Self-regulation and study

Today’s post has been inspired by my recent struggles in keeping myself motivated for my university studies. Whilst I accept responsibility for fluctuations in my motivation and study output I do think that the structure of university course work often does not promote healthy and happy study habits. To put it simply, there is a lot of pressure on students, and not just in the classroom, to be successful. And this pressure filled environment doesn’t always encourage students to dream big and be the best versions of themselves. Unfortunately, the focus is almost always on marks. It never stops.

I am doing my Honours year at the moment and if I thought competition at an Undergraduate level was intense I had no idea what I was in for in Honours. Approximately 700-800 people apply to my University for Honours and about 60 got accepted. This story rings true for every major University. Now we are in the Honours program we once again must contend with being a number as only those who achieve a High Distinction average have a chance of getting into a highly competitive Masters program.  Not only is this prospect of being yet another statistic terrifying, it is utterly demoralising. And yet this outcome goal takes over our lives. The pressure to succeed then conflicts with our responsibilities beyond the realm of study. External roles as an employee, partner, daughter, son, brother, sister, friend all contribute to the stress felt by students. It is incredibility difficult to navigate these different social roles and the tasks that come with them. In fact, there is always a period every semester in week 9-12 where suddenly everyone is sick because their immune system has been taking a bashing due to the prolonged exposure to stress.

All this to say that University lifestyle demands students to self regulate. Self regulation refers to any effort by a human being to alter its thoughts, emotions, and actions in accordance with its desires (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). For a student this might mean choosing to cut back on social events in order to study in the lead up to exams. Self-regulation facilitates desirable outcomes as it involves resisting inappropriate impulses and persisting with appropriate, goal-oriented behaviour (Baumesiter, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). Again, in the student context this means avoiding procrastination and focusing on the work that needs to be done. Self regulation is a skill that is often assumed students have when in reality it needs to be taught (Balumi et al., 2016).  I fondly remember my lecturer describing self regulation as ‘swimming through a sea of tim tams and choosing to eat just one’. Just like the example she gave, self regulation can actually be very difficult, especially in the motivational climates that students face.

Self regulation requires high levels of motivation. In order  to act towards desired outcomes, one must identify those outcomes and  devise strategies towards achieving those outcomes. Furthermore, the student must resist external temptations that may derail them from achieving their goals. Therefore, maintaining high levels of motivation is important to the self regulation process. Unfortunately, the life of a student often saps the intrinsic motivation out of the activity. The emphasis placed on marks and results often interferes with the student’s intrinsic motivation to learn and get better in their chosen vocation. In fact, students may find themselves attempting to self- regulate towards goals that are not really their own but have been dictated to them. For instance, a student wants to be a psychologist so therefore their goals become getting high distinctions on their assignments. They attempt to work tirelessly towards this goal, wondering why they lack motivation and find themselves procrastinating.

Obviously achievement is important but when the outcome becomes more important than individual growth, it becomes difficult to stay motivated and to self regulate. Unfortunately, the university structure does not allow students to focus in growth mindsets and teaches them to think only in outcomes. This derails the motivational processes needed to achieve success and cretae enjoyable outcomes for students.

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