Obstacles to Academic Success

Obstacles to Academic Success

There can be many distractions and obstacles to academic success. Below is a quick checklist that includes some of the most common distractions and obstacles to academic success.
Read over the list and answer "Yes" to any item which regularly interferes with your doing well in school. If you feel that you have too many "yes" answers, or know that a particular problem is interfering with your academic success, learn more in the Academic Success section of this website or reach out for help from Counseling and Psychological Services or the Learning Center

  • Lack of a study schedule
  • Priorities unclear (What to study first)
  • Failure to use short blocks of time constructively
  • Failure to use long blocks of time constructively
  • When sitting down to study, usually too tired or listless to study
  • Leaving tasks unfinished; jumping from one task to another
  • Studying on bed & falling asleep
  • Daydreaming
  • Can't resume studying after study breaks
  • Spending too much time socializing, playing games or sports
  • Unable to say "no" to invitations and requests
  • Making unrealistic time estimates
  • Attempting too much at once
  • Getting behind in one course because of having to study for another
  • Getting involved in unnecessary details
  • Accomplishing very little in relation to the amount of time spent studying
  • Distracted or frustrated by cluttered desk
  • Not having or unable to locate needed materials
  • Study area faces a window, door, TV, phone or other distractions
  • Interruptions by outside interference (phone calls, visitors, noises)
  • Frequently waiting until the last minute before starting to study or begin major project (i.e., Procrastination.)
  • Feeling of intense panic while taking tests

"I don't know where to begin."

Take Control. Make a list of all the things you have to do. Break your workload down into manageable chunks. Prioritize! Schedule your time realistically. Don't skip classes near an exam -- you may miss a review session. Use that hour in between classes to review notes. Interrupt study time with planned study breaks. Begin studying early, with an hour or two per day, and slowly build as the exam approaches.

"I have so much to study and so little time!"

Preview. Survey your syllabus, reading material, and notes. Identify the most important topics emphasized, and areas still not understood. Previewing saves time, especially with non-fiction reading, by helping you organize and focus in on the main topics. Adapt this method to your own style and study material, but remember, previewing is not an effective substitute for reading. 

 "This stuff is so dry. I can't stay awake reading it."

Attack! Get actively involved with the text as you read. Ask yourself, "What is important to remember about this section?" Take notes or underline key concepts. Discuss the material with others in your class. Study together. Stay on the offensive, e specially with material that you don't find interesting, rather than reading passively and missing important points.

"I read it. I understand it. But I just can't get it to sink in."

Elaborate. We remember best the things that are most meaningful to us. As you are reading, try to elaborate upon new information with your own examples. Try to integrate what you're studying with what you already know. You will be able to remember new material better if you can link it to something that's already meaningful to you. Some techniques include:

Chunking: An effective way to simplify and make information more meaningful. For example, suppose you wanted to remember the colors in the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet); you would have to memorize seven "chunks" of information in order. But if you take the first letter of each color, you can spell the name "Roy G. Biv", and reduce the information the three "chunks". 

Mnemonics: Any memory-assisting technique that helps us to associate new information with something familiar. For example, to remember a formula or equation, we may use letters of the alphabet to represent certain numbers. Then we can change an abstract formula into a more meaningful word or phrase, so we'll be able to remember it better. Sound-alike associations can be very effective, too, especially while trying to learn a new language. The key is to create your own links, then you won't forget them. 

"I think I understand it."

Test yourself. Make up questions about key sections in notes or reading. Keep in mind what the professor has stressed in the course. Examine the relationships between concepts and sections. Often, simply by changing section headings you can generate many effective questions. For example, a section entitled "Bystander Apathy" might be changed into questions such as: "What is bystander apathy?", "What are the causes of bystander apathy?", and "What are some examples of bystander apathy?" 

"There's too much to remember."

Organize. Information is recalled better if it is represented in an organized framework that will make retrieval more systematic. There are many techniques that can help you organize new information, including:

  • Write chapter outlines or summaries; emphasize relationships between sections. 
  • Group information into categories or hierarchies, where possible. 
  • Information Mapping. Draw up a matrix to organize and interrelate material. For example, if you were trying to understand the causes of World War I, you could make a chart listing all the major countries involved across the top, and then list the important issues and events down the side. Next, in the boxes in between, you could describe the impact each issue had on each country to help you understand these complex historical developments. 

"I knew it a minute ago."

