The importance of forming habits for improving student engagement and motivation

Every bit of work a student does is welcome.  But it’s exhausting and unsustainable for teachers if each bit requires encouragement, prompts and reminders.  To succeed, students must work hard, consistently and independently.  

The only sustainable solution is for students to form good habits.  If students are working hard habitually, the teacher doesn’t need to prompt, chase and nag for individual bits of work.  Few students are likely to be in good independent study habits: they’ve never had to form them.  Helping them form good habits will serve them well now and in the future.  This resource breaks habit formation down and looks at three ways teachers can help.

People form habits when they repeat an action in a specific context for long enough that the context cues the action.  For example, if I always go for a jog first thing on Saturday morning, in due course, I stop being bothered by the weather or my tiredness: Saturday morning is my cue to jog. Habits can become similarly powerful cues for learning.  When building habits for learning, it is important to look for a clear action, a specific context, and enough repetition.

1.    A clear action

The more complicated the action, the harder it is to make it a habit. A good start for teachers is to set a clear action for students to take whenever they’re doing work in your subject. You could tell students to follow the same three steps: ‘First revise last week’s learning by quizzing yourself on it, then read the sheet about today’s topic, then complete today’s questions.’ This structure could apply to every lesson, indefinitely: if students do it for long enough, it will begin to become automatic. This makes starting work much easier: they just get on with what they always do, rather than having to check what to do, decide an order and wonder if they’re doing it right. When they’re working independently, clear actions are a big help.

Sometimes teachers worry that a structure like this will get boring for students. But the true source of interest and variety in learning is the topic itself. If students have a clear way to approach the topic, they can enjoy the learning, or at least do it well. They’re more likely to struggle if they have to work out what they’re meant to do every time they start work.

2.    The context provides cues for action

To form a habit, some aspect of the situation must become the cue for students to act. You might see this in your own habits: if you have a snack most times you go to the kitchen, going to the kitchen comes to trigger the snack, rather than hunger! Almost anything can provide a cue for action if it is consistent. You could encourage students to pick an appropriate cue by thinking about:

  • Time: always start studying by nine; always do maths work on Mondays
  • Place: always study at your desk
  • Preceding event: start work as soon as breakfast is over
  • Social context: start work as soon as your brother goes out for his run or as soon as your dad is free to test you

It doesn’t matter hugely what students choose – what matters is that the cue is likely to occur consistently. The key thing is encouraging students to stick to it. Once this link between the cue and the action builds, the action should become increasingly automatic.

3.    Repeated action

New habits take time to form: this may take around eight weeks, based on repeating the action several times a week. Don’t be surprised if students don’t form the new habits you’d like to see immediately, or if there are some blips along the way: this is a natural part of the habit formation process. It’s not your fault, or theirs.

Teachers need some way of monitoring whether students are forming the habit, and the submission of work is likely to be the best indicator. If students are struggling, you could reboot the habit: pick a landmark (new day, new week) and ask students to start again, make fresh commitments and change details which aren’t working.

The bottom line is that you can help students to form habits by ensuring they have a clear action, a cue to do it, and that they keep going. The same ideas can help break bad habits: look for the cue, the context and the action. If getting out of bed has become the cue to start gaming, change the cue, the context and/or the action by moving the console or changing morning routines.

 As with every aspect of influencing students to learn remotely, parental support is likely to be invaluable. It may be worth sharing these ideas with parents and students so that they know what they need to do and why. If students can get this right now, they’ll be well set up for future success.  Even if some students struggle, the more who are in good habits, the more you can focus on those who are still struggling.

Make sure you read Harry’s other posts: seven key ideas to support motivation; the importance of social norms; and effective planning.


By Harry Fletcher-Wood

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Harry has worked in schools in Japan, India and the UK, teaching history and leading teacher development.  He’s now a teacher educator at Ambition Institute, and the author of Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in Practice.  For his next book, he’s spent two years researching the behavioural science influencing student behaviour. You can find his blog at improvingteaching.co.uk; he’s on Twitter as @hfletcherwood.