The magic of positive reinforcement: why you should reward yourself for studying

Exams and final assessments are looming, and every student feels a different way about the pointy end of the semester. Perhaps you’ve reached the point in your university career where you’re used to the exam butterflies, or maybe these are your first ever uni exams and you’re brimming with nerves at the thought. How does one deal with this kind of stress at exam and assessment time? Whether you have a study system in place, or you’re flying by the seat of your pants, there’s a neat little idea called positive motivation that can benefit you.

Alison Hillier, Senior Learning Advisor with Academic Support, says positive motivation is like “giving a dog a treat for rolling over and shaking hands. Perform and act. Get a treat.” For humans, Alison recommends tangible, concrete rewards that are easy to implement in everyday life. “Things like setting aside time to do your work, then spending ten minutes playing Candy Crush and giving yourself that break. “

Taking a break could be more important than you realise. Those little study breaks function as a mental reboot and a chance for your mind to digest the information it’s been processing. The timing and nature of those breaks are important. Discipline yourself by setting a timer and choosing healthy rewards. An hour of study should equal a walk around the block, not three hours of Netflix.

Helen Scobie, Counsellor for the University’s Enabling Pathways, says “While a reward-based system may not give you an intrinsic motivation to complete a task, it’s still going to motivate you to do something that you maybe find distasteful or don’t really enjoy doing.”

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation for study and assessments, as many of us are at this time, try and reward yourself for attempting the things you’re facing. It will lead to far more productivity than beating yourself up.

“A lot of it comes down to that sense of control and managing the things you need to, and reducing your stress so you can do them,” says Helen. “So when you’ve got a plan, it feels less out of control and it feels less unknown. It’s real, you can see it. You know what you need to do. Whereas if you don’t know what to do, or you’ve never done something before, you can get caught up with those feelings of being really overwhelmed, which makes you want to tap out.”

An hour of study should equal a walk around the block, not three hours of Netflix.

To study effectively and feel good about it, it’s important to be intentional.

Law student and Navigator writer Hollie Hughes agrees, “I study in timed intervals throughout the day and use little rewards to keep me motivated, such as a 30-minute break to call a friend or go on my phone after studying for one hour without getting distracted.”

Comparatively, Navigator presenter Dominic Fitzgerald has a different tactic, “I use indulging in hobbies as a reward, that hobby is usually eating though.”

Writing to-do lists, and crossing things off your to-do list can be especially satisfying, but if you’re attempting to implement new study plans at the moment, don’t tear your hair out if it doesn’t feel natural.

“The thing is it’s not something you can flip a switch on overnight,” reminds Alison. “Developing that inner self-discipline takes time. It’s something you have to actually actively work on and remember to do until it becomes a new habit.”

Celebrate your successes, big and small. Above all else, remember, be kind to yourself.

It’s also important to be kind to yourself. Understand that current circumstances are not lending themselves to great study mindsets. It’s okay to settle for less at the moment, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you do, you’ll cause yourself unnecessary stress and you won’t achieve anything.

“We know that uncertainty and stress impacts cognition and the ability of the brain to learn things,” says Alison. “Any time there’s stress, cognitive attention decreases. So if you’re used to doing two hours you’re probably down to an hour, and that’s great. If you’re used to doing an hour, then you’re probably doing 30 minutes and having a two-minute break for a drink of water.”

Helen agrees, “If you’re relying on self-criticism or being hard on yourself to force you to do your study, what that does is it activates the threat part of our bodies, the threat pathway. And that makes it much harder to effectively study because we’re responding to a threat. Positivity is key.”

Don’t be afraid to try something new, or take another approach. The ever-changing current global situation means we need to be dynamic in our study patterns and develop new tactics to deal with that. So go on, write down what you want to achieve and set your timer. Pick a healthy and productive reward, and don’t forget to take a break. Celebrate your successes, big and small. Above all else, remember, be kind to yourself.

Feature image via Unsplash

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