7 Ways to Increase Motivation for Medical Students

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About the Author

Chase DiMarco is the Founder of FreeMedEd.org and host of several MedEd Podcasts. He has a passion for medical education and the psychology of learning. For more information and research on optimizing one’s study environment and use of the MedEdge Method, consider downloading the free “Essentials of” PDF of Read This Before Medical School.

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Are you having difficulty motivating yourself to sit down and study? This is an exceedingly common issue for medical student’s education. There is a never-ending stream of information, updated, correction, and flat out memorization that takes place in medical school. This information overload and lack of motivation can continue on through medical residency and even fellowship.

The problem is that our levels of a student’s motivation can wax and wane through the hours, let alone the days. Sometimes the last thing a medical student wants to do is sit down for another review session. However, increasing study motivation is not out of grasp. There are a few techniques that all students should know to get through their next study session.

Intrinsic Motivation vs Extrinsic Motivation

First, we should discuss what “motivation” actually means. Most psychologists split motivation into intrinsic and extrinsic subcategories. Extrinsic motivation is caused by some stimuli outside of oneself. For instance, you may hate your job but are extrinsically motivated by your paycheck. Intrinsic motivations are generally considered to be done for one’s self and not due to external forces. There are plenty of overlap and debates in regards to this seemingly clear-cut definition, but it’ll suffice for our needs.

Intrinsic motivations are linked to increases in creativity and enhanced learning.

It is easy to picture an artist painting a mural that no one else’s eyes will ever lay upon or gardening just for the joy of doing so. It is less easy to imagine an individual freely working on a neighbor’s busted plumbing for the pure enjoyment the activity brings them. So how can medical students increase intrinsic motivation when studying?

In medical students, motivation has been positively associated with academic performance and learning strategies.

1. Increasing Interest in Your Studies

The mind is surprisingly pliable and often viewing our studies through a particular lens can help change our perspectives significantly. Increasing one’s interest in a particular topic is a great way to increase motivation. Luckily, there are many ways a medical student can try to add interest in an activity. With luck, this will raise the level of enjoyment received and prolong their study session or prevent study fatigue.

Sometimes studying is overly isolating and this can lead to a feeling of loneliness. Some activities can benefit from group studies or discussing interesting factoids of your material with someone else. Even if this is your pet or plant, sometimes speaking aloud can help increase the memory of the material as well. Find similar interests in both classmates and non-classmate peers that you can engage in conversation with. Not only will this limit the isolation that can hamper interest, but it acts as a review to make sure you really understood the material, to begin with. Even perceived social isolation can have negative effects on cognition!

2. Change Your Mindset

Try to set a positive attitude about the approaching study session before you even sit down. Going into a scenario with a negative attitude can decrease academic achievement. This mindset can relate to the discipline being studied, the reason the learner is studying, or even the school at which the student attends. Also, have a growth mindset, which will allow you to acknowledge your ability to overcome any obstacles that may arise during your studies. Having a Growth Mindset is likely correlated to positive motivation, and could provide significant benefit to a learner. Medical students that know they can conquer difficult situations may be providing the self-support needed to succeed.

Lastly, find engaging manners to relate to the material on a more personal level. Medical students might be able to find games associated with the topic or even find someone they know with a related disease or disorder to the current material. If these can’t be found, simply ask questions! Asking questions is a great way to stimulate creativity and increase motivation. Open-ended questions allow the mind to wander more and find unique solutions.

3. Increase Creativity in Your Studies

There are many other ways to try to increase one’s creativity in order to improve their studies. Medical students are often surprised how important creativity can be to their academic performance. It is a skill that can be trained and harnessed to increase motivation as well. Creativity can take many shapes and forms in your academic studies. You may want to consider a few easy implementations to improve your motivation level.

Medical students may consider utilizing arts and crafts within one’s study materials as childs play, but it can be a very useful creativity training exercise. For instance, instead of taking notes in class try implementing Mind Maps or Memory Palaces to remember your study material. These fun and visually creative activities are mentally stimulating and may increase your long-term memory of the material being studied.

Helping out the community is another manner in which medical students may increase motivation. Volunteering and other altruistic activities can help foster a sense of connection with the community (though benefits may be more likely in those with intrinsic motivation to volunteer). Increases in social support may also increase student motivation and may reflect positively on one’s peers and community leaders.

4. Focus

This may sound quite obvious, but medical students often don’t realize when they are losing focus. This can be an important factor when spending hours each day studying for an upcoming test or board exam. Lack of focus leads to inefficiencies in our day and halt our progress. To increase motivation for medical students, knowing when we lose focus and how to correct this can be vital.

Setting up the correct study environment can significantly benefit students that wish to focus for longer periods of time. This means setting up a place that you have all you need and nothing more. Some research demonstrates that increases in stimuli can negatively impact attention. Too many items on one’s desk or workspace can limit focus. Colors (too vibrant or too dull), noise pollution, and other visual distractions can all be considered when assessing the space. When noted, medical students should limit or eliminate these interrupting stimuli.

Scheduling time before or after school for certain tasks can help eliminate distractions and increase focus. For some tasks, setting short study periods or using the Pomodoro technique is a great way to achieve accomplishments in smaller increments. Of course, eliminating digital distractions is mandatory as well in order to keep on target. Setting phones to silent, turning off computer notifications, and placing all non-essential devices in a box or another room can aid in study success. Distractions and task-switching reduce our productivity and focus.

Eliminating digital distractions is mandatory in order to keep on target.

5. Increase Social Connections

As already mentioned, connecting to one’s community may increase certain types of motivation. However, closer social connections may play a significant role in improving student incentives to learn. Having strong family bonds or close peer relationships impacts our mental health. It is thought that these relationships may increase self-esteem, resilience, and decreases depression. It is likely that increased mental well-being will provide increases in student motivation and academic success as well.

6. Achieve Small, Consistent Goals

Setting SMART goals or using WOOP to plan ways around obstacles that may arise is a recommended task for all medical students. It is a mandatory aspect of academic organization and efficiency. On top of this, setting smaller, consistent goals may play a significant role in a learner’s motivation during their health education. Long-term goals are nice, but they do not have as strong of an impact on motivation because they are so far into the future. The animal in us wants immediate gratification!


  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable – specify who will do it.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Timerelated – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Not only can smaller goals act as a positive feedback loop for students, but they allow for short breaks to be implemented. In fact, some argue that giving oneself little rewards throughout a student’s designated study session is mandatory. It might act on more ancient neurochemical responses that increase “happiness”, so-called Happy Chemicals.

7. Go Outside

Lastly, a frequently overlooked tool for increasing motivation is to enjoy the nature around us. Medical students all too often lock themselves up to concentrate on their studies. Too much screen-time, which I presume to also include studying on the computer, may decrease psychological well-being. We need sunlight to create Vitamin D and exercise (even walking) to simulate our cardiovascular and respiratory systems. We can also benefit from the simple fact that being in nature decreases anxiety and increases creativity.

Conclusion

We all hit a wall sometimes and need to utilize some techniques to increase our own motivation levels. Medical school is a rough period and any method to improve our mood, focus, and incentives in our studies can be greatly beneficial. Just remember that not all of these techniques will work all the time. Try them out in different scenarios and at different times to see what works best for you.

In the end, medical students need to remember they are only competing against themselves. Maximizing your own abilities and efficiencies is all you can do. Hopefully, with these motivation techniques, you can improve your focus, mental health, and achieve greater academic success.


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