Getting back on track after a speed bump: how to get motivated and set goals during a pandemic

Education experts have called motivation the “engine” of learning [1].

This makes a lot of sense. If you’re not feeling motivated, then there’s no driving force urging you to discover and master new things.

If we build on that idea of motivation as the engine of learning, then learning itself is like a car: the vehicle that can take us where we want to go.

It’s very possible that before COVID-19 entered our vocabularies, your car’s engine was firing on all cylinders and accelerating towards your chosen destination, where graduation and your dream job awaits.

But, as so often happens on the highway of life, an obstacle has unexpectedly fallen in the path of your travels, requiring a sudden brake and change direction.

It’s entirely reasonable to imagine your engine has momentarily cooled and now you’re struggling to restart the ignition.

So, why has a pandemic got you feeling this way, and what can do you to get going again?

We did some research on motivation, and spoke to one of La Trobe’s experts on working and studying from home, to get tips to help get you back on the road to your destination.

Why do I feel so unmotivated?

First thing’s first: we are all in a similar situation right now and it’s perfectly normal if you are feeling a little out of sorts.

Consider it like a fleet-wide malfunction; we’re all going to need some reprogramming to navigate our new study and work environment.

“Feeling a bit grumpy, annoyed and like it’s a bit hard to get out of bed is entirely to be expected,” Associate Professor Jodi Oakman, head of La Trobe’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, says.

She says it’s important to adjust your expectations of what’s possible given the current situation: it isn’t fair to think you’ll march on unaffected, as if nothing has changed.

But don’t sell yourself short: “Humans are very adaptable,” Associate Professor Oakman told Channel 7 this week.

“Many of us are doing things today we didn’t imagine doing a week ago, so we have great capacity to adapt to our situation and make things work.”

Although the COVID-19 situation is constantly changing, what is certain is how University classes are taking place: all classes will occur online until the end of Semester One. That should give you some confidence that, if you put in place some good study practices and set some reachable goals, you’ll be in good stead to handle whatever speed bumps are on the road ahead.

Fuel for thought

Education thinkers say autonomy, relatedness and competence are key to staying motivated.

So, how do we get outselves back in the right headspace or, what do we use to refuel our engines if they’re running on empty?

One theory suggests there are three forces that combine to make us motivated [2]:

  • autonomy, or having control over our own learning
  • relatedness, or how our learning makes us feel connected to others and a greater purpose
  • competence, or how making progress gives us the confidence we’re capable of reaching our goals

It’s arguable that studying online could actually be an advantage when it comes to the first and third dot-points. Since online learning gives you greater control over how you study – you can choose your pace and space, and there’s no other students physically nearby to distract you or to compare yourself with – this potentially increases how empowered and confident you feel about Uni work.

The area where our new way of study is likeliest to put the brakes on is in the area of relatedness. For many people, the experience of coming together in a lecture theatre, interacting with each other and with the teacher, and enjoying both the social and environmental aspects of campus life is a huge motivator to study.

Dr Maggie Hartnett from New Zealand’s Massey University has used this framework to help her investigate what motivates online learners, and what puts barriers in their way [3].

She’s found students get a sense of connectedness when they develop relationships with their classmates, especially small groups of classmates with whom they study or collaborate on assignments.

The best experience of those she surveyed was had by students with classmates who were sociable and considerate. Students in those classes said they felt respected and valued, which is a pretty powerful motivator.

Alternatively, when there was a lack of interaction or, worse, disagreements, then students reported feeling frustrated, isolated and disconnected.

So what does that mean for us?

Well, we can kick-start our motivation and help others do the same simply by being sociable with and kind to the rest of our class. Not rocket science, huh?

It’s also imperative to be active online, speaking up in class or contributing to online forums. Doing so promotes discussion, enriches everyone’s learning (yours included) and makes you part of a community of learners just like the one you that’s created in the on-campus classroom.

That’s also the experience of Master of Teaching (Secondary) student Jarett Boorn, who told MyLaTrobe engaging with classmates and teachers was his single biggest piece of advice for first-time online students.

“You can feel a little isolated if you only watch lecture recordings and tutorial recordings and don’t participate,” Jarett says.

“If you participate you feel connected with your classmates and lecturer/tutor.

“You can use the lecture, tutorials and forums to communicate – you never know when someone else may have that exact same question.”

Re-setting your GPS

The consequences of COVID-19 range from frustrating (being housebound, not being able to attend classes) to confronting.

But it’s imperative we acknowledge that it’s not forever. Continue looking ahead to the same finish line that was in your sights before the pandemic caused this mandatory pit stop. Your goals are still there, still reachable; they just might require some re-routing to get there.

Like a GPS gives you step-by-step instructions to reach your destination (turn left, take second exit, stay in left lane), Associate Professor Oakman says it’s important to to break down your study tasks into a series of goals you that you can reasonably expect to achieve.

That way, you will feel a sense of achievement when each is complete, in turn motivating yourself to tackle the next step.

“The temptation is to let things drift,” she says, explaining that since we’ve got more time on our hands, we could potentially chip away at a task over an entire day or more.

“That’s true, but it’s not the best way to stay engaged because it’s not very satisfying.”

Finishing each week’s work within that same seven-day window will help you stay on track, meet assignment deadlines and feel prepared for the challenges next semester will present.

And goals don’t have to be just Uni-related. Associate Professor Oakman also recommends students have something else they’re working on while self-isolating: learning a language or music instrument, tending to your garden, rediscovering your love of drawing.

“Most people now have some more time because they don’t have the same structures on their day, so do try and capitalise,” she says.

Call Roadside Assist

Need help? Our ‘academic mechanics’ are just a phone call away.

Even the most reliable vehicles need the occasional tune-up. You and your learning are no different.

And since we’re travelling on lesser known terrain, it’s more important than ever you are attuned to how your learning is being impacted by the surrounding environment.

For some people, keeping up contact with friends, family members and classmates will be enough to work through any troubles with Uni.

Others might need the assistance of experts (or ‘academic mechanics’, if you will). Enter La Trobe’s teaching staff, academic support services and Peer Learning Advisors, all of are available during this time to offer their assistance.

To get motivated and stay motivated, you’ve got to keep your body and mind in the working order.

That’s why Jodi Oakman says the importance of physical activity can’t be overstated.

“Boring though that might be, it’s really important because it underpins your mental and physical health. Every day should include some form of physical exercise,” she says.

You could also make a time to speak with a member of La Trobe’s Student Wellbeing team. If you feel dragged down, they’re a pretty great pit crew to call on.


[1] Paris, S. G., & Turner, J. C. (1994). Situated motivation. In P. R. Pintrich, D. R. Brown & C. E. Weinstein (Eds.), Student motivation, cognition, and learning: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie (pp. 213–237). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[2] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

[3] Hartnett, M. (2016). Motivation in Online Education. 1st Ed.