Faculty Essays

Developing Academic Habits: A Guide for Parents

Written by Andrew Reed on July 2, 2015.

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.


Academic habits can be thought of as mental attitudes and behavioral practices that facilitate a student’s learning and make both learning and development possible during years of schooling.  These habits are at the core of how a student learns and are the methods through which he assimilates any course material.  All types of habits are particularly influential in one’s life because with time they become natural to an individual, that is, they are often followed without a mental decision to do so.  The older the individual, generally the more effort it takes to acquire new habits or change established habits.  Consequently, it is uniquely important for students to acquire good habits and necessary self-discipline as they grow into adulthood.  In this essay, we will first concentrate on academic habits, in particular those habits that will help the student become a better learner.  Although, some academic habits transcend the classroom, and even the school, since learning is more of an attitude towards life than an activity.

Daily habits include the daily, consistent routines that a student has deemed to be effective and put into practice.  At first, actions are carried out from a sense of duty but the longer they are continued, the easier they become. Once the habit has been developed, the activity requires very little effort and has a tendency to become second nature, though still requiring a choice of the will.  Properly understood, all habits must also be recognized as freely chosen, repeatedly, by the student. The task of a teacher or a parent is to help students understand how their daily habits could be made more effective and also encourage them to develop habits through practice.  The purpose of this essay is to highlight the significance of self discipline and habits needed for success both inside and outside the classroom and at every stage of a student’s life. Examining both the philosophical and practical necessity of daily habits will help us better understand the routines that can have the greatest impact on our students’ development and achievements.  The habits a student can develop are one of the most lasting gifts he can receive from his school, parents, and self.

Academic Habits:

  • A Practical View of Habits
  • Some Points for Consideration
  • Examples of Successful Academic Habits
  • Habits and Virtue

Habits outside the classroom:

  • Various Medias: Television, Video Games, and Internet Use.
  • Athletics: An Example of Habits and Success
  • The Habit of Prayer and an Examined Life
  • Habits: Freedom, Judgment, and Self Discipline

A Practical View of Habits

As a student is developing his understanding of any subject material, he should not only strive to understand the factual content but should also be developing ways to learn more effectively. The role of a parent or a teacher is that of a guide as the student develops learning habits and academic skills. Long after a student begins to lose his complete memorization of the factual content of a course, he will likely still retain the lasting habits that helped him learn and will no doubt utilize these habits in more advanced subject matter later in life. In this way, the academic habits that a student develops, including a love for learning, will ultimately have the most enduring impact on his academic life because repeated practice of his learning habits will guarantee retention of the habit.

Examining routines for learning at home and in the classroom are central to understanding how a student learns. The mechanisms by which a student develops or possesses the ability to assimilate the course material are at the heart of the most effective academic habits. Does a student learn best through listening or reading? Are facts understood best by outlining the readings or taking spoken or written notes? Is the creation of flashcards a useful and efficient habit for vocabulary?   Is attempting practice questions in math class more useful than creating a step-wise, structured approach to problem solving? These are only a handful of habit related questions a student should be asking himself during his time at The Heights.  The fact is, the most committed and resourceful students will try as many means for learning as possible and shape their academic habits around the most effective and self-proven routines for learning. Parents and teachers can play an enormous role in helping students attempt new techniques for learning and thus introduce the possibility for new habits. In essence, the goal of helping a student answer the question of how he best learns is at the heart of understanding effective academic habits.

Some Points for Consideration:

  1. Academic Habits can be thought of as effective routines for learning and they ultimately lead to academic skills and abilities. At most levels, the habits a student develops can be as important as the knowledge the student retains.
  2. The true utility of habits: they are used repeatedly and can be improved as the student grows. Eventually, a student’s academic habits will be applicable to his professional work.
  3. Freedom and the nature of habits: only the individual can develop his habits.  Parents and teachers can help nurture good habits, but they cannot force the development of good habits.
  4. Parents can encourage and nurture their son’s habits in a number of ways.
    1. Creating routines at home for the development of academic habits
    2. Speaking with your son about the importance of his habits
    3. Recognizing weaknesses and reinforcing effective academic habits
    4. Remembering the true goal is having your son become personally invested in his own work.
    5. Speaking with teachers and mentors about your son in order to gain perspective and new ideas.
  5. Telling your son about the importance of his habits is not as effective as showing your son the usefulness of a habit.
  6. The definition of success is when a student takes ownership of a useful habit and makes it his own. 

