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4 steps to help students form new habits

4 steps to help students form new habits

3 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

How important is the role of forming positive learning habits for students? Despite arguably being a key factor in their success whilst in education, very little time is spent discussing it. There must be a process behind it and some reasoning that contributes to our habitual behaviours – which is exactly what we’ll explore in this blog.

The role of habits

Do you take the same route to work every morning? Or perhaps you have a cup of tea at 11am each day? These are habits – small, routine decisions you make every day. We often do these things without realising. In fact, researchers at Duke University suggest that 40% of our behaviours on any given day can be accounted for by habits.

Many believe that your life is a sum of your habits and that everything from your happiness to your success comes from them. For example, taking the 7:11am train without giving it a second thought becomes so normal to us that anything from waking up late to a delayed train can throw us off balance for the next hours.

How are habits formed?

Repeating a behaviour in a consistent setting increases automaticity. This refers to being able to do something without it occupying many cognitive resources. We complete many activities such as walking or speaking, without paying much attention to them, all as a result of learning, repetition, and practice.

There is a considerable variation in how long it can take people to reach their limit of automaticity. Researchers at University College London carried out a study to examine habit formation. 96 students took part and were required to adopt a new eating, drinking, or activity behaviour. Over a period of 12 weeks, they carried their chosen behaviour out and completed a questionnaire about it daily. The results showed that the time it took for them to consider the behaviour a habit ranged from 18 to 254 days. This is quite a large time frame, indicating that habit formation may not be a simple process.

In order to maintain any behaviour, we must be motivated by its outcome. Developing a habit is one of the best ways to help you meet your goals. For students, this could well be the difference in how they do in their education attainment over the years.

Help your students optimise their memory, develop their metacognitive skills, and tackle challenges more effectively.

4 steps to form new habits

As the saying goes, “old habits die hard”. Behaviours that have become second nature to us had to have started somewhere and became ingrained in us through repetition. There are 4 steps involved in the process of forming a habit: cue, craving, response and reward. They are on a constant loop in your brain and each one of them is crucial to developing new habits. This is why habits that bring us pleasure are harder to stop than others: most people would find it easier to stop going for a 5K run every evening than giving up the piece of chocolate they have after lunch every day.

Maintaining a habit is much easier if you follow these steps and if your motivation to gain the reward is strong enough. For example, here’s how having coffee every morning develops:

1. Cue

This is a piece of information or an event that can lead your brain to predict a reward. For example, this could simply be waking up.

2. Craving

The indication of a reward leads to a craving for it. We are motivated by what the habit will provide, and not so much by the actual action. For example, you crave feeling alert and full of energy after waking up instead of sleepy.

3. Response

This step is where you actually perform the action that will become the habit. For example, drinking a cup of coffee because you think the caffeine will help you feel more awake.

4. Reward

Completing the response to your craving will deliver a reward. For example, drinking a cup of coffee satisfies your craving to feel alert. This means that your brain will, overtime, associate drinking coffee with waking up and form a new habit.

Final thoughts

Giving your students advice on how to form healthy habits is a good way to promote long-term behaviour change amongst them. Teach them about the four steps to habit formation to demonstrate the reasoning behind each of our behaviours. Craving a certain reward inspires you to complete whatever task is needed –if you feel like the reward is satisfying enough, you continue this behaviour, and a new habit is born.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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