Motivation, Coping with Stress, and Study Habits

For many high school and college students, this is the most stressful time of the year. All the big semester-long projects and papers are due, and there are multiple finals to take. People are probably spending a lot of time studying, so I thought it would be interesting to look at a study by Moneta & Spada (2009) concerning motivational factors and ways of coping with stress as predictors of how people study.

There are three different approaches a student can take to studying: a deep approach, a strategic approach, and a surface approach. The deep approach involves truly trying to understand the full scope of the material and integrating the new material with existing knowledge. The strategic approach also involves understanding the material, but a student using this approach will invest their studying efforts primarily into the concepts and ideas that will be assessed in the class. The surface approach favors the memorization of facts in order to satisfy an assessment criteria rather than understanding the material.

To illustrate this, imagine you are a student who is using the textbook to study for a test. A deep approach would be to read and understand the entire chapter, including the information that is not required by the class. A strategic approach would be to read and understand the sections of the chapter that are most relevant to the class, and a surface approach would be to memorize the glossary of key terms at the end of the chapter. Teachers and education researchers try to encourage the use of deep and strategic approaches to learning as they enable students to use material to solve practical problems and apply their knowledge of the material to related concepts. Surface learning approaches may be somewhat effective on vocab and other sorts of memory based tests, but overall, it does not lead to long term retention and is not useful for essay/application tests.

Moneta & Spada predict that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation should be highly related to studying approach. A person who is intrinsically motivated engages in a task because they find it interesting and enjoyable while a person who is extrinsically motivated engages in a task because of anticipated rewards or punishments. People who are intrinsically motivated should want to take a deep or strategic approach to studying because they naturally want to understand the material. People who are extrinsically motivated should use a surface approach to studying because the focus is on the grade rather than the knowledge.

They also say that the way a person copes with stress should be related to that person’s study approach. There are several ways to cope with stress, but the two that have been found to be most highly related to studying are active coping and avoidance coping. An active form of coping with the stress of multiple tests would be to rank the tests by importance and allot a certain number of hours for each. This removes the stress by directly resolving the source of stress. On the other hand, an avoidant form of coping would be to watch Netflix for 5 hours. This does not remove the stress, but temporarily helps the procrastinator reduce his/her anxiety about the tests. Moneta and Spada hypothesized that the relationship between motivation and study approach would be mediated by coping style. That is, intrinsic motivation should lead to doing more active coping behaviors and less avoidance behaviors, which would then lead to using a deep or strategic approach to studying.

Moneta & Spada tested this by assessing college students on motivation, coping styles, and study approach one week before finals. They found that intrinsic motivation had both a direct and indirect (mediated by coping) relationship to study approach. Intrinsic motivation positively predicted the use of active coping strategies, and deep and strategic study approaches, and negatively predicted avoidance coping and the surface study approach. Extrinsic motivation positively predicted the use of avoidance coping and the surface study approach.

These relationships may be explained by how we perceive stress. When two people are exposed to the same stressor, they can still evaluate it in different ways. One person may see the stress as a challenge to overcome while the other may see the stress as a threat to be feared. People who are intrinsically motivated will tend to  see an exam as a challenge; as a way to prove their mastery of the subject. Because of this, they will be more likely to do active coping behaviors and take a deep approach to studying. People who are extrinsically motivated will be more likely to see an exam as a threat; as a possible negative assessment of their intelligence. Thus, they will want to avoid that fear and will take a surface approach to studying.

So, if you are a student studying for finals this week, know that the deeper approaches to studying will be more effective especially if your tests involve essays or applying knowledge to related concepts. So as you’re studying, you may want to ask yourself some questions. What are you studying for? Everyone wants to get good grades, but is that all you want or do you also want to understand the material? If you are a procrastinator, ask yourself why. Are you procrastinating as a way to avoid dealing with the stress of studying for finals? If you’d like to change your studying approach from surface learning to a deeper learning, maybe start by trying to addressing motivation and avoidant coping behaviors.


Moneta, G.B., & Spada, M.M. (2009). Coping as a mediator of the relationships between trait intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and approaches to studying during academic exam preparation. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 664-669.


2 thoughts on “Motivation, Coping with Stress, and Study Habits

  1. Hi,
    Cool article, yet I had some thoughts about the explanation of the results.

    Why are intrinsiccally motivated learners per sé more optimistic about the test, thus seeing it as a manageable challenge? I see no caual relationship between intrisic motivation and optimism.
    With the explanation of results for the extrinsically motivated learner it’s even harder to follow to me.
    When they worry about a possible negative outcome in a test, doesn’t that presuppose that extrinsic learners have doubts in their abilities, not to say low self esteem? Why should that be? I could be an intrinsically motivated learner, for my interest in the subject but still be terrified of the examination. Or the other way around, I don’t really mind the test, take a surface approach and do only which is necessary but have no problem with learning directly for it.
    In both examples the perception of stress has the opposite effect on learning approaches, so it doesn’t causally favour one direction.

    Kind regards,


  2. Those are great points! The Moneta & Spada paper only focused on motivation and coping, but there are certainly other elements that can contribute. If you’re interested in learning more, Entwhistle, Hanley, & Hounsell (1979) ( have a great review of many of the components that contribute to learning styles.

    In response to your questions, one theory for the extrinsic motivation/self-esteem relationship is that failure on a test/assignment that you had a deep interest in will represent a severe threat to self-esteem because you will be more likely to attribute this failure to your ability to understand the material. But if you only care about the grade, it’s easier to attribute it to an external cause – like not studying the right words or the test being too hard. These are not typically seen as a reflection on who you are as a person, so being extrinsically motivated/not intrinsically motivated may be a way for people to protect their low self-esteem.

    The relationship between test evaluation and motivation is a little less theoretically clear, but research does show that fear of failure/test anxiety is most strongly linked the surface learning approach and extrinsic motivation (Biggs, 1978). You are definitely correct about there not being a causal relationship though (all this evidence is correlational), so I’ve updated the post to better reflect that.



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