7 Common Study Problems and How to Deal with Them

Everyone experiences difficulties with studying at one time or another, and overcoming these challenges is all part of the learning process, particularly when you have a large workload. Such issues range from temporary glitches to chronic lack of motivation and low productivity. It can take what feels like extraordinary will-power to overcome these issues, but the important thing to remember is that they can be conquered with the right attitude. In this article, we asked our experts from our Oxford Summer Courses to address some of the most common study problems that can afflict students at any stage in their education, and discuss some strategies for dealing with them.


1. You’re experiencing low motivation

Low motivation is one of the biggest problems you may have to tackle during your education. Without sufficient internal drive to achieve, getting through the sheer volume of work needed to gain your qualifications (whether GCSEs, A-levels or a degree) can feel impossible. Key to understanding low motivation is to figure out the reasons behind it; they’re not necessarily the same reasons for everyone. Low motivation may be experienced either for certain subjects, or across the board; some of the common causes of it include:

  • You are tired and stressed, with too much to do
  • There are other, more interesting things to do
  • You find the subject boring, or don’t enjoy it for some other reason
  • You don’t like your teacher for a certain subject
  • You have other things happening in your life, meaning studying doesn’t feel important right now
  • You’re not in the best of health, or not sleeping
  • You’re worrying about failure

Do you recognise any of the problems above in yourself? We’ll address many of these issues as we discuss specific problems one by one in the rest of this article. As well as taking specific steps towards overcoming these possible causes, putting together an action plan for tackling low motivation also means figuring out what motivates you. For example, is it:

  • The satisfaction of completing a task?
  • Good comments from teachers?
  • Being perceived as successful by your peers or parents?
  • Short-term rewards, such as a chocolate bar after a study session?
  • Long-term success, i.e. top grades and a place at your university of choice?

When you know what’s behind your low motivation, and you’ve worked out what will spur you on to achieve, you’ll be in a better position to tackle your problem head-on. The other tips in this article should be of use with this, as many of the other problems we discuss here have some sort of motivational problem at their root, or are what causes it. Keeping some motivational quotes by your desk may also help inspire you to keep going when you experience low motivation. The right diet helps, too; for example, eating very sugary foods for breakfast will cause a temporary sugar rush that will make you feel active initially, but will soon wear off, leaving you lethargic and unable to motivate yourself.


2. There are too many distractions

There are so many external stimuli these days that it’s little wonder that many students feel distracted. Social media, friends, phone, television, video games and outings all have a part to play in wreaking havoc on students’ ability to focus on studying. If you feel your productivity is suffering from a multitude of distractions, it’s time to change your working environment to one more conducive to studying.
Creating the right environment for learning should be a relatively easy solution that will help you overcome the power of all these external distractions. Eliminate the things you know to be your weaknesses from your workspace. This could include your phone, the internet, the television and so on. Limit your socialising to weekends, and consider installing a browser app that stops you going on Facebook or your other favourite sites for certain periods of time (such as LeechBlock). If you need to use your computer for writing essays, try using an app that will fill the screen with whatever you’re working on, so that the internet isn’t a distraction; Dark Room is one such app that will create a distraction-free computer environment for you.
If you find it impossible to get work done at home because of the number of distractions, try working somewhere else. The library would be a good place, as you can shut your phone away in your locker, and peace and quiet is guaranteed.


3. You have difficulty concentrating

Even when you’ve eliminated distractions, concentration can still be a major issue. It’s not just possible but common to lose focus and experience a dramatic drop in productivity. We’re probably all familiar with the feeling of sitting in front of a blank page, staring at it, unable to begin, our mind wandering. Procrastination is a symptom of lack of concentration (among other things); if you find yourself constantly checking Facebook or texting when you know you’re meant to be working, it’s a sure sign that you need to be taking steps to improve your concentration levels.
Like low motivation, difficulty concentrating can be caused by a number of problems. If you’re unable to concentrate because you have something on your mind, you need to try to clear your head before you start working, else it will hinder your productivity. It may help to write the problem down on paper, or to talk to someone about it; going for a brisk walk or doing some exercise may also enable you to get it off your chest before you try to start work. If it’s a bigger personal problem, talking to the school counsellor about it may help get it off your chest or help you see the problem from a different, more manageable perspective.

