Overcoming Obstacles to our Motivation to Learn

This Blog Post is written by Saad Khan (he/him; 4th Year Business Management student majoring in Global Management) and Maria Beauts (she/her; 5th year Business Technology Management student), both of whom are returning Peer Academic Coaches at the Ted Rogers School’s Academic Success Centre (ASC). This post is part of the ASC’s “Teach Yourself How to Learn” weekly blog series based on Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire’s book.

In chapter 7 of Teach Yourself How to Learn, Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire identifies how our motivation and emotions are interconnected.

What is motivation?

Motivation is defined as “[a] personal investment an individual has in reaching a desired state or outcome (Ambrose et al, 2010). For a student, motivation can mean stimulating interest in a subject and, therefore, the desire to learn it. This creates a cycle whereby positive emotions increase motivation and elevate our learning. As we enhance our learning, this increases success, and success increases our positive emotions which triggers the cycle again.

What influences your motivation?

In order to influence our motivation we have to pull on three key levers (Ambrose et al, 2010; McGuire & McGuire, 2018):

  • Value: How important is this goal to me?
  • Nature of the environment: Do I feel supported or unsupported?
  • Belief in the ability to succeed: Do I believe I can design and follow a course of action to meet this goal?

These key questions accompany any goals students set, whether they realize it or not. So, why is it so hard to stay motivated?

Student-Related Obstacles to Motivation

We are busy. That goes without saying! Our days are filled to the brim with school work, part-time jobs, co-op applications, student group obligations, preparation for competitions and scholarship applications. And we have our personal obligations too. We may ignore or forget that rest, proper nutrition, exercise, and spiritual practice are necessary to round out both our physical and mental health. This can feel overwhelming, or draining on our energy.

It’s no wonder that we encounter obstacles to our motivation. In her book, Dr. McGuire identifies additional obstacles to our motivation. Students may:

  • work long hours and/or not know how to best manage their time
  • have ADHD or other learning disabilities to navigate
  • be primarily interested in credentials (not the learning)
  • feel As and Bs are their just rewards for consistent attendance
  • only have a few learning strategies in their proverbial learning toolkit

Let’s address each of the student-related obstacles, to identify tools that can help you in jump-starting your motivation.

School is a full-time job

Student writing an exam at a desk

Full-time studies are like a full-time job. Preparing for classes, attending lectures, reviewing after class and working on assignments takes effort and time. How much time should we spend on learning outside of the (virtual) classroom? For most, it’s a 2:1 ratio. This means that for every hour of class/lecture you have, you need to spend at least two hours preparing/studying/ learning outside of that class.

Let’s review an example together, assuming we are taking five courses in a given term. A single course has three hour lectures. Three hours multiplied by two means that we are spending a minimum of six hours of learning outside of the lecture. Now, multiply that by the five courses you’re taking, and you’ve arrived at 30 hours of study time a week. That doesn’t include the lecture, which is an additional 15 hours per week (three hour lecture, by five courses). That means that we’re meant to be learning for at least 45 hours per week.

This might sound overwhelming.  A great way to get a handle on your time situation is though to do a quick audit of what you spend your time on. The 168 hour week sheet is a simple way to breakdown your activities and start observing how you currently allocate your time. Be honest with yourself. Observe how much time each part of your day takes you. After you’ve identified how long your regular activities take you, consider re-budgeting or re-prioritizing to factor in the necessary study and learning time, while maintaining a balance in priorities.

On the Academic Success Centre website, there is a host of organizational tools, as well as time management tip sheets. Check them out:

Need a hand in figuring out how to study effectively? Book an appointment with one of the Learning Specialists available at the ASC, like us, and we’ll be happy to assist you in making a plan.

Navigating university learning while living with a disability

The Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) is a resource for all students at Ryerson who may be living with a disability (temporary and/or permanent disabilities), to come up with an individualized academic accommodation plan.

