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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

A Reward System Can Build a Homework Habit. Here’s How

If doing a task feels good, it’s more likely to be repeated
By Angela Duckworth — March 15, 2023 1 min read
How do I help students struggling to get homework done on time?
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How do I help students struggling to get homework done on time?

You can explain to them the science of habits—and how to use it to set themselves up for success. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“I promise you, Mrs. Duckworth. Tomorrow, you’re gonna have my homework assignment on time. This is a whole new me. Just watch.”

When I taught middle school math, many of my struggling students would swear up and down that they were going to turn around their performance in my class. This year is going to be different. Some of them did exactly that. But many others did not.

In the long run, the superpower that enables people of all ages to realize their aspirations is habit.

What is a habit, exactly?

A habit is a behavior that, when repeated in the same situation over and over again, and reliably rewarded, becomes automatic. Unlike other kinds of behavior, a habit runs on autopilot when triggered. Why? Because over time, a mental link is forged between the trigger cue and the rewarded behavior.

What you want to do more of, try doing so at the same time and in the same place. And with each repetition, seek some kind of reward. Doing homework at the same time and place each day, for example, only creates a strong homework habit when rewarded in one way or another.

Use your imagination to create rewards. For a lot of students, it’s helpful to take a five-minute break after studying for 25 uninterrupted minutes. You might indulge in an episode of a favorite show after finishing your work for the day. My daughters make a spreadsheet with their to-dos, turning each block a favorite color when done, and derive satisfaction from completing all the blocks.

Once you’ve figured out your rewards, you might want to know how many repetitions it takes to make a habit. Is it 21? 66?

There is, in fact, no magic number. But habits don’t sprout overnight. Initially, it might take self-control to build a habit, but once formed, the automaticity of habit propels you forward without struggle and strife.

Don’t expect behavior change to be easy. It’s not, at least initially.

Do experiment to find positive routines that, with repetition and reward, become second nature.

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