Another possible reason for lack of concentration is that the task in front of you feels so enormous that you don’t know where to begin. A good way of combatting this problem is to break the task down into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, rather than putting an entire essay on your agenda, divide up the tasks into smaller, more easily achievable goals: read a chapter of a book and make notes, write the essay plan, write the introduction, and so on. You could even break it down into numbers of words to be achieved: 100 words at a time, for example.
Finding the right learning style for you may help you focus more easily, as battling on with trying to work in a style that doesn’t suit you is sure to be counterproductive. We all learn in different ways; some of us prefer to work in total isolation, while others prefer to learn in the company of fellow students; some people learn best from making diagrams and drawings, others from writing things out. Try experimenting with some different learning styles and see whether you can find a better approach to studying – one that will allow you to enjoy what you’re doing, retain information better, and focus more easily.
Finally, it’s worth noting that difficulty concentrating can also arise from working too hard. If you’ve been working yourself into the ground and not having enough rest, try giving yourself some time off. The chances are that you’ll return to your desk feeling refreshed and much better able to concentrate.


4. You have difficulty remembering facts and figures

A common complaint among students at any stage in their education is that it’s difficult to remember all the information necessary for answering exam questions effectively. This is difficult enough when you’re only studying one subject, as at university, but when you’re studying numerous subjects, as at GCSE and A-level, remembering all the facts and figures from each of your subjects can seem a monumental task. Learning things properly in the first place will help your recollection come exam time, but if you really struggle to retain the necessary information, learning to utilise a few memory aids may help.


5. You don’t enjoy the subject you’re studying

At some stage in your education, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter a subject that you don’t like. Whether it’s because you simply find it boring, or you feel you’re no good at it, or it seems a pointless subject that you won’t have any use for long-term, or you have an active hatred for it, such a dislike can have a big impact on your success in this subject. Not liking the teacher of this subject, or having an uninspiring teacher, can also lead to a dislike of the subject itself.
A change of mindset will be necessary to overcome this problem. You need to be able to see the bigger picture, and how that problem subject fits into it. For a start, you don’t want a bad grade on your UCAS form that you’ll have to explain; you’ll need good marks across the board if you’re to get into the top universities. Keeping this longer-term goal in mind may help, but more immediate inspiration may be found from contemplating why we we study this subject. It’s on the curriculum for a reason, so think about what the skills are that you learn from this subject that can usefully be applied elsewhere, even if the actual knowledge itself may not be relevant to your career aims. Thinking about the importance of studying the subject, and of a good general knowledge, may help spur you on.
If you dislike the subject because you feel you’re not very good at it – perhaps a bad grade has put you off? – the answer may lie in becoming more confident in this subject. You could devote a bit more time to getting better at it and you might find that you start enjoying it more.
You’ll find more advice on mastering subjects you dislike in our article on how to tackle your nightmare subjects.


6. You lack the right resources

This is arguably the easiest problem on this list to fix. Academic success relies on having access to the right resources, whether that’s the necessary books, equipment, a teacher to talk to, or anything else you need to learn effectively. If it’s books you need, ask your teacher to recommend some, so that you don’t inadvertently take your learning in the wrong direction. Equipment – such as a new laptop, stationery and so on – will be a matter to discuss with your parents. If there’s a compelling argument for investing in new equipment (such as a new laptop, or an iPad), speak to your parents about it and present your case. If you can convince them that these things will aid your studying, you’re in with a chance of persuading them. You could also consider the option of a UK summer school.


7. You struggle with time management

Studying at any level requires good time management, and if you find yourself struggling to meet deadlines, or you feel overwhelmed with work, or you frequently end up having to stay up late into the night to finish off a piece of homework, this is a sign that you need to work on your time management skills. This means becoming more organised, keeping a list of what needs to be done and by when, and getting started on homework as soon as you’re set it, rather than putting it off. It also means being more disciplined with your routine: getting up earlier, planning out your day, and making maximum productive use of the time you allocate to each of your subjects. You’ll find lots more time management and general productivity tips here.
A final note that may be of use: many of the problems we’ve discussed in this article can be overcome by getting into the right mindset. A positive mental attitude will go a long way towards helping you get back on track, whatever study problems you’re experiencing; here are ten ways of thinking to boost your studies for starters. If you’re stuck in a studying rut, take a little time out, clear your head and adjust your way of thinking about your studies. It will work wonders.

Image credits: banner; alarm; chocolate; cat; walk; books; piano; clock.