[The importance of persevering in building learning habits]
In his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits’ James Clear makes some very interesting points about the nature of progress (pp. 20-23).
In most cases, when we are learning something, progress is much slower at the beginning (when we are building the foundations of learning as it were) and it gradually accelerates as we continue. Think about learning words for instance; initially, you have few other lexical items in the L2 to peg the new ones on to. Later however, you can link new vocabulary to all kinds of synonyms, opposites, similar words, collocations etc.
If one were to present this diagrammatically, the line you would get would be one curving upwards – it is exactly the same line as if your English keeps getting better at the rate of, say, 1% every week. And yet when we study, most of us expect our progress to be linear (‘I have put in so much effort – I expect to see some results’).
Look at this excellent diagram (James Clear ‘Atomic Habits’ – p. 22). Notice the grey area. Clear calls this ‘the valley of disappointment’ and it represents the period of frustration when we keep working at something and the results seem meager at best. This can go on for months and months. But notice what happens then: beyond a certain point, we experience a period of progress which just seems explosive and it is way beyond our expectations.
I have seen this time and again with my students: they study and study and complain about how poor their English is and then they travel to the UK and when they come back they are ecstatic ‘After the first few hours I started talking and talking so freely and easily and I just couldn’t believe it was me!’
So this is the moral here: choose a few learning habits and stick with them. Keep reading a few pages of that reader every day. Keep singing along to songs. Keep watching your favourite series with English subtitles. All this work is bound to pay off and when it does, you will be amazed.
The Moral: Stick with your habits even if you cannot see any progress.
On average, people who decide to take part in a marathon race, cover the distance of 42.2 km in around four and a half hours. Some are faster, some are slower, so if we were to create a graph of everyone’s performance, we would expect a normal distribution – something resembling a bell curve.
Yet this is not what we find. Have a look at the image below. You will notice that many runners somehow cluster just before the 3:30-hour mark, the 4:00-hour mark etc. How does this happen? The answer is that runners push themselves just that little bit harder towards the end, so they can tell themselves (and all their friends!) that they ran the marathon in less than three and a half ours, or less than four hours and so on.
So how do they manage that? Apparently, there are experienced athletes who have timed themselves repeatedly and run at such a pace that they know they are going to finish in a little less than 3:30 hours or 4:00 hours etc. These people are called pace-setters and they ran with big placards on their back, displaying their respective times. Ordinary runners who know their limits more or less, simply run behind the right pace-setter and so they do not have to worry about constantly checking their time. In this way, in the New York City Marathon, while 500 people finish with a time of 3:59, only 390 finish with a time of 4:01 (Adam Alter ‘Irresistible’ – pp. 95-97). Still not convinced? Here is what another study found. Watch this clip:
There is a big lesson for us here: whatever you do, when you set yourself a short-term goal you push yourself just that little bit harder. Why not use this insight when practicing your English? ‘I am going to try to remember the words from yesterday’s lesson, and I want to recall at least 15 out of 20’ or ‘I am going to record myself giving a mini-monologue about my job and I am going to speak without hesitation for at least 40 seconds’. This little tweak may well mean you perform 10% better than you would without a goal. It’s well worth it, don’t you think?
The Moral: Before doing an activity, set yourself a short-term goal.
Habits everywhere: Do you brush your teeth? Of course you do. Do you think about it though? I am sure the answer here is ‘No’. Brushing our teeth is something we do no matter what, something that does take a few minutes (esp if you do it regularly – or if you happen to have an unusually large number of teeth 🙂 ) but which is nevertheless completely effortless. It is a habit. Apparently, a great part of our everyday lives – more than 40% – consists of such routines. Would it not be great if we could help our students establish habits which would actually help them improve their English? Can you imagine how much progress our students would make if they did these things on a daily basis?
EL Learning Habits: This article is about how we can help create habits. Naturally, as teachers we would like our learners to form habits which help them improve their English. Not all strategies are equally good candidates however. In the text below I have included five simple things any learner can try to do habitually. For more ideas on Learning Strategies, click here.
