How to motivate myself to make school a priority?
December 11, 2007 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I used to be a model student. This semester was truly humbling. Do you have any suggestions to help me hone my study habits, regain motivation, and minimize distractions in the final three semesters before graduation?

I am studying Biochemistry. I have about ten classes remaining. I could have knocked out four of those ten this semester, but have relegated myself to taking the classes over again in the upcoming semesters. I basically failed three of them due to a combination of not studying enough, not showing up to class, and various distractions.

In the past I have been able to study four or five hours before the tests and ace them. I know I can't get away with this anymore. I work about 20 hours a week, have an active social life, and enjoy the challenge and material of my major.

I can stay up until morning playing video games and studying doesn't even cross my mind. I'll sleep in while telling myself that missing class isn't a big deal. I'll go out all weekend and put off studying until Sunday night.

With a new semester and a fresh slate rapidly approaching, how can I minimize distractions, regain motivation, and actually study?
posted by clearly to Education (18 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can totally sympathize. Right now I'm procrastinating on a 15 page research paper that's due today, and I'm just getting started. I've definately been better in the past, but I know where you're coming from. With this class in particular, I did my small papers literally in the hour before class, and got A- on all of them. When you get used to not having to put in a lot of effort and doing well, as I know is the case with a lot of really intelligent students, its hard to shift gears. I think the key is keeping a schedule and knowing what you have coming up at all times. Schedule stops at the library, even if you'll only be there for an hour or two. Even if you don't get that much accomplished, you'll feel better about having been responsible and doing something . At the very least, you'll give yourself some time to get organized. Tell yourself that the reward for going to the library is playing a few hours of xbox that night. If you know you'll be going out that night, decide you'll hit the library for a couple hours before the pregame. With your work off your mind, you should be able to have more fun when you do go out. Trust me, I know it's tough to have the discipline to go out of your way to do this stuff, but I'm pretty sure that's a lot of what college is about--cultivating the responsibility to do the shit you don't want to do, because from what I've seen there's a lot of that in life. set up a reward system for meaningful work, and see how that works.
posted by Kifer85 at 8:41 AM on December 11, 2007

First of all, show up to class. That will reduce the amount of studying you need to do, and there will be things that you'll miss forever because they are not mentioned anywhere other than the lectures.

As far as studying, the first step is to do it regularly, and do it outside of where you live. Go to the library, or the quad or a coffee shop. That will get rid of a lot of distractions and you'll want to actually get the studying over with so you can go do something else.

Also, try to join study groups for your classes. Not only will they help you study more efficiently, but regular meetings will keep you in a routine and make sure you don't miss anything.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:41 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Minimize distractions by knowing what gets you hooked and then setting limits on that -- or avoiding it altogether. Only after midnight are you allowed to play video games, and then only being allowed to play for a certain period of time. Refusing social invitations, or stipulate that they have to be within a certain time frame - eg you might study at the library where nobody can find you, until a certain time of night.

For sleeping in: (a) get into bed by 2 every night, or whenever you need to to get up on time. (b) figure out something that will get you out of bed -- eg a breakfast or gym date with a friend -- and set that up.

Also consider going to your university's counseling office and talking to them about help in setting up a schedule for yourself. This might be just two meetings, spaced a couple of weeks apart, and it needn't be heavy emotional talk, it can just be practical help. A lot of people deal with these sorts of issues, and it can get out of control fast as you saw this term. In person, you can talk through your actual schedule and motivations in more depth than we can do here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:42 AM on December 11, 2007

Well, my first step would be to get the video games out of commission. Pack it all up, ship it to your parents' house (or somewhere), and forget about it all until you graduate. I would have said "limit your playing" but you pretty much said you don't/can't do that. Go cold turkey.

As for regaining motivation, only you can do that. You have to decide that it's time to study. Perhaps make a study schedule and stick to it? Don't go out and have fun until you've put in X amount of study hours? You have to find something that works for you.
posted by cooker girl at 8:42 AM on December 11, 2007

Find a study partner who has access to archives of past exams of each professor. You may know this already but professors hardly change exam questions year after year. Student associations sometime maintain their own archives of past. Make appointments with study partners and meet them in class buildings so there's less distraction. Try to do at least 3 past exams in each study session.
posted by StarForce5 at 8:50 AM on December 11, 2007

I was in the same exact position as you 3 or 4 years ago. Rolled through my first two years of college with minimal studying and all of a sudden I got to hard biochemistry classes which actually required me sitting and and studying for hours and sometimes days. I even had the job and social life.

