Module 2 - Motivation and Purpose

Motivation and Purpose


Motivation is a common challenge for university students throughout their degree. University courses are often 3-5 years of full-time study (and longer for part-time students), which is a significant period of time to remain highly motivated. Your sense of purpose for studying will often provide a beacon of light in the darkest times, so it is important to understand and remember why you are here!

How will this module help me?

  • Understand what motivates and demotivates you
  • Recognise the importance of a sense of purpose
  • Learn how resilience and grit help you succeed at university.

How long does this module take?

  • 20 minutes

How to get motivated

Motivation can be intrinsic and come from an internal drive for personal satisfaction, enjoyment or benefit, or it can be an extrinsic, external drive to provide benefits to others, gain material wealth/possessions, or secure a specific job. Your values are often associated with intrinsic motivations whereas your goals are often attached to extrinsic motivations.

Identify your values and set goals

Motivation is what drives you to achieve what needs to be done. However, if you cannot see the benefits associated with a task, you may be unmotivated to achieve it. Studies have also shown that motivated students perceive academic workloads to be less than unmotivated students – that is, they don’t feel overwhelmed by the same amount of work.

To help understand your motivations in life, reflect on the following questions:

  • What is really important to you in life?
  • What are you aspiring to achieve (personal and professional goals)?
  • Identify a motivator for each goal (intrinsic or extrinsic)
  • Are your goals specific, realistic and achievable?
  • What are your short-term goals – next hour, day, or week?

If you struggled to answer these questions, don’t despair. JCU has a great resource that can help you unpack your values, motivations and direction through the interactive You and Your Career module.

Sense of Purpose and Study

A sense of purpose is to find or enact your personal purpose in life in order to realise a satisfying future. It is overarching and often associated with aspects of empowerment, motivation and drive, and a willingness to sacrifice in the support of a higher purpose. For these reasons, it is an important to understand your sense of purpose in relation to higher education study.

Your sense of purpose is intrinsically unique to you and is influenced by your journey prior to study. Some students know from an early age exactly what they want to do with their life. Some students don’t know until after they start study, and many students change course while studying.  This reflects the fact that your sense of purpose changes as you grow and you learn new things about the world and yourself. A higher education exposes students to new perspectives, theories, experiences and people, which can alter their original purpose and path. This altered worldview can be exciting and revelatory, but can also create anxiety and uncertainty if it undermines your original sense of purpose. The takeaway message is that it is normal and ok to not have it all figured out – just remain open to possibilities as they evolve.


Students decide to study at university for a range of extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (internal) reasons, which can impact on their sense of purpose and motivation levels. Review the list below of common reasons that students decide to go to university to see if any of them resonate with you.

  • Someone told me to do it (family/friends)
  • To prove to others that I can do it
  • I want to change my financial future
  • I want to make a difference in the world
  • I like learning new things
  • I wasn’t sure what else to do
  • I want to gain more self-confidence
  • I missed educational opportunities in the past
  • The degree will be useful in my current job/widen work options/increase promotion opportunities
  • I want to be respected and recognised for my intellectual capacity
  • To prove to myself that I can do it
  • I want to gain educational qualifications
  • It will help kickstart my dream career
  • To widen my intellectual interests and skills
  • It is the right time in my life
  • I want to challenge myself
  • I want to meet new people with the same interests.

Top Tips

Big Picture – try to make connections between your subject content/skill development and your graduate goals. If you focus on their relevance to the ‘bigger picture’, it will help with your sense of purpose and motivation.

Job Ready – you should develop a career action plan in first year to help focus your reason for studying. The JCU Job Ready action plan has simple steps you can take each year throughout your degree to keep you connected to your long-term graduate goals.

JCU Job Ready


Procrastination is a common form of self-sabotage and is often called the lazy cousin of fear. We all procrastinate in life, but if you start to constantly put things off there can be a cumulative effect that leads to chronic and habitual inaction. A vicious cycle can develop where you delay starting tasks and then have less and less time to complete the tasks, which makes you feel increasingly stressed to the point of being overwhelmed and incapacitated. To avoid this situation, it is important to understand what causes procrastination and this avoidance mode, so you can stay in driver mode!

Causes of procrastination

Underlying fears – you may fear failure, rejection, underperformance, or being judged by others. You may be worried that you don’t have the skills and knowledge to complete the task.

Avoiding discomfort – you may not want to feel the discomfort of a challenging/difficult task, and wrongly assume that you are the only one feeling a lack of confidence.

Emotional state – you may feel tired, hungry, stressed, or bored and use these as reasons not to start a task. However, the longer you avoid the task, the more likely you will feel overwhelmed as deadlines approach.