A few facts about who accesses AAS:

  • One in 10 Ryerson students is registered with AAS
  • 90% of students registered with AAS live with invisible disabilities

With Ryerson’s total enrollment being over 36,000, you are not alone.

AAS provides a wide range of services and programs such as peer note taking, test accommodations, learning strategies, assistive technologies, community groups and more. Furthermore, these services are confidential and private. Take advantage of them or browse the site and speak to a professional if you feel like you might benefit from some of these supports.   

Changing our perspective

Learning is a lifelong process and goes beyond obtaining a degree. A degree can be the definition of what we have learned, but internally we best know what we have learned over the course of that degree. Although grades/marks matter, learning goes beyond grades we achieve in a course. Learning is important as it increases our knowledge, helps to enhance our thinking, and helps us find new areas of interest or passion.

Strategic learning

Open book

When it comes to education, everyone has unique learning preferences and processes. However, there are tips that help you learn, no matter your learning preference which can help you take charge of your academic life.

Let’s look at the 40-20-40 rule for learning.If you review regularly, you’ll do a lot better on tests. If you don’t give your memory a boost by reviewing material throughout the semester, it’s perfectly natural that you will forget what you studied. The 40-20-40 rule states: 40% of what you retain happens when you learn it before class; 20% in class; and another 40% after class. That means that if we aim to learn solely by attending class and then reviewing afterward, we miss out on 40%.

So how can we use this information? When we build our study schedule, knowing this information can help us structure a study routine! We can break it up into the following components:

  • A preparation session that can include reading the textbook or articles, and taking notes before the lecture.
  • Then, attending the class and paying attention, adding to our pre-existing notes.
  • Finally, we review after class and do a self-test or some retrieval practice of what we’d learned.

Doing this will give each study session clear direction and purpose. As we prepare for each class and review after it, we give ourselves a chance to keep refreshing the material in our minds, and solidifying our understanding of it. When tests, exams or written assignments come around, you’ll realize that you are comfortable with the content and have no need for cramming or studying last minute because you’ve been retaining the information in small pieces, on a weekly basis.

You can integrate a variety of learning strategies to your study sessions. Anything from retrieval practice to spaced practice to elaborative interrogation, just to name a few. We encourage you to book time with a Peer Coach (upper year student who works for the ASC, like us) to learn more about a variety of strategies to take your learning to the next level.

Faculty-Related Obstacles to Student Motivation

One of the three levers that influence student motivation is a supportive learning environment. In McGuire’s book, she quotes research of Eric Hobson (2001), who studied sources of positive and negative motivation: “[Hobson] found that if faculty held the attitude that everybody in the course could learn and excel, then students were highly motivated. But if the students heard the equivalent of, “Look to your left, look to your right. Two of you are not going to be here in three weeks,” then students became discouraged” (p. 77). What Hobson found from this was that professors’ attitudes account for 27% of students’ positive motivation and 32% of students’ negative motivation. Knowing this, how can we navigate an environment that feels unsupportive? Let’s explore how faculty-related obstacles we as students may face, and address how to overcome them:

  • The classroom environment feels daunting or unsupportive
  • Faculty expectations are unclear
  • Students are paralyzed by a sink or swim course structure

Daunting/unsupportive classroom environment

An unsupportive environment may sound like a professor telling you that you’ll likely need to drop the course if you don’t attain a certain grade, or not being open to clarifying concepts when asked. Although this isn’t a universal experience, it happens. Know that you are capable of learning and excelling in the content, even if you encounter an unsupportive learning environment.

There are many ways you can learn outside of the lecture:

  • Connect with folks in your class and create study groups, helping one another clarify concepts and teach them to each other. After all, teaching others is one of the best ways of learning.
  • Students can find group chats for certain courses or take the initiative to create one themselves.
  • The TRSM Academic Success Centre also offers course-specific tip sheets to help review concepts. These tip sheets are for a variety of courses, including accounting, law, finance, statistics and more.
  • Visit the virtual Tutoring Centre for course-support. The Academic Peer Helper’s role is to support students in increasing their confidence with course material, as well as increasing students’ practice of skills to work through problems on their own.