For me, two things helped: 1) I had a night job starting at 8pm each night. I resigned myself to studying before work and having fun after work. It worked out pretty well. This part is one of those things where it is pure self motivation and not always easy. I tried the cold-turkey thing for eliminating video games and failed miserably. I've learned that, for myself, moderation in the key and just sending the xbox back home only makes me sit there and wish I had one to play. In one case, I went out and bought a game I had purposely given someone else to hold onto so I couldn't play it. Whetting the gaming appetite a little can be good if you have some structure.
More importantly:

2) Find biochem people to study with. I ended finding a few people who could keep me in line and study biochem for hours and hours on end, endlessly repeating pathways, structures, and whatever else we were studying until we had it committed by rote. Not only did studying with other people significantly reduce distractions and set up an expectation of my participation (I know how easy it is to study for an hour and say "Screw this, I'm playing xbox"), but it expedited my learning of the material. Being able to verbally and visually communicate what I had learned, and in some cases teach, helped a lot in my actual understanding of the material. I mean, I could am sure you can learn the material on your own given the time. But I found biochem tests lend themselves to mostly pure-memorization where practicing & repetition was the key.
Also, there's a lot to be said for the pure pressure element of showing up to a study session.
posted by jmd82 at 8:56 AM on December 11, 2007

And on preview, I can't stress StarForce's 5 point enough. Learn the tendencies of your professors. Visit them and ask questions outside of class. I know it differs from prof to prof and university to university, but science teachers are notorious for having template tests with a bank of questions they use. If you're nice and visit during office hours, some will even let you see old exams to help study. I even had some who handed out old tests at the end of the semester and after reading 2 or 3 of them, it became abundantly clear we could learn 75% of the exam just from learning the answers from old tests. Having that cushion of knowing you have some of the exam in the bank can help a lot to relieve the stress of, "How the hell am I going to memorize the entire krebs, atc, photosynthesis, etc pathway along with every single amino acid reaction for one exam??"
posted by jmd82 at 9:02 AM on December 11, 2007

Best answer: There isn't any silver bullet for these issues nor is there anything particularly mysterious here. You've got a number of activities that you clearly don't have enough time for. You've prioritized them and school ended up at the bottom of the pile. Something needs to disappear so you can make school a higher priority. You could:

I work about 20 hours a week

Quit and take out (more) student loans. 20 hours/week is a pretty hefty time commitment.

have an active social life

Limit yourself to going out only once/week. Given that discipline isn't a forte, I wouldn't bank on this one though.

and enjoy the challenge and material of my major.

Clearly not enough, but at least hating your major isn't the problem.

I can stay up until morning playing video games

As cooker girl said, mail the games home. If cold turkey will just exacerbate things as it did with jmd82, then limit yourself to only playing on the weekends, or only between 9 and 11 PM or something.

I'll sleep in while telling myself that missing class isn't a big deal.

Clearly it is. You may not feel like you're getting much out of lectures, but if you're not going to lectures and you're not reading the materials, how are you learning anything?

I'll go out all weekend and put off studying until Sunday night.

Don't go out on Friday or Saturday and spend that time studying instead.

The suggestion of making sure you're studying outside of your room/apartment is a very good one. I know that it's basically impossible for me to get any work done at home, as soon as I try to work, the fun quotient of just about everything else (including cleaning the bathroom) skyrockets. Go to the library, turn OFF your cell phone and just study. Even if you feel like you don't have anything new, go over the old material. Write summaries of what you've learned in each various chapter.

Prepare questions to ask your professor/TA. Go to their office hours. Frequently. The advice of finding study partners is very, very good. They'll keep you focused and can help you understand things you don't get (and vice versa)

Another thing to consider is that since you've almost graduated, you're going to be getting a "real job" soon. The kind of slacker-ish behaviour you're listed here isn't going to cut it at the vast majority of jobs. If you don't show up on time and get the job done, they'll just get rid of you and find someone else who will.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:10 AM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, I gotta say, that your definition of "model student" seriously needs to be reworked if "model student" is "play video games instead of studying and cramming before the exam."

I completely understand where you're coming from, because that is exactly the kind of "model student" I was, and I've been finding out that actually isn't model student behavior.

First step is to show up to class. All classes. All the time. Even the easy ones, because the easy ones may be easy but there's a lot of information to absorb before the test and it's better to absorb it through short little chunks then deal with the stress of cramming it all in. You will get an idea of what is going on in the class, and the professor will hate you less because you will appear to actually care about what he's teaching (because even if you do care, if you're not in class she can't tell).

Second step is to schedule your days. Schedule study time, and stick to it. Like, actually get one of those weekly planners, or use Google Calendar, or whatever, and enter in all of your class time, and then schedule in hours of studying. This will be hard because if you're anything like me you have no idea what a proper amount of studying is because you've never done it. Trial and error, trial and error. And it also requires willpower to sit and study instead of flitting off to do whatever. But you gotta do it, seriously.

