Why Students Lose Motivation In College

Motivation is an ongoing struggle for all college students, yet it’s the driver that allows them to get work done for their classes. At one point or another all students find that their motivation begins to flag, with some struggling just to get their work done. To some extent this variability in feeling motivated is normal, none of us can be at the top of our game at all times, and ordinary events in life can affect it. For example, students at northern colleges don’t relish the prospect of getting out of their warm bed during winter for an 8am class, especially when they have to trek across campus when the wind chill puts the temperature at minus 15 degrees. Also, students also begin to fatigue just past mid-term, so motivation can become a real struggle for the second half of the term. While these examples are temporary or situational factors, there are other things that can more pervasively hurt motivation.

Students can lose motivation in college for a variety of reasons, ranging from being unsure of what to pick for a major or disliking classes, to more serious conditions like anxiety and depression. They may also realize that they don’t like their college, have become socially alienated, or have never developed the self-discipline to tackle high workload times.

In general, things that college students say hurt their motivation include:

Uncertainty About A Major

Not being sure of what major to pick can really hurt motivation, and this can become worse the longer the student is in school. There always reaches a point where a student is forced to declare a major, since they run out of non-major classes to take, and this can make them feel even more pressure. What can help is for them to approach their school’s Career Center and ask about career testing, which can add clarity to what professional fields might fit them best.

Choosing The Wrong Major

Some students declare a major when they applied to a school as a freshman, only to later realize they don’t like it at all. I see this all the time with young men who pick a STEM field, especially engineering. The major can be too hard, too boring, or they otherwise chose the major for lack of knowing what else they wanted to do. For picking a major, examining the curriculum first can go a long way when trying to understand the level of difficulty, or whether the courses will sound interesting or not. Each class has a course description that can be read, and this can yield more information about the topics covered during a given class.

Not Liking Their school

It’s hard to stay motivated for classes when a student doesn’t like being at their college. When students pick a place to attend during high school they can often get caught up in the fancy names, but when they get there they realize that the school doesn’t fit them in one or more ways. They may feel that class sizes are too big, or realize that there are requirements to graduate like multiple semesters of a foreign language that they have no desire to do. At any time in college students can apply to transfer to another school, and much of the time the bulk of credits earned at one college will transfer to another.

Not Integrating In To Campus Socially

Getting to campus after the excitement of acceptance, then not making friends or otherwise having a hard time fitting in, can badly hurt a student’s motivation.  And an overall lack of social integration can leave them feeling alienated from everyone else, even with many other students. This is often true at larger colleges, where students report feeling “lost in a crowd” and not having a single friend. Smaller colleges tend to have a higher level of social engagement, so while it sounds counterintuitive, applying to a small school might help with a student’s social life therefore motivation.

Earning Bad Grades

Earning bad grades is a fast way to kill a student motivation, which then can lead to more bad grades, so the situation quickly compounds itself in their mind: They haven’t earned good grades from their efforts, so why make the effort if the result will always be bad? This type of thinking doesn’t allow the student to rebound from early bad grades, and can cause an entire semester to be lost. The antidote, of course, is to be serious about grades from the start, work hard, and earn their way to consistent good grades throughout the term that support their motivation.

Internal And External Motivation Factors

By examining what brings motivation, students can develop better insight in to what might hurt it or help it to grow. Out of the many possible things that motivate us, there is a broad rubric in to which we can break them down. All humans have internal (intrinsic) motivation, and external (extrinsic) motivation, both which drive behavior. The internal type includes our dreams, values, beliefs, wants, desires, hopes, and everything else inside that inspires us to keep moving forward in all walks of life. External motivators can include rules, expectations, social norms, and other factors that are outside of us. Gaining clarity about what motivates a student can come about from different sources, and usually requires some self-reflection to arrive at those insights.

Ways that people gain insight on their motivation:

  • Journaling is a technique that many people use, and it’s simply to keep a notebook with a daily record of thoughts, feelings, events, or other things that happen in your life. Students can deliberately explore parts of themselves, including what is important to them, what they would like to do in the future, and how they would like their life to be. This self-reflection process can hold some powerful insights in to one’s own behavior which can raise awareness and be a driving force to change bad habits.

  • Making lists of important goals for the future, and milestones to achieve them, can also be helpful to find the positive aspects of life that can underlie motivation. What would a student like to do when they complete their degree? What would they like your life to look like five years from now? Or what would they like to accomplish by the time they reach 40 years old? These types of questions always imply the needed steps to reach these goals, and help to solidify the reality that student life in the present has a deep connection to their future.

