Motivation in Exam Season

Oct 9, 2020NCEA, Parent advice

As a parent, it can be frustrating to watch as exams draw closer while your child continues to neglect their study. Most of the time, this procrastination stems from a lack of motivation.

Studying is exhausting. It’s draining, it takes a lot of brainpower, and just about anything is more exciting than sitting and memorising equations for an hour. Students often mistake this lack of enjoyment in studying for a lack of motivation.

When we think about motivation, we usually think of it as whether you enjoy doing something or not. However, this is not the case. While there is often a link between enjoyment and motivation, enjoyment isn’t the be-all and end-all of motivation. For example, most people are highly motivated to work because they need an income one day. They may or may not enjoy this work.

The trick is to help your child build up the motivation to push through, regardless of whether studying is something they find enjoyable or not. 

This section will talk about the three factors – outside of enjoyment – that contribute to building motivation. We will also talk about how you can help support your child build their motivation to study by supporting them in each of these three factors.

What 3 Factors Contribute to Motivation?

There are three fundamental factors that build to your child’s motivation. These are:

    • Value
    • Belief
    • Environment

If your child draws their motivation from all three of these factors, then they are likely to be highly motivated and get started on their study sooner rather than later. On the other hand, if any of these factors are missing, they may have little or no motivation, or be motivated for only short bursts of time.


To find motivation, it’s important for your child to see some benefit – or value – in studying. If they do not see some benefit for them, then it can be hard for them to justify spending time and effort on it. 

Have a talk to your child about what they want out of exams. It may be a good idea to have a think about some overall goals – maybe they want to get excellence in a certain amount of externals, or get some subject endorsements. Having some overall goal that they want to work towards can help them to feel motivated to start their work. However, it’s important that this is a goal that’s important to them – if it’s something that they come up with because they feel like they have to, then they’ll be less attached to it and therefore less motivated by it.

Value can be found on a smaller scale too. The motivation for finishing 2 practice papers and checking the answers before 4pm on a certain day might be that afterwards, they can properly relax for the evening. Maybe they decide that they won’t watch any youtube until they finish their to-revise list for the day. 

This value will tend to be a higher motivation if it comes from your child’s brain. When you talk to them, encourage them to focus on thinking of rewards for studying, rather than punishments for not studying.


A massive part of motivation lies in whether you believe you can do something or not. If your child doesn’t believe that studying leads to results, or if they believe that they are doomed to fail, they may want to give up before they have even begun. 

This comes down to a concept called “cognitive distortions”. Cognitive distortions are negative thoughts which we repeat to ourselves, even if they aren’t objectively true. 

Some example of common cognitive distortions that your child may believe about themselves are:

    • “I’m just not a maths person”,
    • “I’ll never get it done on time”,
    • “I’ll probably fail so there’s no point in trying”, 
    • “I didn’t do well in the mocks so there’s no hope for me for the final exam”.

The internal dialogue we have with ourselves can be very influential over our mindset and our actions. These thoughts may have been built up over a matter of years, and because of that, there’s no quick fix to this. 

However, there are actions that you can take which may help you to support your child and help them increase their self-belief.

Breaking Big Goals Down into Smaller Steps

Setting massive goals is important, but can lead to an all or nothing mindset, and leave your child focussed on the outcome of their behaviours, rather than their behaviours themselves. Help them to think about smaller goals that they can achieve within a day or a study session.

Let’s say your child tells you that they’re aiming to get merit endorsed for level 2. Encourage them to break down this goal into achievable steps:

    • How many standards do they need to get merit in?
    • What standards do they need to study for more?
    • Within each standard, what are the specific concepts they don’t understand?
    • How will they know once they have revised each concept enough?

Then, encourage them to take one small step at a time. Focussing on one specific concept in a day (or in a study session) can help them to build up small wins, and help your child to see that their behaviour can lead to results. This builds up more self-belief in your child.

Celebrating Achievements with them

Focus on the positive parts of their behaviour! If they managed a solid hour-long study session that day and learned a point that they’d been struggling to understand all year, be happy for them. Help them to recalibrate their mind to focus on successes as they come, rather than worrying about all of the topics that they still haven’t studied. This helps reinforce the idea that study is a positive activity when they do it, rather than a negative activity that they can never “win” at.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions get rooted in your mind – it’s a cycle of negativity. Helping your child to recognise that their negative self-beliefs aren’t objective is just the first step.