How to form a habit: Charles Duhigg has studied habits extensively and his excellent book ‘The Power of Habit’ (Duhigg 2012) offers great insights into the nature of these routines and on how we can make use of them. Here are some of them:
The habit cycle: A habit consists of three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is what ‘presses the button’ for us to perform a particular behaviour; the routine is the behaviour itself; the reward is what we get out of this. This is usually a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure or release or excitement – depending on the nature of the routine. For instance, after my morning coffee, I sit down in front of my computer and solve 3-4 chess puzzles. The cue is the coffee; the routine is the puzzles and the reward is the little shots of dopamine I get every time I successfully solve one. (To watch a 2-min clip on this, click here).
Why is the cue important? The cue is what triggers our behaviour. It can be an event (the alarm going off) or a place we find ourselves in (the staffroom) or an action that we perform (eating). Each of these can trigger a habit – e.g. going for a 10 minute jog (after the alarm), or making a coffee (upon entering the staffoom) or brushing our teeth (after eating). The cue is very important if we want to establish a constructive habit because ideally we want to engage in this behaviour without thinking (on the importance of action triggers see Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 209). The presence of the cue helps make things automatic.
Why is the reward important? Well, it is true of course that ‘virtue is its own reward’ – going for a run triggers the release of endorphins and brushing your teeth leaves your mouth feeling fresh. However, in the initial stages of habit formation we need to give ourselves an additional incentive – just as some parents do when teaching their kids dental hygiene. It is a good thing if that reward is something concrete. For instance, I always found it hard to transfer notes from the books I read to Excel sheets on my computer. Now I have decided to make at least 10 entries every morning. And then I reward myself with a quick game of online chess. It works like a charm.
Do we really need rewards? Some people feel that once they have performed the routine, they do not need the reward; this is a mistake. It is true the reward will not help them on that day, but it will link the routine with a pleasurable feeling; this will make it more likely they will stick to their habit on days when their motivation might flag. Others might feel that the risk here is that we might detract from the intrinsic pleasure of the routine if we come to expect a reward at the end. This is a valid concern generally, but it does not apply here; the reward is not for the action we perform – we reward ourselves for sticking to a habit we want to form! (For an amazing 3-minute story about the power of rewarding ourselves, click here).
What about the routine? This is a crucial point: in establishing a habit it is vital that we start small. As small as possible. Many people go wrong here; in their desire to see quick progress they set themselves impossible tasks. It is very hard to go from doing no exercise at all to jogging 20 min a day; it is much easier to tell yourself that you are going to go down the stairs rather than use the lift, or walk to the next bus stop rather than to the one closest to where you live. What matters initially is that we stick to the habit; once we have done so we can then go on to do more and more. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).
How should I plan my habit? Research shows that you are much more likely to stick to your habit if you plan meticulously in advance. You need to be clear about details. For instance, let us say you decide to go jogging every morning. You need to decide in advance: i) What clothes are you going to wear? (T-shirt, short, sneakers) ii) Where are you going to jog? (round the block) iii ) How long are you going to jog for? (5 min). These ‘implementation intentions’ are crucial (see also Halpern 2016 – p. 144); i) they send a message to yourself that you mean business and ii) they make it far easier to execute your plan when the time comes. (To watch a 40-second clip on this, click here).
Does it matter if I miss a day?: In establishing a habit, consistency is key. Missing your routine for a day does not matter so much; missing two days in a row however can be serious. Missing it for three days can be disastrous. Research shows that the chances of sticking to your habit go down by 5% in the first case, but then the figure jumps to 55% in the case of two days and more than 90% if you fail to follow your programme three days running. (To watch a 30-second clip on this, click here).
How can I reduce the risk of giving up? An excellent way of making sure we stick to our habit is to make contingency plans. What happens if for whatever reason I cannot go jogging for 5 minutes because it is pouring with rain outside? No problems: we can have a Plan B that we can fall back on. In this case, we could say that instead of jogging, we could use the skipping-rope for 3 minutes, or, if we cannot do that, perhaps do 3 sets of sit-ups and 3 sets of push-ups. It does not matter if the amount of exercise we get is the same; what matters is that we are sending a signal to ourselves that we are serious about our commitment. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).