Personally, since you have a new semester coming up, if I were you I would start practicing now. Make a schedule today--don't spend more than half an hour on it, though, you don't need another distraction--and use it to work out all the remainder work in your classes. And once you're out of classes, schedule your days, too. Pencil in "Sleep", "Video Games", "Lunch", "Television", "Hanging with my buds", and get a weighty book from the library and throw in "Reading" to get into the practice of regularly providing yourself with intellectual stimulation. It seems really dumb to schedule television and video game time, but the practice of starting and stopping activities at certain times is valuable for maintaining a busy and balanced life. If studying was an amazing activity that was great to do all the time, then you'd be doing it. You need to teach yourself to do things now you don't want to do now.

And this takes time. Studying regularly is like eating healthy foods or getting enough sleep, it needs to be a lifestyle change. You gotta make it a habit, and like any habit it requires practice and vigilance to establish.

Other things, like how to study and what to study, those come after. Don't put the cart before the horse. For right now, you need to teach yourself a period of your time every day will be devoted to staring at your textbooks.
posted by Anonymous at 9:12 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Always show up for class. Always always always.

Showing up for class is the bare minimum that keeps you on track. In my experience at a big state university, I probably could have passed most of my classes just by showing up for class.

No, you can't make it up later. Don't allow yourself to think that. It's wrong.

Take classes that you will want to show up for, and avoid early morning classes if possible.
posted by grouse at 9:34 AM on December 11, 2007

After several semesters of getting As without ever showing up, I finally hit that brick wall. It's a shame that lower level classes are so lacking in rigor that you can get away with just memorizing the slides or teaching yourself, but at most schools, that is the way it is. Top 5% as a sophomore and half the time I didn't even go to class.

Hard to offer advice, as this semester is my brick wall too, but my own plan for reform includes, well, actually going to class and picking classes and class-times that make me more likely to do that. I'm also going to rejoin the coffee shop/library crowd. I find it much easier to get work done with other people working around me.

I also have meetimer installed on my browser now. It scares me. 3 hours + internet procrastination a day? Yeah, seeing that jolts me back to reality.
posted by melissam at 10:00 AM on December 11, 2007

Best answer: I don't know how to tell someone how to "find motivation," because really that has to come from inside -- it's not us writing it that will help, it is you doing it that will work. It's not one big decision ("I will be a good student!") but rather the accretion of a lot of small decisions ("I will read this chapter before going to the bar tonight!") that makes this happen.

My suggestion is that rather than trying to be perfect (which is a great goal, and maybe you can get there some day), set the goal for the semester of doing the minimum. For an undergraduate student, the minimum is going to class on time, turning in assignments on time, and perhaps going to office hours with your professors and TAs once in a while. If you do those things, you are almost guaranteed to pass the class, even if you aren't some perfect student who understands every nuance of the material and has 100% perfect homework grades. When I've taught classes, I've never had a student who has good attendance and turns in assignments get below a B-. And if I'm going to give anyone any slack, it is going to be the person who comes to office hours and asks engaged questions and is there in class every day and who isn't snoozing in the back of the room. That person, who is doing their minimum, I am going to meet more than halfway, because they are such a nice change from all the people who don't come to class and don't turn in assignments and then come crying in the last week wanting a magically better grade.

Cut back on the work hours if you can (but financially that might not be possible, I know), but I think the most important change might be to make sure that your social life is full of people who are doing well in school -- not the people who (like you last semester) are bombing out. The people who are getting good grades in their biochem classes are doing something right, and you want to be doing that same thing. Having "social life" and "study time" overlap is great -- if the way you get to see the people you like is by sitting at a table together in the library and doing biochem assignments together, you will do far better than if the way you see your friends is by migrating from one beer party to another together.

I think the video games are a symptom of the problem, rather than a cause -- if you are busy studying, you won't be spending as much time playing the games, right? But if I am wrong, and you are one of those people for whom video games are kind of like heroin, then you need to go talk to the people at the counseling center and see if they have anyone who specializes in that kind of addictive behavior.
posted by Forktine at 10:03 AM on December 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

It sounds to me like you used to be a LUCKY student, not a model student. You used to be able to cram in enough information in the hours before an exam to breeze through. Now, that's not working and you don't have good habits to fall back on. As others have said, there's no magic bullet. You make choices and those choices have consequences. Just choose what you want - to learn the material and pass the classes or play video games instead. There's no secret to figure out. Just decide what you want and then go after it. If failing 4 classes this semester isn't motivation enough then maybe you shouldn't be in school right now.
posted by Kangaroo at 10:10 AM on December 11, 2007

Also: don't do what I did, and wait until graduate school to figure out that it is ok to ask for (and receive) help. I always thought that the tutoring sessions, study groups, office hours, and everything else were for wusses who weren't very smart. Uh, no -- those things are just some of the tools you use (along with going to class, doing homework, going to the library) to learn the material. Had I actually done some of those things, my undergraduate gpa wouldn't have been so bad, and my professors would have thought much better of me.

