Do Students need Atomic Habits?


Part One: Where are all the students?

I’ve been increasingly interested in ideas around motivation and learning, especially in relation to the demanding mix of creative and technical endeavours that make up my own subject of computer generated imagery practice or VFX (Visual Effects). However, it seems many of the issues discussed here are universal in Higher Education.

Most tutors are at some time puzzled about student motivation. In an era where students are paying huge fees it makes sense to our adult brains you would attend regularly and leverage all the opportunities of workshops and lectures, collective classroom experiences, ensuring you get value for money. Tutors often gaze at their registers in disbelief at the number of non-attendees or sporadic and barely engaged learners who somehow rarely seem to take part in the facilities and opportunities their fees pay for.

Of course, the situation looks very different to the teenage brains who are negotiating a bewilderment of choices and stage of life challenges that those tutors are often unaware of. In many cases the struggling student has never been introduced to helpful strategies around motivation and planning. There’s plenty of neuroscience about how the ‘teenage brain’ lives in the present, and so often needs the scaffolding and support beyond what we currently give. Our classroom exhortations to “now go away and practice on your own” are often ineffective when the student cannot plan their day without distractions outside academe.

Combine this with the sheer range of things a student has to learn within the space of a 3 year degree to gain even an entry level professional standard. Increasingly employers demand more needs to be crammed into less time. A consequence of this compaction is that a student needs to give a consistent level of application across time. Miss a couple of weeks and it’s much harder to catch up. This is also exacerbated by an academic calendar structure that encourages months of loafing over summer (or Easter) and the resultant subject amnesia. That’s not all; the almost inevitable couple of weeks illness mid-term can have consequences for the completion of studies and the quest for mastery.

However, to my mind the more serious drift from studies can be the accretion of shorter infractions- missing a winters morning lecture because you don’t want to get up, or the Friday non-appearance because it’s cheaper to travel to the family home early.

So as we attempt to cram more instruction, more software demanded by industry, more entrepreneurial and business skills into the same 3 year cycle, we owe it to our learners to fortify them with a framework for coping, and build up their motivation levels.

fab-lentz-GO_UP-unsplashPhoto by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

Part Two: Atomic: mutually assured instruction

Maybe one solution is found in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (Random House 2018). It got me thinking about the role cultivating productive habits can play in the equation. Habits are ‘motivation on Autoplay’; they delegate conscious motivation into automaticity, and thereby remove energy-sapping cognitive overheads. For instance, once you have the habit of revision on a Thursday evening, you don’t have to purposefully remember or arrange the situation. It just seems to happen.

Today the barista at a coffee shop recognised me and offered me a loyalty card. At first I refused it, because I didn’t go there often, oh but wait, yes I do! I’d actually been every day that week. I’d developed a habit and didn’t know it. Can teachers give out metaphorical loyalty cards that enable students to automate learning habits? Instead of trying to motivate students can we get them to develop habits that will automate this?

In Atomic Habits James Clear outlines the central idea that it’s not motivation that counts but Process. Put systems and processes in place and the habits will slide into second nature, without gritted teeth or sweat.

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour” says Clear. The challenge for educators is if students don’t attend the learning environment at University, how can we assist? One answer might be to make them aware of how to develop their own learning space, through adopting Atomic Habits.

Students are creatures of habit. Approximately 45% of a student’s everyday behaviours tend to be repeated in the same location (Quinn & Wood, 2005; Wood, Quinn, & Kashy, 2002) so shouldn’t we be able to promote a few more regarding learning strategies for them?

manan-chhabra-Bad_Habits-unsplashPhoto by Manan Chhabra on Unsplash

Clear’s ‘Atomic’ premise is predicated on changes that seem small and unimportant at first (and therefore involve less disruption for those students) that will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them over time. Whilst many might baulk at the idea of waiting months for actions to become habits, we need to remember that we have the ideal programme within which to enact this within Higher Education- the 3 year degree cycle.

The value of small changes to students’ habits within the petri dish of a degree programme, compounding over time like an ever-steepening line on a graph is attractive. Shifting activities from pre-frontal cortex heavy cognitive lifting to automatic habitual routine means efficiency for the young ‘neuroplastic’ brain.

Clear also makes the point that we all have great goals- but this is not enough. Our classrooms are full of students whose fervent goal is to get a job in their area of study. The only problem is they don’t think through the tiny (atomic) incremental and mundane daily steps to get there.

The challenge for young brains is there’s an asymmetricality about good and bad habits. Bad habits aren’t obvious in their impact within the immediate moment. Eating donuts feels good at the time for all of us, but you don’t get the bad consequences till much later (eg health, obesity). Conversely the result of good habits like a fitness regime or study mean the reward is deferred. You don’t get fit straight after one workout, you don’t pass a test with one revision and so you may lose interest because of this. According to Clear, many people think they lack motivation, but what they really lack is clarity. They need a plan, a process. It’s not a lack of willpower. You just don’t have a plan to implement.

Teachers can make it easier for those habits to be leveraged by actually including the subject of habits and motivation in the classroom. We don’t help our students understand the power they have to build small habits that compound over time. (As an example, just a 1% difference in performance every day for one year means you’ll end up thirty‐seven times better by the time you’re done). We ask students to dream big dreams, but we don’t help them understand the relationship of tiny steps and creating habits to the bigger picture. “Try harder! Try harder!” we seem to be saying, rather than helping them to build their own processes towards developing atomic habits that over 3 years will lead to huge behavioural success.

austin-chan-THI_IS_THE_SIGN-unsplashPhoto by Austin Chan on Unsplash

The role of identity is key to Clear, and this is very much central to student life too. In my own field, we may have ignited our students dreams of working at an exciting major VFX company, but they may not be cognisant that they need to start forming the ‘identity’ of a VFX artist and all that entails regarding showing up on time, working well in a team, working to deadline etc. Clear suggests rather than just having a vague goal, students need to ask ‘who is the type of person who works at this place I aspire to? What habits do I need to build to get this identity?’ Clear makes a great observation that each action you take casts a vote for the kind of person you want to become, and says we need to be the architect of our habits rather than the victim. “The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”

Non attending students don’t lack motivation: they lack ’Atomic Habits’.

In conclusion, it maybe part of the tutors role needs to look beyond skills at focus more on the students need for a different strain of cognition and mindset. Why not embed this into any lesson plan?  Atomic Habits seems an attractive tool to introduce to students in order to align their motivations with what our courses offer them. The leveraging of small habit changes and clarity of process as opposed to disruptive and sudden hard to achieve transformations means there is less resistance by the learner to positive change. It may be we need to give over more room in our curriculum for introducing these ideas to students, equipping them with the tools to generate new habits of learning that maximise what their degree has to offer; to see clearly not only who they might want to be in the distance, but also the next few footsteps ahead of them.Atomic_symbolWhite





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