How long does it take to consolidate a habit? According to some research, it takes about 66 days. This may sound a lot, but remember that this initial small investment of consistent effort (as the routine is small initially) should pay huge dividends over the following months and even years. With habits one should think long-term. Once we are pretty confident that the habit has been established, we can then increase the routine – e.g. from 5 minutes of jogging to 10 minutes plus some push-ups. The possibilities are endless. (To watch an 1-min clip on this, click here).
[OK – now you have read all this, you may want to watch this short video (from which most of the others were taken). It offers a nice summary of all the above].
Last Words – Why habits? There are two reasons why I believe the creation of learning habits is very promising: i) once a habit is formed, it requires almost no will-power to keep it up. You simply do things on auto-pilot. This means that for a relatively small initial investment of effort, the yields over large periods of time can be huge; ii) the habit changes your self-perception. You start thinking of yourself differently – you give yourself a new identity (‘I am an exerciser’ / ‘I am a serious learner of English’ / ‘I am a dieter’). The big idea is that this changed self-image can then trigger additional changes leading to a virtuous circle. Here is a 60-second clip in which Brian Wansik with a fantastic example. Enjoy. 🙂
* To go to a site with logic and lateral thinking puzzles, click here.
Helping people change: How do we get people to change? How do we get our students to change? Getting students to become self-directed learners can be quite a challenge. It is one thing to do things at the gym with the instructor telling you what to do and how; it is quite another to motivate yourself to pick up that skipping rope at home. What is to be done? Watch this fantastic 90-sec clip with the brilliant Dan Heath.
So there you have it. The way to get people to change, is to make it easy for them to take the steps they need to in the desired direction. We need to ‘shrink the change’. What follows is a list of 5 simple things our students can do on their own to improve their English.
[NB: The key of course is to get students to adopt these strategies and turn them into habits. I will be looking at how we can do this in the next post].
Speaking [Vocaroo]: How does one get better at speaking? Well, one way is to use the L2 to speak to as many people as possible. But what if you do not happen to have any such ‘sparring partners’ or it is 2:00 am? The solution: Vocaroo! The student simply makes some brief notes on what s/he would like to talk about (their last holiday / their friend Mary / GM foods – anything) and then they make a monologue (perhaps for 1 – 2 min depending on your level) and record themselves. NB: If they get stuck, they can switch to the L1, say what they want to say and then continue in the L2. Then they can go back, listen to themselves and look up the words/expressions they did not know. And then they do it a second time. [For a simple tutorial on how to use Vocaroo, click here].
Key idea – Self-observation: One of the reasons we often fail to make progress is that we do not know how well we are doing or where we need to improve (this is also true of teachers – see Willingham 2009 – p. 193). Talking to others in the L2 is a very good idea, but how do we get better? People think they can talk and monitor their oral performance at the same time, but this is in fact impossible. We need a way to break this up into two stages. Recording ourselves allows us to speak freely and listen to ourselves afterwards. The great thing about Vocaroo (as opposed to our mobile phone) is that the student can click on ‘Click here to save’ and save the link of the recording. They can then keep a record of their progress in speaking and/or share some of these monologues with others (teachers or friends) who can give them feedback.
Listening [ELLLO]: If students want to improve their listening skills on their own, ELLLO may well be the best site around. Here is a typical example (click here). As you can see, the listening task is based around a short dialogue (2:24). Students have a few M/C Qs to focus their attention (and they get instant feedback), and they have the script to fall back on if they experience difficulties. There is also a vocabulary challenge on the right, focusing on lexical items which appear (in context!) in the dialogue. So students can read the Qs, do the listening task and make a note of the words/expressions they would like to keep. Perfect. [For a simple tutorial on how to use ELLLO, click here].
Key idea – Goal Setting: To become independent learners, students have to learn to set themselves goals (see also Fine 2005 – p. 173). Watching DVDs with the subtitles on or off is fine, but where does one stop? And how does one focus on the language? ELLLO is perfect in this respect, because the clips are short and students have options: they can choose the right level for them, they can choose the topic and even decide to focus on particular accents or choose video instead of audio. What is important is that they set themselves a goal and then put a tick next to it once they have done the activity.
