Motivation and Purpose

Meghan Boland and Tony Hewitt

Two students sitting together looking at an iPad
Figure 3. You will experience academic, cultural, emotional, financial, intellectual, and social adjustments at university. Copyright © James Cook University. All Rights Reserved


Motivation is a common challenge for university students throughout their degree. University courses are often 3-5 years of full-time study (and longer for part-time students), which is a significant period of time to remain highly motivated. Your sense of purpose for studying will often provide a beacon of light in the darkest times, so it is important to understand and remember why you are here!

“The only difference between success and failure is the ability to take action.”
– Alexander Graham Bell

How to get motivated

Motivation can be intrinsic and come from an internal drive for personal satisfaction, enjoyment or benefit, or it can be an extrinsic, external drive to provide benefits to others, gain material wealth/possessions, or secure a specific job. Your values are often associated with intrinsic motivations whereas your goals are often attached to extrinsic motivations.

Identify your values and set goals

Motivation is what drives you to achieve what needs to be done. However, if you cannot see the benefits associated with a task, you may be unmotivated to achieve it. Studies have also shown that motivated students perceive academic workloads to be less than unmotivated students – that is, they don’t feel overwhelmed by the same amount of work.

To help understand your motivations in life, reflect on the following questions:

  • What is really important to you in life?
  • What are you aspiring to achieve (personal and professional goals)?
  • Identify a motivator for each goal (intrinsic or extrinsic)
  • Are your goals specific, realistic and achievable?
  • What are your short-term goals – next hour, day, or week?

If you struggled to answer these questions, don’t despair. JCU has a great resource that can help you unpack your values, motivations and direction through the interactive You and Your Career module.

Sense of Purpose and Study

A sense of purpose is to find or enact your personal purpose in life in order to realise a satisfying future. It is overarching and often associated with aspects of empowerment, motivation and drive, and a willingness to sacrifice in the support of a higher purpose. For these reasons, it is an important to understand your sense of purpose in relation to higher education study.

Your sense of purpose is intrinsically unique to you and is influenced by your journey prior to study. Some students know from an early age exactly what they want to do with their life. Some students don’t know until after they start study, and many students change course while studying.  This reflects the fact that your sense of purpose changes as you grow and you learn new things about the world and yourself. A higher education exposes students to new perspectives, theories, experiences and people, which can alter their original purpose and path. This altered worldview can be exciting and revelatory, but can also create anxiety and uncertainty if it undermines your original sense of purpose. The takeaway message is that it is normal and ok to not have it all figured out – just remain open to possibilities as they evolve.



Students decide to study at university for a range of extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (internal) reasons, which can impact on their sense of purpose and motivation levels. Review the list below of common reasons that students decide to go to university to see if any of them resonate with you.

  • Someone told me to do it (family/friends)
  • To prove to others that I can do it
  • I want to change my financial future
  • I want to make a difference in the world
  • I like learning new things
  • I wasn’t sure what else to do
  • I want to gain more self-confidence
  • I missed educational opportunities in the past
  • The degree will be useful in my current job/widen work options/increase promotion opportunities
  • I want to be respected and recognised for my intellectual capacity
  • To prove to myself that I can do it
  • I want to gain educational qualifications
  • It will help kickstart my dream career
  • To widen my intellectual interests and skills
  • It is the right time in my life
  • I want to challenge myself
  • I want to meet new people with the same interests.


James Cook University. (2023). GetReady4Uni: Module 2 – Motivation and Purpose.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Motivation and Purpose Copyright © 2023 by Meghan Boland and Tony Hewitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.