Recognise that this is more about your child’s feelings than any one-step fix. Focus on talking through why they feel a certain way – this will help them to feel supported and heard. (Telling them that “oh but you can do well even if you failed the mocks” doesn’t address their cognitive distortions at the root of the problem).

External Factors

Value and self-belief both directly link back to mindset. However, there are external factors which can contribute to your motivation levels (and indirectly link back to mindset). Being aware of the external factors which can weigh on your child’s motivation can be one of the best ways that you, as a parent, can provide support.

Being in a space which isn’t tailored towards studying can make it harder to get into the mindset to study. This comes down to two main questions: is your child’s physical environment conducive to study? And are the people that they are surrounded by supportive of their study?

Physical Environment

It’s incredibly hard to get work done with interruptions. As such, setting up a space that mitigates distraction and facilitates focus is important in setting up sustainable study habits.

Good study isn’t necessarily long study. Instead, it’s about the quality of the time spent engaging with the material. Endless distractions like phones, siblings, or peers can interfere with focus and slow down progress. However, by setting up the physical environment with this in mind, your teen will be in a better position to stay engaged.

    • Finding an ideal space for your child to study is a good starting place. If they prefer to study in their room, encourage them to do this at their desk (or another spot) rather than their bed. If they study in another room, think of any other distractions that they may encounter (e.g. TV, high-traffic areas of the home).
      • The library is always a good place to go to study and has the facilities a student may need. This can be a great option if they struggle to focus at home.
    • If they have siblings, it may be worthwhile to have a ‘do not disturb’ time that everyone can agree on. This way, your teen can dedicate a chunk of time without being interrupted. Some students prefer mornings, while others prefer evenings. Either way is fine, but aligning their ‘distraction-free’ time to this can help.
    • The physical environment can also refer to the resources your teen has available. While small, having something like a ‘revision notebook’ or even just a nice set of pens can help motivate them to get going with their independent study.

Emotional Support

The more support someone feels from people around them, the more likely they are to believe in themselves. Words that come from influential figures in your child’s life can hold a massive weight over how your child feels about themselves. This may be from yourself, your child’s teachers, or other influential figures in your child’s life.

The easiest place to start with improving your child’s support network is with yourself. When your child can’t see the point of studying and feel like a failure, you’re the last pillar in between them and zero motivation!

    • The most important thing is to acknowledge how your child feels and empathise with them. Sharing a frustrating moment can be stronger than trying to turn it around into a positive moment. Hearing someone say “It sounds like you’re not having a fun time with this at the moment, I’m really sorry to hear that” may be all it takes to feel supported.
    • If your child is worried that they can’t understand something, express your faith in them that they’ll get there eventually. Remind them of previous times where they may have struggled but got through anyway. 
    • Ask if there’s anything you can do. In the case of studying, sometimes there won’t be anything that you can do, since the subjects can be very specific. Other times you may be able to offer support in the form of environmental factors (for example, maybe you could drive them to the library for an evening if they aren’t concentrating well at home).
    • Accept that sometimes you can’t do anything but listen, and that’s okay. Sometimes your child may not even want to talk to you. The important thing is making sure that they know you’re there if they need support.


Staying Motivated

Value, self-belief, and environment are the three main factors that underpin motivation, outside of enjoyment. We can’t always enjoy the things we need to do, but understanding the other factors that can get your child to stay motivated over the exam season will allow you to take actions that will keep spirits up for you child over their most stressful period of the year.

Take the stress out of NCEA

We give students the personalised support and skills to succeed in their studies

You might also like

The Top 5 Challenges for Students Going into Exams

Exams are approaching fast, and we understand that things may be looking a bit different this year.  The disruptions caused by lockdown have interfered with student’s day-to-day learning as well as their NCEA exam preparation. Whether you are a past or present client...

How Do Grades Affect Our Emotions?

The conversation around mental health and wellbeing has never been more active than it is today. There’s no denying that emotional health has an impact on your teenager’s academic performance. When they’re in such a crucial stage of development, it’s important to...

How to Help Your Child With Multiple Assessments

Picture this: your child has just gone back to school in person, and their teachers yarn on about “making up for lost time”. All of a sudden, they’re expected to complete 3 internals for different subjects! It can be hard trying to juggle all that work while students...