Motivation exploration and corona adaptation

Jasper Vogel | maart 11, 2021
motivatie ontdekken

What day is it? Tuesday? Thursday? What’s the difference in a corona year where all days are blended together into a slow and repetitive journey through time. Instead of waking up fresh for a new day full of possibilities, you find yourself on a faded start for more of the same: your student room, your laptop and the search for motivation to get more done that the day before. You drink a cup of coffee to kickstart the day, and no matter how strong you make it: coffee does not influence your motivation. But what does?


Self Determination Theory

The motivation drop students experience during the ongoing corona measurements can be explained by the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of van Deci and Ryan (2000). This theory assumes that people have an innate active growth tendency; a natural urge to learn and grow. However, in highly controlling or chaotic environments that urge is blocked. The effect of corona measures is that our mobility is limited (controlled) and the usual structure in days disappears (chaotic). According to the SDT, such a situation brings the risk of demotivation and lower productivity. If this sounds recognizable, that makes complete sense. Fortunately, the SDT also offers insights to do something about it.

Following the SDT, optimal functioning (i.e. productive behavior, well-being and positive attitudes) occurs when three basic psychological needs are met. When you experience autonomy, competence and connection you will function and feel better. Time for an outline and a tip for each of these crucial needs.



People have a need to feel competent. For students that translates to being able to understand course material, to complete assignments and to master skills. A student who feels inadequate avoids challenges, a student who feels competent takes them on. This need for competence might be more difficult to fulfill when contact with teachers and fellow students is restricted and online. The resulting drop in personal contact, feedback and comparison brings less of an accurate impression of your progress and competence. In addition, some students wonder whether the online open book exams reflect their competence at the knowledge level, or simply their efficient quick search ability.

Our tip to feel competent: write down for yourself two study successes that you achieved in this academic year (e.g. I know a lot more about molecular biology than six months ago; I am 20 ECTS closer to my Bachelor degree). In addition, write down two ways in which you are handling the corona measures better than when they started a year ago (e.g. I make sure I get more physical exercise than in the first lockdown; I keep my room tidy). Write it down and realise: you are becoming more and more competent.



The next need, which is highly frustrated by the corona situation, is connectedness. The difference between students experiencing cohesion with fellow students and teachers, and those that feel isolated is huge. It impacts the motivation to keep going, to share ideas, to ask or provide support. Social media connects us to hundreds of others every day, but truly satisfying this need requires meaningful relationships. Projected to the reality of students, this is a major challenge: how do you stay meaningfully connected with fellow students and teachers? That goes beyond socializing (online), it also involves exchanging ideas and opinions with each other, supporting each other in the face of setbacks and feeling inspired by sharing future dreams.

The tip to experience more connectedness: make an appointment with some fellow students to watch the online lectures together at a fixed time during the week and talk afterwards for at least 15 minutes. Talk about the content, discuss your views and interests, and share study strategies. Watching lectures on your own is not always easy, because we get distracted and passive. Following lectures together makes the experience more interesting, and you also strengthen your relationships. A win-win situation.


Finally, the desire to act freely and to be able to make your own decisions. The corona measures have a paradoxical effect here. Many students note that due to all canceled activities, they have more time than ever before to fill in for themselves, but at the same time they get less done in the midst of that freedom. Getting started every day seems to be the major obstacle. Not surprising if you were used to studying at the faculty or university library. Because you are at home all day, the distinction between study and leisure time has become vague; where does one start and the other ends when everything takes place in the same space? The morning flies by finishing that Netflix show, and early in the afternoon you can already hear roommates chatting and relaxing. Do you choose to have your days pass by like this, or does it happen to you?

The tip to experience more autonomy: first determine from what time you want to start relaxing. Instead of searching for other things to do instead of starting, turn it around and start by thinking about when you want to close your textbooks and laptop again to start your free time. If you want to go for a run at 4:00 PM, you know that you want to have your study hours completed before then. If you decide to enjoy the beautiful weather from 2:00 pm, you know that you want to complete that lecture and the assignment before then. Choose your free time consciously, and productivity will follow.

Feed your need for competence, connection and autonomy so that you can enjoy your own development more motivated, productive and with more satisfaction.



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, 319-338.

Van den Broeck, A., Vansteenkiste, M., De Witte, H., Lens, W., & Andriessen, M. (2009). De Zelf-Determinatie Theorie: Kwalitatief goed motiveren op de werkvloer [Self-determination theory: High quality motivation in the context of work]. Gedrag und Organisatie, 22, 316–335.

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