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Habit Stacking: Four Steps to Student-Centered Learning

classroom learning

In a society in which self-improvement is touted as a state of being and people constantly attempt to reinvent what they call the “new me,” motivation is considered the key to the kingdom of success. People ask one another how they can find enough motivation to read the monthly book club selection, to go for a walk instead of face-planting on the couch, to finally tackle the pile of junk in the top drawer. The problem is that no matter how dedicated anyone might be, motivation is fickle and transient by nature. 

In education, teachers often believe that students who are intrinsically motivated reap far more benefits than students who need external motivators, such as rewards or grades. While the common perception is that an internal sense of drive is the key to success, the answer lies less in motivation and more in building strong academic habits. In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear shares the benefits of “habit stacking,” a process that involves achieving growth by taking incremental steps toward a goal. For example, if we want to become more physically fit, the first step might be driving to a gym in the morning and sitting in the car outside the door. The next small step, part of the “stacking,” could be going inside and walking on a treadmill for just five minutes. As our habits build, they become more ingrained and we reach our goals not just temporarily, but on a more permanent basis. How can teachers help students develop strong learning habits not only for the sake of increased long-term academic success, but also for the more significant benefit of experiencing the empowerment that comes with being autonomous learners? Below are four steps to achieving the goal of increasing student success through “habit stacking.”  

Break it Down

Sometimes, looking at a gargantuan task in its entirety is enough to completely shut us down. A three-mile run is a whole lot more intimidating than a one-mile walk. What if we break a seemingly insurmountable goal into smaller and more appealing component parts? If we give students the big picture every day when we present objectives, we may not be phrasing our learning outcomes in student-friendly terms. When each daily objective is shared as a means unto itself, it becomes easier to break a larger learning goal int pieces that are easily digestible. If students are working on a research project, the daily objective could be to find two resources rather than all ten required for the final product. With a smaller learning target, students will understand the “why” behind the day’s lesson and not be intimidated by larger demands. Furthermore, they are more likely to build habits that reach academic goals with a sense of accomplishment and investment.

Build Gateways

Students often need an accessible entry point to learning. When teachers introduce unfamiliar content, bridging to new material with a plan that is geared toward what we know about our students helps to increase the beneficial habit of prioritizing student learning through engagement. For example, if many students have an avid interest in reading comics, teachers can introduce a concept in any content area (i.e., word problems in math, a life-cycle process in science, and so forth) with a meme or cartoon that is both engaging and relevant. That way, the information will not seem as daunting and students will feel more comfortable taking charge of their learning with increased efficacy. In turn, they will get into the habit of accessing unfamiliar content by building upon prior knowledge.

Try a Learning Buffet

Suppose we want children to eat a more nutritious diet. If we place a fruit plate in a central location, they are more likely to snack on the fruit because of its ready availability. Teachers can apply the same strategy to the learning tools we make available to students. For example, having an accessible collection of appealing texts sitting out in a classroom increases the likelihood that students will pick up a book or magazine and read it of their own volition, and that reading will become an enjoyable habit. Other blended learning tools like learning menus also give students the ability to select how they would like to approach content on any given day, cementing the habit of accessing new information without feeling intimidated. In addition to building strong habits, providing choice-driven activities has the added benefit of giving students more power to select what they learn.

Ease Friction

Academic success is often about access and opportunity. Friction occurs when students do not have the materials they need, or when distractions like laptops are too readily available. While easing friction by removing as many distractions as possible is a simple management move, the power of having engaging materials at the ready (and distractions put aside in a difficult-to-access location) increases the chance that students will be able to focus on the learning. If notebooks sit on desks instead of technology tools, students will reach for what is closest to them. As students become accustomed to the habit of using notebooks (or any other tool teachers wish for them to focus upon, from manipulatives to graph paper and so forth) and less intimidated by taking time away from digital technology, teachers can continue to increase student confidence in their ability to produce results by building strategic habits around how classrooms are provisioned.

Habits are stronger than motivation. What else explains why, when we have every intention not to hit the snooze button, we do so anyway? Our brains move along accustomed grooves, and unless we rewire those pathways, habits are grounded in ruts that are far more powerful than good intentions. For students, who grapple with the same struggles and are also still growing, the challenge of overcoming habits is not a journey they can undertake alone. With the help of teachers who explicitly teach strong habit-building behavior, students can gradually take on more responsibility for managing their learning and become ever stronger. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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