Review. After reading a section, try to recall the information contained in it. Try answering the questions you made up for that section. If you cannot recall enough, re-read portions you had trouble remembering. The more time you spend studying, the more you tend to recall. Even after the point where information can be perfectly recalled, further study makes the material less likely to be forgotten entirely. In other words, you can't overstudy. However, how you organize and integrate new information is still more important than how much time you spend studying.

"I like to study in bed."

Context. Recall is better when study context (physical location, as well as mental, emotional, and physical state) are similar to the test context. The greater the similarity between the study setting and the test setting, the greater the likelihood that material studied will be recalled during the test. 

"Cramming before a test helps me keep it fresh in my mind."

Spacing: Start studying now. Keep studying as you go along. Begin with an hour or two a day about one week before the exam, and then increase study time as the exam approaches. Recall increases as study time gets spread out over time. 

"I'm gonna stay up all night until I get this."

Avoid Mental Exhaustion. Take short breaks often when studying. Before a test, have a rested mind. When you take a study break, and just before you go to sleep at night, don't think about academics. Relax and unwind, mentally and physically. Otherwise, your break won't refresh you and you'll find yourself lying awake at night. It's more important than ever to take care of yourself before an exam! Eat well, sleep, and get enough exercise.

I think I procrastinate. Where do I start?

Identify your signs of procrastination:

  • How do you know you are procrastinating? 
  • What do you do to procrastinate? 
  • Identify situations or areas in which you procrastinate, (e.g., social relationships, school, finance, household, etc.) 
  • When do you procrastinate? 

What might be underlying issues or causes of procrastination?

  • Lack of relevance 
  • Lack of interest 
  • Perfectionism: having extremely high standards which are almost unreachable 
  • Evaluation anxiety: concern over other's responses to your work 
  • Ambiguity: uncertainty of what is expected to complete task 
  • Fear of failure and self-doubt 
  • Fear of success: (e.g., if succeed, concern over having to maintain same level of performance; concern over jealousy from others.) 
  • Inability to handle the task: lack of training or skill necessary to complete task 
  • Lack of information needed to complete task 
  • Environmental conditions: 
  • Orderliness of work area 
  • Availability of needed materials 
  • Adequate lighting 
  • Distractions 
  • Temperature 
  • Physical conditions (e.g., fatigue) 
  • Anxiety over expectations that others have of you (e.g., high pressure to succeed; expectations that you will fail) 
  • All-or-nothing thinking (e.g., seeing one setback as total failure) 
  • Task seems overwhelming or unmanageable 
  • You are actually overextended, trying to manage too much

What can I do to manage procrastination?

  • Identify what is necessary to accomplish task in a given amount of time; Get a sense of the entire project and what is required to complete it. 
  • Set goals for what is to be accomplished 
  • Break goals into smaller sub-goals (e.g., concentrate on one section of a paper at a time) 
  • Accept that there are no magical cures. 
  • Struggling with Fear of Failure?
    • Acknowledge strengths skills 
    • Recall previous successes 
    • Work on weaknesses 
    • Take risks 
  • Struggline with Fear of Success?
    • Get accurate perspective of what your success will mean 
    • Focus on your own needs and expectations rather than those of others. 
  • Perfectionism
    • Examine your standards. Are they realistic? Are they set so high that they are causing you distress? 
    • Adjust your expectations and set realistic goals. 

What are behavioral strategies I can use to overcome procrastination?

Identify and Plan:

  • Identify your special behavioral diversions
  • Note when and where you use them 
  • Plan how to diminish and control their use 

Bits and Pieces:

  • Break large tasks into small ones.
  • Prioritize work and set deadlines.
  • Use behavioral suggestions, e.g., lay the book you have to read out in plain view.

The Ten Minute Plan:

  • Work on a dreaded task for ten minutes, then decide whether or not to continue.

Bogged in the Middle:

  • Change location or position; take a break; switch subjects or tasks.


  • Make contracts with yourself or someone you see regularly.

Premack Principle:

  • Reward yourself for accomplishment.

What are cognitive strategies I can use to overcome procrastination?

Prepare yourself mentally. Think of:

  • When, not if
  • The price of delay
  • Positive thoughts
  • Learn to tolerate discomfort

Watch for mental self-seductions into behavioral diversions. Examples include:

  • "I'll do it tomorrow"
  • "What's the harm of a half-hour of TV now? I've still got time"
  • "I deserve some time for myself"
  • "I can't do it."

Dispute mental diversions: Ex. "I really don't have that much time left, and other things are sure to come up later," or "If I get this done, I'll be better able to enjoy my time," or "Once I get started, it won't be that bad."