What I'm saying is that you don't need to tough this out on your own -- ask and see if your department offers tutoring or organized study groups. Ask if the counseling center helps with procrastination and motivation issues. Ask the financial aid office if there are ways you can cut back on your working hours and still stay in school. When you don't understand something in lecture, go to office hours that same week and ask for clarification -- don't wait for the test to see if you really didn't understand it. Asking here is great, but most schools have really impressive arsenals of resources to help students in your position, and you should make sure that you are accessing each and every one of them.
posted by Forktine at 10:23 AM on December 11, 2007

I work about 20 hours a week

I second the advice to quit the job. College is a full time job, and everyone needs time to unwind. Education is one of the few things worth incurring debt for. Take advantage of student loan opportunities available to you.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:02 PM on December 11, 2007

Education is one of the few things worth incurring debt for.

And also, it's one of the few things you can get debt at a decent rate for. Student loans ≠ credit cards.
posted by grouse at 12:44 PM on December 11, 2007

Briefly, I will add that I found it helpful to study anywhere but my room/comfort zone/cafe. It was just too easy to get mush-brain or wander off to other distractions. If you live close enough to campus, study at the library or other study settings as much as possible when it comes to crunch time. I've heard of (and experienced) this phenomenon where students perform better on tests when their study and test spaces are similar. Mimicking the environment helped to jog my memory just enough to be worth it to trudge half of campus to get to the library before finals. As for motivation, that has been a long-term struggle and really demands discipline to overcome. The rule there is you must act yourself into good habits, rather than think yourself into it. I hope that makes sense... Good luck!
posted by wowbobwow at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can absolutely sympathize with you, as I, too, am a biochemistry major, and have experienced this very same epiphany (more than once): a life of video games, social activity, work, and I-really-know-I-could've-done-better grades.

It seems that the obvious things have been duly repeated so far, and they're obvious enough that you probably didn't need someone to say them. Forktine offers some great advice: there's no need to shoot for miracles, as long as you do what's necessary to keep going with your academic career.

Just a few things from my experience as a fledgling biochemistry student:

- Getting more sleep was the logical first step, because you'll have more energy for everything else and it's pretty damn easy to do.

- Going to class, after sleeping more, was easier, and I picked up many more things the first time rather than attempting to figure it out myself.

- Don't study a subject for more than 3 hours a day. I guess the actual number varies for most folks, but there's a point where my brain gets full and any more information doesn't stick. Studying for three days, 3 hours a day is infinitely more beneficial than studying for one day for 9 hours.

- Do more than cram. Even if it means using the weekend before a test to put a few hours in, stuff will sink in if you give it time. It's a biological phenomenon: long term memory retention requires steady learning and time.

- I dropped my menial work for laboratory work, which meant that I could pick my own hours (YMMV, don't hold me to that one!) and that I could learn while working. Learned some things that were eventually covered in classes, too.

- Get a tutor if you need it. I let my pride get in the way, and my grades suffered. This one seems obvious.

- BE a tutor, or better put, study with someone who has lots of questions. If you know something, being able to teach it means you can master communicating that idea, which means you'll do well on a test. If you end up not knowing it, look it up and reason it out with that person. I am personally very wary of "study groups" because one obnoxious person can derail the whole event and make the time spent worthless. When it's one-on-one, that is less likely to be a problem, but, hey, YMMV.

- Don't give up on video games! I know someone who locked his games up for fear of his bad habits--it only served to make him a monster to talk to and be around, and in the end he used distractions like Facebook and working out to fill up that time (and he still did poorly in class). Games can be extremely therapeutic and can keep you sane: just SCHEDULE YOUR TIME WISELY! This could potentially be your motivation.
It always happens to me during finals week, but I start up a game and studying feels worthless in comparison. My solution was that, for every hour I put into studying, I gave myself 15 minutes of game time. That sounds dumb, and maybe it was, but for a two-week crunch it worked, and I passed.

- Likewise for being social: if you've gotta study, then use the social time as a reward for productive hours of studying before it. But you'll have to convince yourself that it is a reward and not a given, because sitting with a book in your lap watching TV doesn't entitle you to much. I didn't have as much of a problem with this one: if I simply chose studying for going out, then I was resolved to learn whatever it was necessary not to make that happen again.

- Finally, one thing nobody ever told me was that the coursework gets significantly harder each semester. It was easy for me to put in minimal effort in my freshman and sophomore years because the material was largely overlapping and the brand new concepts came slowly if at all. It didn't stay that way, and when you're learning 100% new material, you're gonna need more time to let it sink in.

Now I've gotta run and finish studying for two finals tomorrow....well, some habits die hard!
posted by BenzeneChile at 2:58 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

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