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A hard habit to break? The power of independent study behaviours in the Sixth Form

Written by: Katie Cork
8 min read

Katie Cork, Head of Sixth Form, St Mary’s School, Gerrards Cross

Study habits and academic achievement

In post-16 education, a student studying for three A-levels has 10 or more hours of undirected time a week within their timetable; this is around half the time recommended for students to spend on independent study (Oakes and Griffin, 2016). What do students do in this self-directed time? How do they make decisions about whether to study or not to study? Almost half of student behaviours are driven by habits and performed without conscious thought: Wood et al. (2002) asked students to write down what they were doing once every hour for several days, finding that around 45 per cent of behaviours recorded were repeated at around the same time, in the same place, every day. Habits are clearly powerful drivers of behaviour. 

Study habits can be defined as the methods of study used by students and their ability to manage their time for the successful accomplishment of academic tasks (Oszoy et al., 2009). Habits may be adaptive or maladaptive (Thompson et al., 2011); in the context of education, adaptive habits are those that improve a student’s academic achievement, while maladaptive habits are those that reduce it (Elango and Manimozhi, 2021). Meta-analysis research shows there is a significant positive relationship between student study habits and academic achievement (Elango and Manimozhi, 2021), and so teachers and sixth form leaders should consider developing adaptive study habits to be as important a priority as developing students’ knowledge, metacognition and motivation. This article examines how habits are formed and the influence that they may have on the behaviours of students in Years 12 and 13, and offers some suggestions as to how to develop adaptive study habits based on a review of the literature.

‘This is what I do here, this is what I do now’

In 1890, William James (in Wood and Neal, 2007) proposed that habits are triggered spontaneously by sensory cues in the environment, known as ‘context cues’. These are elements of the environment that recur each time an action is repeated and can be physical locations, other people or preceding actions in a sequence (Wood and Neal, 2007). With repeated experience, behaviours and the environment in which they occur become associated in memory in the form of ‘schemas’, or mental models that guide actions. When cued by context, the habit represented in memory as a schema is activated, and this leads to changes in neural networks in procedural memory (Wood and Neal, 2007), which are automatic and implicit. 

Although habits take time to form – with one study finding that it took between 18 and 254 days (Lally et al., 2010) – once formed they have a very strong influence on behaviour because of the lack of conscious decision-making needed to direct behaviour (Verkplanken and Wood, 2006). Students with non-directed, independent learning time in the sixth form develop schemas connected to the environment in which they spend this time, and these schemas shape future behaviours. Whether behaviours are related to studying depends on many factors: personality constructs such as conscientiousness, achievement motivation and locus of control (Credé and Kuncel, 2008); social life; health; interests; and goals (Elango and Manimozhi, 2021). This latter variable is particularly important because habits form as people pursue goals in everyday life (Carden and Wood, 2018). If a student’s goal at the start of Year 12 is to make friends, they are more likely to make conscious and deliberate decisions to engage in behaviours to fulfil this goal – for example, choosing communal areas related to socialising or eating, rather than those related to individual learning. These initial behaviours can affect a student’s ability to self-regulate subsequent behaviours (Thompson et al., 2011) because after a while the behaviour becomes automatic and the schema for ‘what to do in my free time’ activates whenever they are not in lessons. Over time, habitual behaviours become more influential, and intentions and goals gradually become less influential (Carden and Wood, 2018), which means that long after the initial goal of making friends has been achieved, the behaviour directed towards fulfilling this goal persists. 

Changing student behaviour by changing habits is therefore a challenge (Pinder et al., 2018). The positive reinforcement that students receive from spending time with friends is a strong motivating factor to repeat the behaviour (Briggs et al., 1971), and this stimulus that has been rewarded in the past will be given greater attention in the future compared to those that have not been rewarded (Luque et al., 2017), such as studying. Lally et al. (2010) found that interventions to create new habits can support students to work towards academic goals; however, these do not always succeed. Even when students were motivated to create habits, around half of the participants did not perform the behaviour needed to become a habit consistently enough for it to become defined as such (Lally et al., 2010). This may be because interventions to change behaviours assume that the student needs to change only their mental processes and behaviour, without recognising that the context in which the student finds themselves may also need to change (Thompson et al., 2011) in order to develop new schemas. Encouraging students to change the location in which they spend their independent time could reduce the automatic activation of habits that derail their intention to study (Verkplanken and Wood, 2006). 