Examples of Successful Academic Habits:

  • Having a distraction free, well-lit desk for study with a clock nearby.
  • Recognition of the following as distractions: Television, Music, Telephone, Computer (internet and Instant Messenger)
  • A specific block of time designated for homework, e.g. 4:30-6:30pm
  • Finishing homework before dinner and before the student is tired at the end of the day whenever possible.
  • Additional reading outside of just required homework
  • Keeping an assignment notebook with timing expectations of how long each homework task should take in order to do the task well.
  • Creating flashcards for memorization
  • Outlining all essays before writing them.
  • Proofreading homework and summarizing well.
  • Employing the help of parents to proofread essays.
  • Making lists of all upcoming assignments and tests due for the week.
  • Working ahead when possible to avoid procrastination.
  • Keeping notes and notebooks organized and easy to locate.
  • Actively paying attention in class and taking notes well.
  • Asking teachers questions and meeting with them outside of class.
  • Finishing a task once it is started.

Habits and Virtue

From a classical and philosophical perspective, the existence and development of virtue in the heart of a man relies upon properly ordered habits.  For example, in Book II of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains the requirements of virtue and the methods by which we develop virtue, mainly through the process of habituation, and especially through the development of an individual’s powers of discernment.  Aristotle explains that the acquisition of virtues is brought about through the development of well ordered habits. As Aristotle sees it, the virtuous person is one who finds satisfaction in repeatedly doing those things that are in harmony with his own good and also the good of others.

Like an athlete who practices his sport with self-discipline, a student’s academic habits are linked to the development of personal virtue in a similar way.   Exercising his will in the classroom as well as when studying at home provides a student with an opportunity to master himself.  An opportunity to struggle through a challenging subject offers a student the chance to strengthen a weakness and learn something he does not know. Often this struggle with the will begins with a struggle away from distractions and towards concentrating on the matter to be learned. Concentrating on one’s work is not natural for many students, but it often is the first step towards becoming a serious student.  When self-discipline is developed in one part of a student’s life, it often spills over into other areas of his life as well.  In essence, the development of academic virtue does not occur in an isolated way but rather should affect all the areas of a student’s life by affecting his outlook on reality.  For example, when a student realizes that if an academic task “is worth doing then it is worth doing right” he will then better understand how the same is true for all the non-academic challenges or initiatives he undertakes.

II.  Habits Outside the Classroom:

Students are constantly faced with decisions about habits outside the classroom and how to spend their time.  Given the rhythm of days and weeks, these decisions about how to spend their time often become so routine that boys never really think about them.  While each boy has his own set of habits that should be reviewed individually, we can begin by discussing two areas that occupy a great deal of time for most boys: Various Medias and Athletics.

Various Medias and Screen Time: Television, Video Games, and Internet Use.

Patterns for the brain are powerful routines because they create habits of comprehension.  The human brain adapts to comprehend what is presented to it.  Over time, a brain’s patterns of comprehension become trained to perceive more effectively the substance of any presentation.   Focusing on written word and processing written material or text at a relatively slow rate is much different for the mind than processing screen media that are rapidly changing, colorful, and requires less focus given the image rich content. The end result is that the human mind can develop preferences for screen media because it requires such little effort to absorb it compared to the focus required to read a book.   Eventually, students who view screen media too much on a regular basis can develop minds that are less capable of long term concentration on a text.  Students can have a hard time not only staying interested in books because of this tendency but also may require constantly changing vividly engineered images in order to concentrate in any situation, including a classroom.  Researchers are focusing efforts on better understanding how screen media, which is so rich with images, requires no need for an imagination.  Many believe that these consistent images can affect a child’s imagination because they do not develop a self generated imagination.  Less imagination is required for entertainment as the amount of screen time increases.