Prioritising issues – you may start to fill your days with busy work (chores, paid work, hobbies, sport), so you convince yourself that you don’t have time to do high priority study tasks. Alternatively, you may focus on lots of low priority study tasks (organising notes, planning) to avoid more difficult, pressing ones.

Signs of procrastination

There are some common thought patterns that signpost avoidance behaviour.

  • Ignoring upcoming deadlines – “I work better under pressure, so I don’t need to do it straight away” or “There’s plenty of time – I’ll do that later”
  • Avoidance through distraction – “There’s so many other things I’d rather be doing” or “This is more important right now than study”
  • Aligning motivations with emotion – “I will wait until I feel in the mood/feel inspired” or “I am too distracted/tired to focus right now”
  • Action illusion – “I have been really busy lately and deserve a break” or “I have done lots of thinking/planning in my head, so will leave the real work for another day/week”.

Top Tips

Acknowledge unhelpful thoughts – recognise and accept these thoughts and feelings and focus on positive self-talk, action, and your short-term and long-term goals.

Create an action plan – realistically prioritise tasks and break them into smaller parts and timetable some ‘shifts’ in a Weekly Study Planner to get each one done. Also, timetable rest breaks to reward yourself after each shift. Strive for five – if you are struggling to start a shift, set your phone timer for five minutes and start the task (you’ll often keep going after the alarm).

Lower your expectations – being perfect isn’t realistic or achievable, so accept that you may not have the knowledge, skills or time to do a task perfectly, and set goals and plans accordingly. Focus on what you can realistically achieve and don’t worry about what others will think – be kind to yourself.

Just do it – take action and keep going, even if you don’t feel like it. The tasks are not going to magically complete themselves (as your parents would say), so take a deep breath and dive in. Make sure you remove distractions around you before you start a shift to help focus – close social media, turn off the television, shut web browsers, silence phone alerts.

Reward yourself – make sure to take well-earned (scheduled) breaks or treat yourself to something special if you stay on track, especially if you are a habitual procrastinator. Tell yourself: “This isn’t easy, but I’m getting there” or “I’m doing great – I am focused on what I need to do to achieve my goals” or “I got all my ‘shiftwork’ done today – well done”.

Seek help – if you have tried the strategies above and procrastination persists, you may experience anxiety as you fall further behind in your study. The JCU Student Equity and Wellbeing service provides free support for students who lack ongoing motivation.

Resilience and Grit

The challenges you experience at university are also opportunities to grow. Resilience is your capacity to bounce back, thrive, and fulfil your potential – despite change, challenges, and stressors along the way. Adaptability and resilience are key employability skill that employers now recruit for. The image below highlights some important factors that will bolster your resilience levels, and should be fostered as part of your ongoing personal and professional development.

A graphic representation of the elements important to developing resilience

Research into Australian universities (2017) showed that nearly 40% of students will fail one or more subject/s across their degree, which means failure is a relatively common occurrence and persistence is key for long-term success. The study showed that students who proactively sought support (including from peers, family and friends) and adapted their practices were more likely to persist with their studies due to newfound resilience strategies and determination.

The notion of grit as a factor for success in higher education is a relatively new phenomenon. Grit in this instance refers to the stamina, perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals, working strenuously towards/through challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. Grit helps with your psychological wellbeing and stability, purpose commitment, self-esteem, engagement and satisfaction levels, and sense of meaning in life. Like resilience, grit is something that can be developed through conscious effort. A student with grit will exhibit some or all of these characteristics:

  • Passion and perseverance – short and long term goals aligned with interests, resilience, dedication, adaptability, endurance, deep and sustained commitment, and persistence to overcome personal and academic challenges to achieve goals
  • Self-control – excellent time management, self-discipline, prioritise tasks, ability to regulate attention and resist temptation, conscientiousness, hardworking, and self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses
  • Growth mindset – positive attitude toward learning and life, understands the importance of feedback and constructive criticism, knows it is ok to feel confused when learning something new, and sees failure as an opportunity for growth and enhancement of abilities.

Optimism can be learned and people can change their mindsets and ways of thinking in order to facilitate a more positive attitude towards life and learning. Research in universities shows that successful students seem to adopt this idea of learned optimism, which is focused on happiness, independence, and mitigating stress. Unfortunately, natural talent/intellect does not guarantee of success at university, but grit and perseverance do as you won’t give up, even if you fail.

Additional Resources

Take the Quiz

Test your knowledge of Motivation and Purpose by taking the quiz.

Take the Quiz
Motivations can be intrinsic and extrinsic and are associated with your values and goals.
A sense of purpose provides
Can your sense of purpose change?
A student with grit will exhibit the following characteristics: