New Research Frontier: Habit Formation for Learning and Performance

It’s here! Promising pioneering research that may forever change how we view student learning, measure their performance and provide assistance. Recent habit formation studies conducted by researchers at MIT, Duke, Rutgers and other researchers throughout the world have provided a deeper understanding for why students struggle in school. The LearnWell Projects has taken this research that is rooted in cognitive, neurological and neurochemical studies to an entirely new level. We have blended the findings with learning theories, such as metacognition and learning approaches, and with economics and human performance literature.  The result is a truly fresh approach to learning with several new strategies and performance metrics. Let me introduce you to this exciting research! Mounting evidence suggests that much of what we do throughout our daily routine can be described as habits.  These actions are automatically triggered without us being fully aware. Once they are triggered, they unfold to completion on their own accord. Habitual behaviors can be physical, cognitive or emotional. We don’t make our habits, they make us.

Habit is the most effective teacher of all things.    — Pliny

Author Charles Duhigg, recently published the bestseller The Power of Habit. His work addresses habits generally, while my work applies the literature upon which Mr. Duhigg’s book is based to school, and student learning and performance. Students use intellectual behaviors throughout their educational experience.  However, according to recent studies on habit formation, students may actually be unknowingly locked into a habitual pattern of shallow thinking that limits their success in challenging academic courses (i.e. courses that require a higher degree of cognitive complexity). Students who are unable to engage in higher-order, complex thinking experience problems across academic subjects and tasks; including reading comprehension, writing, mathematical understanding and exam performance. These problems can prevent academically weak students from passing basic courses; and they can cause capable, hard-working students to eventually hit a performance ceiling in which their academic skills cannot produce sufficient outcomes for their courses. In either case, students’ lack of performance sets in motion a sequence of events that far too often ends with them floundering near the bottom of the academic scale and ultimately discontinuing their academic pursuits.

The bulk of the habit formation studies were conducted by researchers at The Graybiel Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They offer new explanations and solutions for students’ academic struggles. The findings from these studies, applied to students, suggest that students may be trapped in a habitual pattern of shallow, lower-order thinking that is contextualized to school environments. MIT scientists researching regions of the brain that affect habit formation have recently discovered that motor and cognitive behaviors, which under normal circumstances would operate in an action-outcome system, may automatically transition to stimulus-response mode without students’ being aware (Graybiel, 2008). When this fundamental shift occurs, neurochemical reactions inhibit students from engaging in higher order thinking and actually traps them in a repetitive loop of low-order thinking.

In a phenomenon that researchers call reward devaluation, subjects “perform behaviors repeatedly, on cue, even if the value of the reward to be received is reduced so that it is no longer rewarding” (Graybiel, 2008, pg. 363). In academic contexts, this may explain why students apply the same thinking skills repeatedly, even when these skills produce poor grades. Through strategies such as revaluation, extinction, dismantling and reconstructing we can free students from ineffective habitual thinking while establishing valuable patterns of deep, complex thinking.

A Visual Overview of the Academic Habit Formation Process.

Habit Formation Handout

(click image to download PDF)


  • Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY, USA: Random House.
  • Graybiel, A. (1998). The Basal Ganglia and Chunking of Action Repertoires. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory , 119-136.
  • Graybiel, A. (2008). Habits, Ritual and the Evaluative Brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 31, 359-87.



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