Observing screen media is by nature a physically passive activity and therefore, boys do not have any natural limitations to this type of recreation.  For example, boys have a natural limitation to sports or playing outside because they will eventually get tired or even thirsty or hungry and need to at least take a break form the activity.  Boys can watch television, play video games, or surf the internet for hours at a time and not require a change of pace or activity.

Statistics: In the United States:

  • Nearly two-thirds of children ages 8-18 have a television in their bedroom.
  • 94% of adolescent boys play video games for an average of 13 hours per week.

We must recognize that screen time involves habits and students will often be drawn to make screen time a part of their daily habits whether or not this is a conscious decision.  What can often result is an excess of unproductive and unimaginative time in a student’s life.  Many parents have found that limiting or eliminating their son’s screen time during an academic week or prior to completing the day’s school work has helped their son avoid distractions and focus on his goals.

Athletics: An Example of Habits Leading to Success:

To succeed as an athlete, one must have a sense of habits.  Athletics are an excellent metaphor for the development of academic habits because to succeed at improving one’s abilities in a sport one must take the many smaller, often repetitive practice steps that can be thought of as habits.  Earnest practice and repetition allows every athlete to improve his game.  The self -discipline required for an athlete to improve his abilities slowly is something to which every student-athlete can relate.  The same type of consistent everyday approach to doing one’s academic work well is needed for academic habits to develop.  An athlete’s attention to the details of a game and desire to win can easily translate into the classroom as long as he sees academic pursuits as equally deserving of his effort.  The self-made athlete understands that we typically gravitate towards activities that we are potentially talented in.  Following this decision, one’s habits and the many small repetitive steps eventually turn natural, undeveloped talent or potential into improved ability.  The same is true for academic pursuits and academic habits.

The Habit of Prayer and Living an Examined Life

When does your son pray?  This is an important question for us to ask ourselves as parents because other than our own child, we are the individuals chiefly responsible for our children’s spiritual growth.  Without ever forcing prayer on our children, it is extremely helpful if there is regular time in the day or some type of a self-initiated routine that provides the structure in which a young person can pray, reflect, or examine his conscience regularly.  Some young people pray on their own before they go to sleep at night or when they wake up in the morning and others pray as part of a family prayer time.  Prayer and receiving the Sacraments regularly are habits that are an essential part of a young person’s total formation and these will most certainly hold a central, vital role in the growth and daily perspective on life that develops over time.  Creating time for prayer and the sacraments requires self-discipline.  Living day to day by simply responding to one’s environment and not taking the time to reflect requires little self discipline and will be the path of most because it requires the least self discipline.  Parents should find ways to infuse this discipline in their sons without forcing it upon them.  Prayer as a habit is one of the greatest gifts a boy can receive from his parents.  How do you as a parent encourage the self-discipline and time needed for daily prayer while avoiding ever forcing prayer?  The best answer to this would be to create circumstances in your family life when prayer can take place.   Examples might include staying after Mass as a family for a bit more time with God, saying grace before meals perhaps with intentions, and family prayers (e.g. bedtime) with children especially when they are young. Finding routines or habits as a family is especially helpful for young people so that they develop their own habits for prayer eventually.

Habits: Freedom,  Judgment, and Self Discipline

Opportunities for meeting one’s own high expectations and gaining self-discipline emerge in a student’s life as he grows up and is granted more freedom and autonomy over his own habits.  This development takes place within the context of naturally growing responsibilities and the personal freedom that must gradually and eventually be given to each student as they become an adult.  As students grow up, they should be given opportunities to receive increasing amounts of freedom according to their own ability to regulate their habits. Students who receive this freedom are also given the opportunity for the development of good judgment, increased self-discipline, and bridling their own will.  As they grow, students ideally will undergo a process of developing better judgment about what choices and habits are good for them.  Knowing what habits to establish happens to be only the first part of success.  The next step for a student is to develop the self discipline and motivation to actively choose his own habits in a conscious manner.