Media, Technology, and Education
Habit FormationLearningTeaching

Teaching, Learning, and Atomic Habits

I wrote earlier this year about using the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to think about how to help students develop good academic habits. This summer, group of faculty and staff at my university have reread the book and met every other week to discuss how to apply its lessons to our work with students. These discussions have been thought-provoking and energizing. At the end of the book, Clear provides information about how to get two bonus chapters: “How to Apply These Ideas to Business” and “How to Apply These Ideas to Parenting.” I thought it might be interesting to follow Clear’s examples and write about “How to Apply These Ideas to Teaching and Learning.”

Here’s a short summary of the main ideas in the book. Clear articulates a four-step model of behavior that underlies his work on habit formation. The four steps are cue, craving, response, and reward. We encounter a cue which creates a craving which motivates a behavioral response which gives us a reward. Clear then articulates four laws of behavior change. Understanding these laws will make developing new habits easier. The laws are: 1. make it obvious; 2. make it attractive; 3. make it easy; and, 4. make it satisfying. Clear uses the word “atomic” because he advocates making very small changes to develop habits that more closely match the person you want to be. So if you want to be a person who exercises regularly, start by putting your walking shoes near the door (create a cue that makes the desired behavior obvious), listen to your favorite podcast if you put your shoes on (make the desired behavior attractive by pairing it with something you crave), require yourself to only put your shoes on to start (make the desired response easy to engage in–you’ll be more likely to actually go for a walk if you already have your shoes on), and allow yourself to listen to your podcast if you put your shoes on (reward yourself by satisfying your craving to listen). Then move to listening to the podcast only if you go for a walk and only while you’re walking. Of course, you’ll move from putting your shoes on to walking for 5 minutes to walking for 30 minutes to …. whatever your goal is. But Clear also says that you should focus on your identity. What kind of person do you want to be? Then each time you engage in your desired habit, you are reinforcing the behaviors that that kind of person engages in. You are voting for that identity for yourself.

How do these ideas apply to teaching and learning? I think the first thing we need to do is have conversations with students about their desired identities. Why are they in college? What kind of person do they want to be? How does their behavior in college relate to their desired identity? Then we can move on to the four laws and how to use them to support student academic success.

Make it obvious. The idea here is that people pay more attention to cues that are obvious, that are right in front of their faces. In the Spring semester, I talked to students about doing things like putting their books on their pillows as a reminder to study. I think there are a lot of individual strategies that we might help students discover. But what can we do as an institution? Football players at my University have mandatory study periods in which the whole team gathers to do homework. This is easy to do with athletes in season. What about the rest? We could put up posters to remind students about the importance of studying and doing homework. I wonder if we could institute times when our wireless network dedicated to gaming systems would be shut down across campus or maybe displays a message when logging onto it that says “This is a preferred study time.” For my own students, maybe I could set up reminders via Navigate to text students at certain times of day when they have said they would like to be studying and doing homework.

Make it attractive. One of the main things that Clear says people can do to make their desired behaviors attractive is to surround themselves with people who engage in those desired behaviors, people who model those behaviors. Living and learning communities focused on various aspects of academic performance could be helpful here. Student organizations related to academic pursuits is another strong possibility. We need to develop a campus culture where engaging in academic work is the norm and is therefore seen as attractive.

Make it easy. When a behavior is difficult to engage in, we find all kinds of reasons not to engage in it. Clear emphasizes that this law is about making it as easy as possible in the moment to do the things, even the hard things, that will pay off in the long run. How can we design dorm rooms and common spaces so that it is as easy as possible to study and do homework? Can we arrange the rooms so that distractions are minimized? An idea from another book I have read this summer (From Equity Talk to Equity Walk by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux) is to provide space in class to start homework and projects. Can we make it easy for students to take the next step to completing their work? One thing we can definitely do is to use our learning management system to make it easy for students to find out what their work is. Announcing work in class is not making it easy for students to later remind themselves of what they need to do.

Make it satisfying. Clear writes that this law is the one that sets us up to repeat the desired behavior in the future. Reinforcement means we are adding something in order to effect a result. We might praise a student for turning in an assignment. This positive reinforcement is designed to encourage the student to continue to engage in that behavior. We hope that our praise is satisfying to a student. We might also scold a student who turns in an assignment late. This punishment is designed to discourage the student from turning in future assignments late. Such punishment is not likely to be very satisfying for the student. The idea is that we want to make it satisfying for students to “do the right thing.” I want to think about this related to my feedback on student work. How can I use my feedback to encourage students to engage in behaviors that are likely to lead to academic success?

There’s a lot to think about here and I look forward to continued conversations with my colleagues about how we can use the ideas in this book to support our students.

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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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