Grad students are plagued by self-doubt and wonder if they’ll make it through the week—let alone the semester. When everyone else seems to be doing well, it’s easy to believe that you’re the only one struggling. In reality, these feelings get to everyone whether they’ll admit it or not. Research shows us, however, that there are simple things that you can do to improve study habits, grades, and even motivation for learning.

Frame your education as a journey. Visual imagery is a powerful tool to motivate a person’s behavior. Your academic education should be no exception. In one study, students saw an image of a winding sidewalk amidst grass and trees from the perspective of someone walking along the path (Landau, Keefer, Oyserman, & Smith, 2014). Along the path was text of the academic years ahead of the student with the furthest year indicated on the image as being the farthest object away. Students who imagined their upcoming academic years as landmarks on a physical path were more likely to allocate future time for studying and reported higher semester exam scores a week later than students who did not perform this imagery exercise.

Believe that people can change . Students who were taught that people have the potential to change had better academic performance a year later than students in a control group. This belief also lowered students’ stress and illness levels (Yeager, Spitzer, Johnson, & Trzesniewski, 2014). If you come from a disadvantaged background and are concerned about being discriminated against because of your social class, you should really adopt the belief that people can change. The belief that personality is fixed combined with worries about class-based discrimination is a recipe for failure and hopelessness (Rheinschmidt & Mendoza-Denton, 2014). Students who worried about class-based discrimination but who were taught that personality can change had higher academic performance than students who believed that personal attributes are fixed.

Have a greater purpose. Students who have a greater purpose for their academic career get better grades than students who are simply going to school for the grades and/or degree (Yeager, Henderson, et al., 2014). In this study, students in a target intervention group were given summary statistics of their peers indicating that most students are motivated to do well in school to gain knowledge and to make a positive effect in the world. They were also given quotes by other students describing how doing schoolwork is more than just earning good grades—it’s about preparing their lives for doing something that matters and something that they care about. In order to get students to really believe this message, researchers asked students to write to future students about their own reasons for learning. Students who did this activity had higher math and science grades a year later than students who did not do this activity.


Although these studies were done on teenagers and college students, these findings are powerful reminders that reframing your beliefs about your education can have long-lasting effects. So as you languish away, interpreting brain-numbing data for 12 hours a day, keep it in perspective. You are doing this uncomfortable task because you are strengthening your research muscles and contributing to the larger body of knowledge. Furthermore, when you face adversity in grad school, you have the power within yourself to make improvements and grow. It’s just a bump in the road along the path to graduation.


Landau, M. J., Keefer, L. A., Oyserman, D., & Smith, G. C. (2014). The college journey and academic engagement: How metaphor use enhances identity-based motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 679–698. doi: 10.1037/a0036414
Rheinschmidt, M. L., & Medoza-Denton, R. (2014). Social class and academic achievement in college: The interplay of rejection sensitivity and entity beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 101–121. doi: 10.1037/a0036553
Yeager, D. S., Henderson, D’Mello, S., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Spitzer, B., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014a). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 559­–580. doi: 10.1037/a0037637
Yeager, D. S., Spitzer, B. J., Johnson, R., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2014). The far-reaching effects of believing people can change: Implicit theories of personality shape stress, health, and achievement during adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 867–884. doi: 10.1037/a0036335

Image used with permission by Mark Rubens via iStockphoto .


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