Vocabulary [Quizlet]: Quizlet is simply fantastic! It is a simple tool which works on the principle of the old card system: you write an English word on the one side and a translation on the other (e.g. cast / ρίχνω) and test yourself regularly. In fact, it is best to use these virtual cards to record collocations (e.g. cast / a vote – here is a sample set). All you need to do is prepare the cards (which takes very little time) and then study whenever you want – wherever you are! Quizlet can prepare tests automatically and it also has matching games that can make the whole learning experience lots of fun. Another great thing about Quizlet is that once you have prepared a card set, you can share it, simply by sending your friends / students a link. Amazing! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Quizlet, click here; / for a detailed look of how you can use Quizlet in class, click here].
Key idea – Perceived Progress: There is one problem with skills work: it is hard to notice the progress one is making. This is why Quizlet is so great; once students have worked through a set of cards (and taken a test) they can be sure they know these lexical items. And they know this is so, because if they go back to previous sets (assuming they revise from time to time) they can see that you still remember things. It is true, Quizlet on its own is not enough as language learning is not a process of accretion. That said, the sense of constantly increasing their vocabulary can give students the psychological boost that they need in order to persevere with the other strategies (see also Ferrier 2014 – p. 122 on ‘gamification’).
Reading [Cueprompter]: One of the great problems with reading is low reading speed. A simple tool like Cueprompter can be of great help here. Here is what you do: i) you find a text (and Qs) online; ii) you read the Qs; iii) you copy the text and paste it in the empty box in the middle (see picture); iv) you add about 10-12 blank lines before the text (you will see why later); v) from the settings (under the box) you choose ‘wide’ promter width and a ‘small’ font. Then you click ‘Start Prompter’. You use the space bar to start and stop the text and the arrow keys to control the speed. You have to read the text fast, otherwise it will disappear! When you are done reading, you try the questions. How many can you answer? [For a simple tutorial on how to use Cueprompter, click here].
Key idea – Challenge: Studying on your own can be difficult, partly because there is nobody there to put pressure on you to try harder. The great thing about Cueprompter is that it forces you to do just that; it is like a treadmill – you set the speed yourself, but then you have to follow the belt, otherwise you will fall off! Cueprompter has a set of speeds you can choose from at the top, but a good rule of thumb is this: if you can read a text and answer most of the questions at its default speed then you are pretty good. 🙂 [NB: There is a risk that you may manage to read the text but not understand anything; that is why you should try the questions afterwards].
Writing [Penzu]: Penzu is the simplest tool out there. It is just an online diary. But unlike an ordinary diary, you cannot lose it, it is always there and you can share entries with others. In my view Penzu is ideal for goal-setting and more importantly reflection (see also Peachey: Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers – p. 4). The student simply takes a few minutes each day to make quick notes on what they did, how it went, what problems or difficulties they encountered and what they should do next (at lower levels they can do that in a mixture of L2 and L1 – click here). Quite apart from the advantages this has, it helps send a message to the student him/herself: ‘I am a self-directed learner who is in charge of their own progress’. [For a simple tutorial on how to use Penzu, click here].
Key idea – Reflection: Would it not be easier to ‘reflect orally’ using Vocaroo? Yes, but it would not be the same. There is something magical about writing. With speaking, we can ‘fumble’ and think we know / have understood something; but if we can put it in writing, then we do know it (see Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 210). Writing helps consolidate what one has learned. It involves both retrieval (which helps strengthen new knowledge) and ‘elaboration’ (personalizing the new knowledge). What is more, writing down what one intends to do the following day / week etc. makes the commitment far stronger.
The key to success : As I see it, the key to success when studying alone is habit-formation (see Duhigg 2012 – and see the next blog post!). Students need to learn to set themselves a number of small, immediately achievable goals. They have to be small so the learner gets a feeling of satisfaction from ticking them off. Once this becomes regular, the whole thing goes on auto-pilot so students do not need to expand ‘will-power’ in trying to get themselves to study – in the same way that we do not have to force ourselves to brush our teeth; we just do it automatically (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). Once a habit is formed, then we start seeing ourselves in a different light (‘Ah! I am an active learner!’) and that is a turning point. But enough for now… I would not want to spoil the next article for you… 🙂
Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower. London: Allen Lane
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard
Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books
Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
Fine, C. (2005) A Mind of its Own. Cambridge: Icon Books
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2011) Switch. London: Random House
Peachey, Nik Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers
Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass