How to Improve Study Habits Through Conditioning

The value of conditioning was already developed in the early 1900s to improve study habits of students. So what are the key steps to reshape one’s study behavior?

  1. Define a motivating reward
  2. Specify a detailed goal
  3. Create a reward schedule
  4. Follow the schedule
  5. Lower the reward frequency upon achieving the goal

Let’s take a closer look at how you as a teacher or student can use these findings to improve study habits with this so-called operant conditioning:

1. Define a motivating reward

This is the first crucial step when trying to improve study behavior through conditioning. The reward must be something the student considers valuable so it is important to tailor the reward to the student’s desires. If you are trying to improve your own study habits make sure you are aware of yourself and what buttons need to be pushed to motivate yourself. Promising yourself a nice dinner when you are going out every weekend anyway might not work as well as getting that new phone you always wanted. Psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted extensive studies and showed that scheduled rewards were more effective to create and enforce a specific behavior. Additionally, he found out that positive rewards worked much better than punishments.

2. Specify a detailed goal

Equally important as defining a reward is an exact definition of what behavior is expected from the student. It is crucial to not only specify the desired outcome but also the steps to get there. According to Skinner’s study recurring smaller rewards work better than a huge one at the end of the learning process. Getting back to the new Smartphone as a reward you could e.g. set up a piggy bank and put a fraction of the money you need to buy it inside each time you accomplish a step towards your final goal of passing a certain exam.

3. Create a reward schedule

There are 2 different types of schedules you can apply to reward yourself or your students:

a) Continuous reinforcement

With this type of schedule simply every completed step towards the desired outcome is rewarded. To stick to the example this could be as simple as putting 5$ into the piggybank after each completed learning unit. This type of schedule works well with productivity tools like the Pomodoro. For more details on how to supercharge your study day take a look at my article here.

b) Partial/intermittent reinforcement

Partial reinforcement can be split into 3 different groups:

1.Fixed ratio (After X steps completed a reward will be given to the student)

2.Variable ratio (The reward will also be given after a specific amount of completed steps but the number varies)

3.Fixed interval (After a previously specified amount of time the progress towards the goal will be measured and if the results meet a previously defined indicator the reward will be given)

4. Follow the schedule

Once a student expects a reward for a specific amount of actions make sure he or she really gets it. According to the research, conditioning fails as soon as the schedule is altered before the student has consistently adapted his or her behavior.

5. Lower the reward frequency upon achieving the goal

After you (or the student) show the desired behavioral change the frequency of rewards can be reduced (depending on the rewards this could get pricey over time). Do not completely omit reinforcements though, you should always reward yourself or your students with something to keep the motivation high. That’s why I put the reward into the commonly known goal definition S.M.A.R.T and changed it to S.M.A.R.T.E.R. If you are mot familiar with this goal-setting technique here is a quick reminder: Goals should always be

  • S – Specific (Who, What, Where, When, Why)
  • M – Measured (How do I know when I am done)
  • A – Achievable (Do I have all the Resources and Abilities)
  • R – Realistic (Is it possible to achieve the goal with the given parameters)
  • T – Time-bound (Does my goal have a deadline)

This was the classical definition – set SMART goals, after doing this for a long time I found that it is much more efficient to add 2 more characteristics and set SMARTER goals:

  • E – Emotional (Can I link the goal to an emotional response)
  • R – Rewarded (what will be the reward once I have achieved it)

Positive versus negative consequences

Conditioning can be achieved by either rewards or punishment. Both of these approaches can be divided into positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement – Receiving a reward for increasing/strengthen a specific behavior

Example: Every time you finish a chapter of the book you need to read you receive 1$ for your piggy bank.

Negative reinforcement – You will keep your desk clean and tidy during your studies to avoid losing time and finishing late hence having less free time.

Example: Every time you finish a chapter of the book you need to read you receive 1$ for your piggy bank.

Positive punishment – Decreasing a specific behavior to avoid negative consequences

Example: The teacher shouts at you because your phone rings during class. You learn to switch off the phone or leave it at home.

Negative punishment – Decreasing a specific behavior to avoid positive things or object being taken away.

Example: Every time you do not finish a chapter of the book you need to read 1$ is taken out of your piggy bank.

B.R. Skinner found that the best working method to support operate conditioning is achieved through positive reinforcements. In light of these findings keep an eye not only on your studies but also on your daily life and how often we use negative reinforcements or punishment to change our or other’s behavior.

Benefits of using conditioning to improve study habits

  • Students get used to a scheduled learning process
  • Especially time-based rewarding forces students to take regular breaks which further improves the learning process
  • Students develop a consistent behavioral pattern – a habit of learning
  • Learning is associated with the positive experience of receiving a reward which lowers the resistance to get started
  • The time-based approach with performance measuring pushes students to focus on the important facts to pass the check and receive their rewards

Practical examples for you can use for operant conditioning

  • Putting a certain amount of money in a piggy bank after each successful study unit which after reaching the goal enables you to buy something you always desired
  • Switching off all your “social” devices, after successfully completing a study unit you are allowed to check your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed. Though this one has the benefit of removing distractions it could be seen as a punishment because you are denied access during learning periods.
  • For each completed study unit you can put 1 cookie in a jar which after completing your learning you can then enjoy during your favorite TV series.

Related Questions

How can classical conditioning be used in the classroom? An example of classical conditioning in classrooms would be if a teacher constantly uses a positive tone and creates an atmosphere of enjoyment in learning. This pleasure will then be associated with the class or teacher and students are more likely to attend. To reinforce learning and create a change in student’s behavior operant learning like described above is more common and effective in classrooms.

What are the two types of conditioning? According to the psychologists B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson, the 2 types of conditioning are classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is a process where a stimulus triggers a response (best know through Pavlov’s dog experiments). Operant conditioning is defined as a process where a desirable response is reinforced by rewards or punishments.

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