Creating the right conditions to learn

John Dewey (in Simpson, 2001) stated that teachers must create the right learning conditions for students to learn. In a sixth form context, the right learning conditions are those that encourage a cohort of students to develop adaptive study habits in their non-directed time. 

A key time to tackle student behaviours is at the point of a significant life event, such as starting Year 12, as research shows that these events involve conscious and deliberate self-control over behaviours (Thompson et al., 2011). A change in educational context removes existing context cues and can disrupt habits, allowing the opportunity for new habit development. Even when a student remains at the same institution for the sixth form, new contextual cues such as dress code, different locations, timetables and people, can all create a new context for the student and provide opportunity for the development of new habits. This creates an ideal chance for educators to proactively intervene to support the development of adaptive study habits – for example, through study skills programmes, clear messages about expectations and manipulation of communal spaces. Any such interventions must be explicit in supporting students in developing intentions towards a goal, or the intention will not be translated into behaviour (Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006). Activities such as ‘if-then planning’ are effective because they teach students to commit to a particular action that is to become a habit, and the situation in which it is to occur (Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006) – for example, ‘If I have a free period immediately after a lesson, then I will go to a quiet study area and consolidate my learning from that lesson.’ At the start of Year 12, students can be taught ‘if-then plans’ early on to develop effective study habits. Even more powerful is collective teaching of these intention-planning activities, perhaps through tutor group activities, to engage students to share potential ‘if-then plans’ and build group habits throughout a whole cohort. In the 1950s and 1960s, studies in social psychology demonstrated that we are profoundly influenced by the actions of others in a majority, whether that is because we want to fit into a group, rather than be seen as different, or because we are unsure of how to behave in a situation and look to normative behaviour to guide our actions (Hogg and Vaughn, 2008). 

Motivation to change habits

How can we create the motivation in students to develop study habits? Interventions that focus on raising awareness of the importance of adaptive study habits might achieve this goal but may not lead to a subsequent change in behaviour (Carden and Wood, 2018). Even when interventions do seem to have a positive effective on study habits, there is no guarantee that this will lead to better academic outcomes. Pugatch and Wilson (2018) found that raising awareness of a peer mentoring programme saw a significantly increased engagement with the programme but did not have a corresponding effect on student grades. The researchers postulated that this may have been because students who attended mentoring may have reduced their self-directed study time elsewhere, and so their habits were not changed enough to impact their achievement. Sheeran et al. (2005) found that students who had explicit intentions to study at particular times and places did so only if they actually supported the goal of studying. This implies that study skills programmes or other interventions will only succeed if the student values the goal of studying. 

One method that has been shown to affect a significant increase in grades compared to a control group is the Premack principle of reinforcement (Briggs et al., 1971). This principle reinforces a low-probability behaviour (studying) using a fixed ratio schedule, by increasing the required level of study over a period of time and ensuring that a student masters each task before increasing the amount of study required of them. The aversive nature of the study situation is reduced by giving students the option to leave after completing a specific task (Briggs et al., 1971). For example, a student who finds the prospect of studying for a whole period so uncomfortable that they do not study at all can be encouraged to spend a short amount of time, say 10 minutes, in each period on their work, after which they can use the time as they choose. Once comfortable with studying for this time, they can gradually increase the proportion of each study period devoted to academic work. Shaping behaviour in this way takes time but may be particularly effective if a student realises that they need to increase the amount of academic work that they complete, perhaps following an unsuccessful assessment or as they near the final A-level examinations. 

A clear and consistent approach

William James (in Ouellette and Wood, 1998, p. 57) claimed that ‘the more of the details of our daily lives we can hand over to the effortless custody of automisation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work’. James’s positive take on habits – that they are useful because they can help one to work towards goal achievement – is too simplistic. Habits do not always lead to ‘proper work’, and indeed can act as impediments to reaching academic goals. Earlier I quoted John Dewey (in Simpson, 2001), who did indeed say that teachers must create the right learning conditions for students to learn. He went on to say that even when teachers’ actions create the right conditions, learning will not occur unless a student brings a positive energy that motivates them to engage in their studies. An explicit and consistent focus on developing students’ schemas by facilitating the repetition of adaptive study habits in a consistent setting could lead to the development of complex, goal-related behaviours (Wood and Neal, 2007) that support students in achieving their personal best. 

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