Guide to Understanding Motivation

1. What is motivation?

Motivation is a psychological process underpinned by factors that influence behaviour, especially level of commitment to a given activity. It is a force that pushes us to take action in a situation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Understanding this mechanism will help you get into gear!

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Forms of motivation

Intrinsic motivation Extrinsic motivation
  • More powerful
  • Related to values
  • Internalized goals (pleasure, satisfaction and personal meaning)
    • Less powerful
    • Related to external expectations
    • Instrumental goals (reward or punishment)

      Intrinsic motivation is more important. Because it is self-determined, it is stronger than extrinsic motivation, which is influenced by external factors.  

      But it is completely normal to draw on both these types of motivation throughout your journey as a student.   


      Charlie has always been really interested in biology, and he likes helping people. He is fascinated by hospitals. So he decided to become a nurse: this relates back to his interests, and he also gets great grades in chemistry and biology. 

      He is enrolled in nursing sciences at cégep, and he is on cloud nine in all his concentration courses. But he is having trouble in his literature class. He has never been crazy about stories or novels. He doesn’t understand how the course requirements will help him become a better nurse.  

      For him, it is getting increasingly difficult to work on this particular course. He knows, though, that if he wants to get his nursing licence, he has to earn his college diploma. That means passing all his general courses, including his literature courses.  

      Charlie’s INTRINSIC MOTIVATION is related to his enthusiasm for the nursing sciences and personal values of helping people, science and human relations. His motivation is linked directly to his own traits, which means he is highly motivated and engaged during his nursing science courses. Moreover, because he is doing well in those courses, he has confidence in his abilities, which further increases his intrinsic motivation toward his professional goal.  

      Passing his literature courses requires EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION, because Charlie has little interest in them and, on top of that, he is having trouble. He does not feel engaged in the subject matter, and he is trying to motivate himself the best he can by avoiding failure and fulfilling the course requirements. He reminds himself about his professional goal, which he can only achieve if he gets his DEC.

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      What is amotivation?

      Lack of motivation, resignation and apathy. The values, skills and goals that would allow you to mobilize the energy required to accomplish the actions are not clear enough or simply missing. In cases like this, you should clarify your study plan or your professional plan by contacting an academic advisor or guidance counsellor. Personal or psychological difficulties, such as depression or anxiety, can also have this effect. Reach out to the resources available to you if you feel the need to talk about your motivation problems.


      Take a moment to reflect on your academic and professional goals.  

      Are they clear? Are they connected to your skills, your values and your interests? What aspects of the courses you have taken and the way Cégep à distance operates can help or hinder your motivation?  

      1) What is your professional goal? 

      2) Why are you studying?
      Example: To get the job I want, to improve my working conditions, to continue doing my sport . . . 

      3) Why are you studying at Cégep à distance?
      What do you see as the advantages of studying at Cégep à distance?
      What are the disadvantages? 

      4) Which course motivates you the most?  Why? 

      5) Which course motivates you the least? Why? Is there a resource that could help you?
      Example: Philosophy. It’s complicated and useless. My tutor could help me.

      6) What helps me maintain and increase my motivation?
      Example: Getting closer to graduating. Getting a good grade on my assignment. Thinking about my future plans. Studying with a friend. Studying in a place I like. 

      7) What depletes my motivation?
      Example: Not understanding anything. Finding things pointless. Fatigue.

      8) What value can you find in the course(s) you find less motivating?
      Example: Philosophy can help me assess difficult situations in my future job as a nurse. Understanding the past helps me figure out what to aim for in the present.   

      2. What is procrastination?

      According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, to procrastinate means to delay or postpone action. Procrastination is often supported by pretexts that give us an excuse for not doing what we have to do: fatigue, boredom, stress, anxiety, discouragement, etc.

      But the desire to postpone things until later is often hiding . . .

      1. Fear of failure, difficulty or success.
      2. Lack of motivation, due to a lack of interest or a vague academic path.
      3. Trouble concentrating.
      4. Overwork (fatigue).
      5. Lack of pleasure or immediate reward.



      The procrastination cycle is triggered when it is time to take action and accomplish tasks (Collège de Rosemont, 2021).