Unclear expectations

“If you are unclear about expectations in a particular class, do your best to gather that information from as many sources as you can. Scrutinize the syllabus, interview past students, and [attend] the instructor’s office hours as often as you can with clear, relevant questions” (McGuire & McGuire, 2018; p. 77).

The majority of professors are open to communicate with their students and would be happy to answer questions or address your concerns as they come up. From the start of the term, try to introduce yourself to your professors and get to know them by attending office hours with course related questions. Office hours give you space to build a relationship with your professor, clarify concepts, expand your knowledge on a specific topic, get feedback on assignment drafts before they’re due.

The additional bonus of getting to know your professor is that professors can help with your professional development too. Should the opportunity arise, you can ask them questions about the sector they work(ed) in, ask for a letter of recommendation and so on. Professors can be a valuable source of information and mentorship.

Sink or swim course structure

Being 4th and 5th year students ourselves, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of the course syllabus. The course syllabus allows students to plan ahead. All the dates are provided by the professor, which allows us to build a structured schedule and plan. Students can get an early start on assignments, studying for tests/midterms. We have the ability to look ahead on what upcoming topics in the course will be.

To help you become familiar with your course syllabus/outline, first write down questions you have about the course. These questions might be:

  • What should I have learned by the end of the course?
  • How can I book time with my professor during their office hours?
  • How many tests/assignments will there be, and on what dates will they take place?
  • Will there be an opportunity for extra credits?
  • What grading scale does this course follow?
  • Is the final exam cumulative or specific to certain chapters/ readings?

Remember to leave space to write the answers. Go through the syllabus to find answers and then write them in the space you left below each question. For the unanswered questions, visit your professor during their office hours to seek clarification. Begin the meeting by telling your professor you have studied the syllabus and have some questions. They will likely be more than happy to help you. After all, preparation is the key to success.

Putting it all together

The amount of learning in university can seem scary. It’s important to remember that there are resources, tools and people who are willing to help us thrive. We hope you will take some of these tips and try them out for yourself. You don’t know what technique will be beneficial or will change your life until you try it.

SAAD: I remember challenges I had in my first year of university; it took me time to get used to the new work routine, and to keep up with fast approaching deadlines. To move past them, I used the course outline to jot down the important dates for tests and assignments in my calendar to keep track of the approaching deadlines. In addition, I ask for help from my instructors regarding course material outside of class and sometimes consult them for advice. During my second semester at the Ted Rogers School, I had to choose a major within my program and was stuck between two interesting majors. I asked my Human Resources professor for help on which major I should choose. He helped me by asking me open-ended questions, such as what my interests and long term goals were. Whatever challenges we as students may encounter, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask our professors questions; they are there to support us in our studies.

MARIA: I found the beauty of these resources simply because I had to try them and I figured out how much my university experience improved because of them. For me the game changer was getting to know my professors, because once they know you they are receptive to your questions and concerns. Students can give valuable insight to professors about the course and professors can be very supportive of your aspirations in their classroom and outside.

Check back next week as we explore chapter 8 on what we can do to boost our motivation, positive emotions and learning.


Academic Success Centre. (n.d.). How to Study. Retrieved from: https://www.ryerson.ca/tedrogersschool/success/learning/how-to-study/.

Academic Success Centre. (n.d.). Prep for Class = Prep for Tests. Retrieved from: https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/tedrogersschool/success/resources/TRSM-ASC-tip-sheet-preparing-class-preparing-tests.pdf.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Hobson, E. (2001). Motivating students to learn in large classes. Unpublished manuscript, Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany, NY.

McGuire S., & McGuire, S.Y. (2018). Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level, Chapter 7. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Mind Tools. (n.d.). The forgetting curve. Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/forgetting-curve.htm.

Sumeracki, M. (2020, June 25). Retrieval practice and stress. Retrieved from: https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2020/6/25-1.