When the school year starts back up in January, teachers would LOVE to use this fresh start for good.
In particular, our students might have developed some counter-productive habits during the first half of the year. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help them develop new learning habits?
Maybe homework would be a good place to start. Better homework habits should indeed lead to more learning.
The Problem: Old Habits
When I sit down to do my homework, the same problems always crop up.
My cell phone buzzes with texts.
I’m really tired. SO tired.
The abominable noise from my brother’s room (heavy metal horror) drives me crazy.
I try to solve all these problems when they appear, but they get me so distracted and addled that I just can’t recover quickly. Result: I’m just not very efficient.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could develop new habits to solve these problems? What would these new learning habits be?
New Learning Habits: “Implementation Intentions”
We actually have a highly effective habit strategy to deal with this problem. Sadly, the solution has a lumpish name: “implementation intentions.”
Here’s what that means.
Step 1: I make a list of the problems that most often vex me. (In fact, I’ve already made that list — see above.)
Important note about step 1: everyone’s list will be different. The problems that interfere with my homework might not bother other people. (Apparently, some folks like my brother’s dreadful music.)
Step 2: decide, IN ADVANCE, how I will solve each problem.
For example, when my cell phone buzzes, I won’t look at the message. Instead, I will turn the phone to airplane mode.
When I feel tired, I’ll do 20 jumping jacks. If that doesn’t work, I’ll take a quick shower. That always wakes me right up.
When my brother cranks his stereo, I’ll move to my backup study location in the basement.
Just as everyone faces different problems, everyone will come up with different solutions.
Step 3: let the environment do the work.
Here’s the genius of “implementation intentions”: the environment does the work for us.
Now, when my phone buzzes, I already know what to do. I’ve already made the decision. I don’t have to make a new decision. I simply execute the plan.
Phone buzzes, I switch it to airplane mode. Done.
New Learning Habits: the Research
Now, I have to be honest with you. When I first read about this strategy, I was REALLY SKEPTICAL.
I mean, it’s so simple. How can this possibly work?
The theory — “the environment does the work, activating a decision chain that’s already been planned” — sort of makes sense, but: really?
In fact, we do have lots of good research showing that this strategy works.
For instance, Angela Duckworth (yes, that Angela Duckworth) found that students who went through this process completed 60% more practice problems for the PSAT than those who simply wrote about their goals for the test.
You read that right: 60% more practice problems.
How’s that for new learning habits?
What does this technique look like in your classroom?
Of course: everyone reading this blog teaches different content to different students at different schools. And, we are all different people.
So, your precise way of helping your students will differ from my way.
I’m including a link to Ollie Lovell’s post on this topic. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you follow his example precisely. After all, you and Ollie are two different people.
However, I am suggesting that his example helpfully illustrates the concept. And, it will give you ideas on how best to apply it in your world.