Studying successfully: motivation + strategy + habit

At home we’re in the midst of another exam window. My son has an AS and several internal Y12 exams to prepare for. As I documented last year during his GCSEs, I feel that it’s generally a positive process for him. He works hard and learns a lot in the process. I think there are three elements to him getting to the point where he experiences the study process so positively. : Motivation, strategy and habit.


The ‘you can take a horse to water’ scenario is all too familiar. Even when we’ve laid it all out for our students, sometimes they’re just not prepared to make the sustained effort required to really learn things deeply, to practise frequently enough so that they gain the fluency they need. Their motivation to do what it takes is just not sufficient.

You can’t make it drink….

There will be a host of reasons for insufficient motivation including the value given to the outcomes: if it matters to them enough students are more likely to go the extra mile. However I want to suggest that success with the other two elements covered here also fuel or hinder motivation: strategy and habit. Put together, these elements lead to success and it is through engineering success through effort that students come to believe that the process of studying is worthwhile; that the time and effort pay off; that learning is within their control.

I see this with my son. Of course he knows he wants to go to university, he needs his grades. He has long term goals that provide a layer of motivation. But it’s more than that. During each study session at the kitchen table he is not thinking ‘grades, grades, uni, uni’ – he is motivated by his confidence that in a short cycle study process his effort will lead to learning.


The missing ingredient for many students is simply knowing how to study independently: how to go about the process of filling in their knowledge gaps; how to break down a difficult process into the steps they can take with a degree of success to build their confidence. I met a Year 10 student in Blackpool recently. He put this very well: “When I’m at home I feel I waste a lot of time wondering what I’m supposed to do“. In other words, despite setting aside the time to study and having the motivation to do well, he did not have a clear idea of how to go about it.

This is something I feel that my son has learned from his teachers over the years; knowing what to do when studying – including a raft of retrieval practice and self-assessment methods – has been part of his curriculum since Year 7: how to practise maths, how to practise and expand his writing in English, how to learn quotes for literature and the chronology of events in History; how to make useful meaningful notes from a set of information; how to rehearse making arguments in preparation for an essay. He didn’t make this up as he went along – he was taught.

This is where many students struggle. All the talk of resilience, growth mindset, not being afraid to fail and getting out of the learning pit are a gigantic waste of time, doomed to fail, unless the subject-specific, context-specific strategies for engineering success are within students’ reach. This is where metacognition and modelling are so important, with teachers constantly (almost literally constantly) narrating their thinking as they show how problems are solved, how writing is generated, how tasks are completed successfully. Through modelling and careful shifts from guided to independent practice, students get the hang of good learning strategies that they can then use themselves. Too often assumptions are made that students can do these things without seeing it being done. The horse may appear not to want to drink, because still, despite everything, it may still not be sure exactly what it is meant to do with the water.


Finally, the real reason day-to-day that my son gets on with his revision is that he isn’t even thinking about whether to do it or not. He’s not setting up a big ‘drink or not drink’ decision every time he sees water. It’s entirely habitual for him to study for extended hours whenever the need arises; nobody has to ask him. He does it because he always has – and through doing so he has reaped rewards that in turn fuel his self-motivation.

How were those habits formed? Well, for sure it wasn’t during a desperate intervention in Year 11. It was way back at primary school when he started getting homework on a regular basis. It was in Year 7 when his teachers gave him interesting ‘finding out’ homework tasks amongst the practice questions. It was in Year 9 when the expectations for writing increased and everything took a little longer. It was the frequent regular assessments with low (but not too low ) stakes throughout every year. It was in Y10 when he needed to commit 30 hours of his own time to his media studies coursework. It was in Y12 when on his first day of Sixth Form, he got 50 algebra questions to practise over the weekend..

Studying is a habit. Habit needs routines, rhythms and feedback loops that tell you if they’re good or bad habits. My son has had all of that. But not everyone has. High expectations for independent study need to be built in and scaffolded at the earliest opportunity – making it rewarding primarily by ensuring that study builds success and confidence.

Putting it all together you get a positive spiral of successful strategies feeding into good habits that then fuel motivation through increased levels of fulfilment from meeting goals as a result of applying effort successfully. The trick is to find where individual students need to change if they’re not succeeding. Start with strategies and then build them into habits – the motivation will come. And for sure, the earlier you start the better. If your Y7s are not building those habits, it’s harder in Y8, harder still in Y9. As Y11s move through to completion, look to your KS3, not your intervention dance machine to see where the road to study success can begin.


  1. Yes, I completely agree with all of this – very sound and helpful thinking -thank you.
    At the same time I feel that we need to consider how this pans out in home where parents struggle to assist with providing even a reasonably quiet or secluded place in which to study due to poor and temporary housing let alone having the capacity to manage or afford all the other conditions that inevitably contribute to a student’s ability to concentrate – a healthy diet might be one example.
    Can I ask whether you think we should be doing more to replicate such conditions in school – a quiet prep hour or two for example in state schools to try to ensure some kind of parity with the independent sector where ideal conditions are often a ‘given’?
    Many thanks if you have time to respond.


  2. Thanks for a good summary of ‘how to revise and be successful’. Your son is lucky; he’s had good teachers who have taught him how to revise. And that’s the key point; it’s all about the teaching. All teachers should be demonstrating on a regular basis, in lessons, how to go about learning their particular subject. For that, teachers must know about the science of learning, such as the value of ‘desirable difficulties’, and applying evidence informed methods in class. CPD!
    The exam is not the place to find out that a subject is too difficult. Yes, some subjects are hard, but this must be addressed in lessons, by being honest about it with pupils and then teaching them how to revise in such a way that they capitalise on what they can do well, building up a core body of secure knowledge. The don’t have to understand and get all of it right to get a good grade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, thanks Roger. I teach maths so can see where you’re coming from. I certainly would not go anywhere near using an approach that’s only about drilling for an exam. The notion of building on your strengths is for all abilities. So, even the ablest should use that kind of exam technique. However, teaching appropriate exam technique, whilst essential, is only part of teaching, probably a relatively small part. The rest is about sharing with the pupils the beauty of the subject, explaining the bigger picture and exploring. It must be tailored to ability level, whilst not restricting them. A good teacher will take their pupils out of their comfort zone, but not too far – avoiding complete failure, which is just demoralising.
      We must also remember that competence breeds motivation, so it’s important to get the level right and to ensure competence. One of my set 5 pupils once said: “maths is fun when I get it right”.


  3. […] My most recent personal experience of this has been trying to become a confident, comfortable 5km park-runner.  It’s been a struggle. I’ve had some set-backs after some early wins.  I’ve got some broad life-goals around being fit and healthy into old age; I’ve got some short-term goals around race times and finishing feeling a little less like Death each time –   but I’ve given up a few times and have needed to examine my failures.  The answers to all my problems, to engineering success,  are entirely located in running-related strategies. I need to do more shorter runs; eat better; drink more before a run, use smaller steps up the hills; do better recovery breathing after the hills.  But mainly I just need a better regime for practice- I leave it too long between runs and don’t lock in the improvement.  I need to work harder at the things I already know I should be doing.  I need better habits. ( Studying successfully: motivation + strategy + habit). […]


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