How to Help Your Student Form Good Study Habits

Perhaps your student is asking you how to study in college, or perhaps you’re hunting how-to-study advice to give them. You might be on a Google search, eyeing shelves at a bookstore, or attempting to pull a thread of wisdom from memory – you know, that advice someone somewhere once told you about study habits.

If your advice search is anything like most parents, you’ve already encountered the habit lists. Books, magazines, and blogs exhorting the virtues and use of “good study habits,” “successful study habits,” “habits of high achievers.” The lists are pragmatic, logical, some read like cake recipes: Add 1 teaspoon of priority setting, 2½ cups campus resources, a pinch of networking, and mix thoroughly with highlighters and flash cards.

No doubt the information is practical. Yet the problem is – and you might have felt this already – something is missing. To put a light on it, what’s missing from most of these habit lists (ironically enough) are the habits.

The how-to-study lists confuse tasks with habits and there is a notable difference. Tasks are to-dos. Habits are natural behaviors, actions done nearly by default. A task, for example, is scheduling a dentist appointment. A habit is the way you subconsciously know to turn the car key and look over your shoulder as you back out of the driveway to go there.

Academically, this means that if your college student has developed a “successful study habit” it will be something they will do naturally. It will be a part of them – no constant reminders, no phone calls, no to-do lists. 

As an example, if your student is a proactive learner she’ll naturally show up to class early, assignments will be done ahead of schedule, and added research will be done beyond assignment guidelines. Similarly, if your son has developed a habit of collaboration, he’ll naturally seek out peers for advice, join study groups, and make appointments with professors for help. This is why developing good study habits is so critical, because by their very nature they point toward success. 

Admittedly, this may all strike some as overly optimistic – a normal response. A skeptic may question how success could ever be automated. “What’s the catch” they might ask?

And of course there is a catch: a student must want it. Or in other words they must see an inherent value to developing a habit. This means there must be a personal reward attached to good study habits. 

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writes that a habit is made up of three things: a cue, the action or thing which acts as a habit’s trigger; the routine, that represents the actions to perform a habit; and lastly, the reward, the thing which reinforces a behavior.

In his website, Duhigg describes the reward as the most important part of a habit because it acts as the carrot to keep a habit in motion. For college students, finding a personal reward in good study habits is critical for their development. The reward could be pride completing a task, enjoying a creative process, social camaraderie in collaboration, or confronting and overcoming a challenge. Rewards can be almost anything as long as it’s personal.

As a parent, encouraging your student to treasure these positives, the personal rewards in good study habits, is often more effective than constant reminders or commands to complete tasks linked with good study habits. For example, instead of asking a student to study longer in the library, a parent might ask what the most interesting aspect of a research project is, or reflect on a student’s past accomplishments doing a similar assignment.

Whether student or a parent, good habits require time to develop. Sometimes they may even start out as to do lists and gradually become habits through pursuit and repetition – rewards understood along the way. Be patient with your student as he or she develops their own study habits, point toward the positives, and encourage as needed.