  • Constant renewal of motivation can happen when we actively work on motivation itself daily. Daily journaling, goal planning, and exploring what a student can do with a hard-earned degree after college can help to establish a forward-looking mindset that makes sense of all the hard work in the present. Look to outside sources as well, such as trends that they want to be part of, budding new industries or ideas, and creative projects that a student might like to be able to say “I would be excited to be part of that when I’m done with school.”

What Beats Motivation To Get Work Done

Is there something better than motivation to drive us to get work done? Yes, there is, and it’s more consistent: It’s called self-discipline. Self-discipline is what allows you to drag yourself out of bed even though you’re still tired, and it’s what makes you force yourself to go to the gym even though you’re not really “feeling it” on a particular day. Self-discipline means forcing yourself to do your work routines, to get yourself to the library when you aren’t thrilled about it, and it’s what makes you do all the things you know you must even though your motivation is low. In the times of poor motivation, self-discipline can keep us going, and by forcing yourself to stick to your work routines you will find yourself getting work done even when you don’t feel like it. Having shiny, happy, positive reasons for motivation is fine, but motivation can fail. When it does, one can rely on self-discipline to carry them through.

Notes on self-discipline:

  • Self-discipline means making yourself do things, even when you’re not really in the mood: To push yourself toward the goals that you’ve set for yourself. Even when it’s pouring down rain, you still go to class; and when everyone wants to have a fun weekend, you go to the library to study for that test on Monday because they want to get an “A.” Self-discipline is saying no to distractions, politely declining invitations, or telling friends you’ll catch up with them later. Keep in mind that no one ever regrets time away from fun things if they earn the top grades that they want.

  • Self-discipline doesn’t care much about thoughts, feelings, or temporary mood states, it only cares about getting things done. It takes the perspective of a cold indifference to what’s going on around you, and about the many possible “fun” things: It sees them as irrelevant then pushes you forward toward the future. When a student is acting with self-discipline, they’ll know it, because everything besides their goal becomes unimportant.

  • Just like the habits and routines that we build to be productive, self-discipline needs to be strengthened and cultivated as well. When students eliminate or leave distractions, when they say “no” when they have to work, and when they trek off alone to the library despite other things going on, these all exercise and build self-discipline. The more you do this, the stronger it will get, and the better payoff you’ll see in their grades.

More Serious Things That Can Affect Motivation

The things we’ve been talking about so far, at some level, can be controlled by the student to address their impact on motivation. For example, if a student is unhappy with their major, they can change it; or if they don’t like their school, they can transfer. But there are more serious issues that can have a pervasive effect on motivation, regardless of major, school, or anything else. Self-discipline will not work in the face of underlying issues that can affect motivation, and are outside of the student’s direct control.

More serious issues that can affect student motivation can include:


  • Many students attend college with a disability, and clinical depression can be one of them. It affects approximately 40% of U.S. adults at one point or another in their lives, and many students experience it even during high school. Depression can affect a student’s concentration, focus, energy levels, and motivation in the deepest ways. In fact, many students have reported not even getting out of bed for several days, which is actually a known symptom of depression. Clinical depression will need treatment since it can affect multiple classes plus the student’s  overall life functioning, and typically will not just resolve itself without intervention.

Thyroid Conditions

  • Thyroid conditions can mimic the symptoms of depression or other conditions, which in turn can hurt a student’s motivation. There are two general aspects of thyroid issues: Hyper-thyroidism, or an over-active thyroid, and hypo-thyroidism which means under-active. It’s the latter condition that can cause low energy, fatigue, and have an effect on concentration, focus, and motivation. Again, such conditions will need treatment, and these conditions can only be diagnosed by a physician.

Anxiety Issues

  • Anxiety occurs at high levels in college students on a good day since they’re constantly worried about tests, papers, and all of their other responsibilities. But anxiety can also reach proportions where it begins to interfere with a student’s life in a broad sense, and that’s a signal that it has become something more serious. Not being able to sleep, having panic attacks, or needing to leave situations due to racing thoughts, feelings of dread, or other negative internal states all indicate that the student may need treatment.

Discontinuing Prior Treatment

  • Many students attend college after having been treated for interpersonal or emotional issues during high school, yet they may discontinue their medication or psychotherapy just when they are hit with the stressful transition to college. This can cause them to experience a relapse in symptoms of depression, have an increase in anxiety, or face other issues that can indirectly or directly affect their motivation.   College has a way of magnifying any weakness that we have since the work responsibilities are high and the pace fast.  Ending important supports during this stressful time can impact motivation, which can then affect student grades.

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