour toward a goal’ [7]. The latter definition gives us insight into the different stages of motivation when dealing with any task.   

In the context of education, distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation becomes important. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and develops when you enjoy the process or the task itself [4], [8]. Such motivation is longer term. Conversely, extrinsic motivation depends on external factors, such as a desire for reward (e.g., good grades) or avoidance of  punishment. Such motivation is shorter term. Afzal et al note that students differ depending on their primary motivation. Intrinsically motivated students are more ‘enthusiastic [and] self- driven’. In addition, they perform better academically [4]. Meanwhile, extrinsically motivated students are more likely ‘to drag themselves with academic assignments … and always put minimal efforts to achieve maximum appreciations.’ [4] Thus, it is evident that students should be aiming to develop intrinsic motivation for their studies. However, Gopalan et al claim that it is fine if motivation is initiated extrinsically, as it may eventually develop into intrinsic motivation [6].  

What can be done to develop motivation?  

Firstly, be kind to yourself. It is normal to feel less motivated or have lower productivity during these times. Remember, we’re only just going out of the pandemic now and we all have to adapt to the new normal. Account for that and prioritize self-care. 

The University is here to support you. Check out the Student Counselling services.   

Secondly, think of ways to cultivate curiosity in your subject. It is evident from the discussion above how important it is to develop intrinsic motivation. According to Gopalan et al., ‘the challenge, curiosity, control and fantasy are the key factors to trigger intrinsic motivation’.    

However, some people say that you cannot feel motivated all the time and that sometimes motivation increases once you’ve picked up some momentum in your work. Or in the words of Pablo Picasso:   

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso   

One way you could gain some inertia with your studying is by using the timer method described here.If you feel a particular resistance towards a task, you could try setting the timer not for 20 but for 10 or 5 minutes.   

Another idea is presented by James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, who claims that scheduling is crucial to getting motivated.  As he says, ‘Setting a schedule for yourself seems simple … but it makes it more likely that you will follow through regardless of your motivation levels’ [12].   

You can find customizable templates for weekly and semester planners here 



[1] Rahm AK, Töllner M, Hubert MO, Klein K, Wehling C, et al. (2021) Effects of realistic e-learning cases on students’ learning motivation during COVID-19.  Available at: (Accessed: 22 July 2021)  

[2] Browning MHEM, Larson LR, Sharaievska I, Rigolon A, McAnirlin O, Mullenbach L, et al. (2021) Psychological impacts from COVID-19 among university students: Risk factors across seven states in the United States. Available at: (Accessed: 22 July 2021)  

[3] Ryan R.M., Deci E.L. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.  Available at: (Accessed: 22 July 2021)  

[4] Afzal, H., Ali, I., Aslam Khan, M. and Hamid, K., (2010) A study of university students’ motivation and its relationship with their academic performance. Available at:  10.5539/ijbm.v5n4p80 (Accessed: 22 July 2021)  

[5] Lee E., (2005) The relationship of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in university students. Available at: (Accessed: 23 July 2021)  

[6] Gopalan V., Bakar J. A. A., Zulkifli A. N., Alwi A., Mat R. C. (2017) A review of the motivation theories in learning. Available at: (Accessed: 23 July 2021)  

[7] Kleinginna P. R., Kleinginna, A. M. (1981). A categorized list of motivation definitions, with a suggestion for a consensual definition. Motivation and emotion. Available at:  (Accessed: 23 July 2021)  

[8] Tohidi, H., Jabbari, M.M., (2012) The effects of motivation in education. Available at: (Accessed: 23 July 2021)  

[9] Clear J. Motivation: The Scientific Guide on How to Get and Stay Motivated. Available at: (Accessed: 27 July 2021) 




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