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      The Procrastination Cycle

      When you have a task to accomplish, it can bring on feelings such as anxiety, fatigue, boredom, discouragement or discomfort. So you may look for ways to avoid those feelings and get temporary relief by using excuses or thoughts to avoid the task, such as telling yourself that you still have lots of time or that you are not feeling inspired just then. You might also use distractions such as the internet, video games, friends, sleeping, housework, eating, etc. This means you postpone the task and then suffer the emotional or practical consequences.

      How can you break this cycle?

      • Identify the tasks you want to put off until tomorrow.
      • Try to understand the feeling that the task brings up for you.
      • Identify your fears and examine them. If it is too hard to confront them on your own, speak to a professional.
      • Recognize the sources of distraction around you and minimize them.
      • Use strategies that foster action.

      3. Tools and techniques for getting motivated

      SMART goals

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      SMART goals

      Set SMART goals for yourself. S is for specific, M is for measurable, A is for achievable, R is for relevant and T is for timely. This is a matter of subdividing responsibilities into specific tasks to foster motivation and action. Look at the tree, rather than the forest, and even the leaf, rather than the tree.

      Specific: A goal is specific if it is detailed and targeted, so there is no doubt whatsoever about the exact task to accomplish. A specific goal is a goal that has ONE SINGLE PURPOSE.

      Measurable: A goal is measurable when it can be quantified and you can objectively observe that it has been achieved. A measurable goal provides an INDICATOR.

      Achievable: A goal is achievable when it can reasonably be accomplished without too many “sacrifices.” This kind of goal takes your capacities and context into account. It is connected to your MEANS and COMPETENCIES.

      Relevant: A goal is relevant when it contributes meaningfully and logically to the target outcome. A relevant goal is an APPROPRIATE STEP toward the overall objective.

      Timely: A goal is timely when it takes the limited time available into consideration. A timely goal allows you to set a DEADLINE for achieving it.

      POMODORO technique — Time management method

      • Take short, frequent breaks to maintain your concentration (for example, 10- to 15-minute break after 45 minutes to an hour of study).
      • Focus 100% of your attention on the task. ​
      • Hide your phone. No distractions!
      • Adapt the method to your level of concentration and the nature of the task.
      • Practise the method alone or with others, remotely or in person.

      You can use the timer on your phone or download the Focus Keeper app to stick to the break and work times.

      Post-It or Kanban method

      The Kanban method allows you to be more productive and maintain an overview of the work at hand.


      1. Draw up a list of the tasks you have to accomplish on Post-It notes.
        Example: You can use different colour Post-Its for each subject or each course.
      2. Break down each task into SMART goals.
      3. Create the following three categories on your wall or bulletin board: To Do, In Progress, Done.
      4. Put all your tasks in the “To Do” column.
      5. Start working on them in order of priority.



      EXAMPLE :

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      Post-It or Kanban method

      To Do In Progress Done
      French: Read chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 1–35) of the novel — Week 4. Philosophy: Do formative evaluation 3. Biology: Read Module 1.
      Biology: Make a mental map of Module 1 by Monday. Biology: Do formative exercises 1 to 15. Philosophy: Watch Video A and write a summary.


      Centre d’aide aux étudiants, Université Laval. « Atelier La procrastination. Cessez de remettre à plus tard »,

      Centre de transfert pour la réussite éducative du Québec (2016). « Les différents types de motivation selon la théorie de l’autodétermination »,

      Collège de Rosemont (2021). « Procrastination ou la tendance à remettre à plus tard ».

      Darnon, C. « Motivation » (psychologie), Encyclopædia Universalis.

      Deci, E. L. et Ryan, R. M. (2000). « Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being ». American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78,

      Deci, E. L. et Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of Self-Determination Research. Rochester, NY  University of Rochester Press.

      Kanbanize (2021).

      Sicinsky, A. A « Foolproof Method to Help You Overcome Procrastination and Achieve your Goals »,

      Thésez-vous. « Objectifs SMART et Technique Pomodoro ».

      Université Laval (1999). « Surmonter la procrastination scolaire ».