Teaching Opinion

Response: Part Two Of Several Ways We Can Help Students Develop Good Habits

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 05, 2012 8 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series on “habits.” Part One can be found here)

A lot has been published lately on “habits” -- how to create good ones and how to break bad ones.

So, last week I asked:

How can we help students develop good habits?

In Part One
of this series, Charles Duhigg, author of the new best-selling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, shared his responses to my questions on how to apply his research to our work in schools.

Today, Professor Art Markman, author of the new book, Smart Thinking, has agreed to share his ideas specifically on how teachers can help students develop good study habits. I plan on using several of his points and the research he cites into a classroom lesson where students can learn and apply these concepts.

In addition, today I’m sharing several suggestions left by readers.

Response From Art Markman

Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written over 125 papers on reasoning, decision making, and motivation, and is currently the executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science. He blogs frequently for Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and Harvard Business Review. His latest book is called Smart Thinking (Perigee Books). You can follow Art on Twitter at @abmarkman:

When we use the term “study habits,” we are often more focused on the word study than on the word habits. That is, we want to help students study effectively, but we do not take the habit-learning system seriously.

Habits are behaviors we perform mindlessly, because we have associated those behaviors with a particular environment. We don’t have to think about where the gas and brake pedals are in a car, because we have developed habits for pressing them. Ultimately, we want good study behaviors to have the same character as pressing the gas and brake. They should simply be part of the way that students work.

To create real study habits, it is helpful for even the youngest students to learn more about what creates a habit. Habits involve two elements--consistent mappings and repetition.

A consistent mapping happens when the same behavior is performed in the same situation. A car creates a consistent mapping, because pressing the pedal on the left always makes the car accelerate, while pressing the pedal on the right always makes the car stop.

Repetition means that a behavior needs to be repeated in order to become a habit. The more often it is repeated, the easier it is for that behavior to be done automatically again in the future.

To create good study habits, students need to organize their work spaces at school and at home in a consistent way that promotes effective learning. Here are five specific suggestions for creating study habits. While the behaviors themselves are associated with good studying, repeating them consistently is what creates a habit.

Use a posture of study. It can be valuable to prepare your body to concentrate. Don’t just lie down or sit on the floor to study. Have students find a desk or table and sit up and work. The idea is that lounging in bed or on the floor is associated with sleeping and relaxing. Don’t try to reprogram that to be a posture of study. If students consistently sit up to study, they will develop the habit to concentrate when in that posture.

Create distraction-free zones. Multitasking gets in the way of effective studying. When students switch between work and the internet or smart phones, they do not work efficiently or learn deeply. Have students park their technology far away from their work spaces to minimize distractions. That way, they will not develop the habit to check emails and texts in the middle of studying.

Make mistakes. When students are doing homework, they often focus on getting every homework problem right. As a result, students skip problems that are too hard for them. Getting an answer wrong highlights the skills that need to be improved. Help students along by using completion grades on homework and giving students a chance to correct exam mistakes for partial credit.

(Editor’s Note: readers can find more information on this topic at The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures)

Don’t just read, do. Students often develop the habit to read over material before a test. Effective learning requires testing yourself as you go along. After all, no student would ever think they could learn to play a musical instrument just by reading about it. So, why should history, literature, or science be any different? It is crucial for students to make self-testing a key habit when studying.

Study early and often. Students typically develop the habit to wait until right before an exam to start looking over material from class. Memory research makes clear that spreading study over a long period of time is better for learning. So, give students frequent reasons to study rather than forcing them to study only before big high-stakes tests.

Remember that the mind is a habit creation machine. If you get students to do these behaviors consistently, they will become the automatic way that students organize their learning time.

Responses From Readers

David Hochheiser:

With regards to teaching “habits...” We all know that the affective requirements for being successful in school, the patience, perseverance, social politics, organization, confidence, humility, etc, are things that get developed over a lifetime, starting from 6mos-old infants and moving forward well into adulthood. Schools can reinforce them, for sure, but it’s a long haul to and a tough climb to bring students and families on board and up to speed without their absolute dedication and tolerance of our “parenting” the students. Schools would need to institute a very thorough and very comprehensive initiative to teach and reinforce such habits of mind consistently over time if we want to address such students’ needs. The schools I’ve been in struggle to purposefully institute even the smallest of advisory programs that won’t even begin to fill the void.

What do we really need to teach “skills”? Community.


We begin by focusing on good habits, good character and consistently approaching the subject with our kids. IMHO, it works best when a whole community has the same focus.

For example, this week or month we focus on respect, what are the different ways to show respect,etc.. We take advantage of teachable moments throughout the community,school,home or day. It takes 3 weeks to break a bad habit, so we do things to focus on that trait and build on that with the next trait. I could go on,so write if you want more. I headed up a character program in Cleveland city school for 10 years and we saw a huge difference as students learned and practiced good habits.


I think good habits are acquired incrementally over time. One way to help students begin this process, is by calling attention to and demystifying the process itself. This is can be accomplished by asking"how” questions.

For example: If you notice that one of your students excels at keeping his desk tidy, instead of simply saying something evaluative such as “Good job”, and then walking away, it is more useful to other students (and the child himself) to identify the neat desk for the class and say , “I notice that Jeremy has a very organized desk. “Jeremy, could you share with us how you know or figured out how to organize your desk?” At first answering “how” questions might be difficult because we don’t usually ask them often enough. So we can help them along by saying such things as, “When you started to think about organizing your desk, what did you do first? Why? What did you do second? Why? Then you can repeat what they did and make a list for the other students.

This demystifies the thinking process and links it to the steps that build habits. This can be repeated over and over with both habits and skills. Students will learn the actions and efforts that are required to build a good habit--instead of just thinking that they just magically happen automatically.

Lara Z:

Habits are formed by doing the same thing, consistently and correctly, over and over again. I think the threshold is psychologically three weeks.

So, to develop habitual behaviors in students teachers should consistently and correctly instruct them in the desired process over and over again... for three weeks. If you want your students to habitually stop by a table to collect a reading assignment, or worksheet, then every day there should be something different in the same place that you draw attention to every single class period, first thing. Miss a day after that and students will wonder where it went.

But importantly, make the habitual behavior something that has consequence, import, and bearing, on what is being accomplished beyond any sort of grade the student will receive. Something that has contextual value is easier to make habit-forming, than something that has little to no long-term worth.

June Bayha:

Good habits are modeled for students by the adults around them.

Thanks to Art for sharing his response and to the many readers who left comments!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.