Monday 14 July 2014

CPD and the difficulty of habit change

Given one of the goals of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is to bring about  beneficial changes in actions and behaviours and for those changes to be sustained by becoming habits, it seems sensible to consider what the research literature suggests about habit change and habit formation.   In doing so, I will be taking a cross-disciplinary approach and draw upon what has been written about habit formation and change within a health promotion context.

Neal et al (2012) state that habits are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.   The regular performance of the action creates a linkage between the situation (cue) and the action, so as the cue is encountered or experienced it triggers the action which is performed automatically, for example, automatically taking the register as students enter a classroom, or when asking a question of a class, choosing the first-student who puts up their hand.

Lally et al (2010) worked with 96 undergraduates and asked them to adopt a new health-related lifestyle behaviour.   Of the 82 participants who completed the study, the average time it to took for a behaviour to become automatic was 66 days, although this varied by participant  from 18 days to 254 days.  This period of time is much longer than the 20 to 30 days which is often talked about as the time required to bring about the formation of a new habit.

So what if an individual lecturer or teacher wishes to bring about a new behaviour?  Gardner, Lally and Wardle (2012) provide a useful checklist developed for health promotion and which I have amended for use in an educational context.  
  • Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve in your teaching, for example, improved questioning skills
  • Choose a simple action that will contribute towards your goal and which you can do on a daily basis within a lesson, tutorial or other context e.g questioning and wait-time
  • Plan which lesson or lessons where you will undertake the chosen action.  Try and be consistent and look to find some action which you can repeat daily.
  • Every lesson or session you encounter that time or place, perform the action you have chosen.
  • Continue the action for at least 66 days, by which time the action should have become automatic.
So what are the implications for the organisers and participants of CPD activities and programmes.
  1. Changes in actions and behaviour take time and 'victory' should not be declared too early and will take at least a term.
  2. To get new habits requires the opportunity to repeat the desired behaviour on a regular, if not daily basis.
  3. School and college leaders need to be conscious of situational and contextual cues and work to create an environment where those cues promote positive habits and reduce the numbers of cues and contexts which facilitate less productive habits and behaviours. 
Gardner, B., Lally, P. and Wardle, J. (2012) Making health habitual : the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice,  British Journal of General Practice. 62 (605) pp 664-666
Lally, P. Van Iaarsveld, C. Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010) How are habits formed ; Modelling habit formation in the real world European Journal of Social Psychology 40, 998 - 1009
Neal, D., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. and Lally,P. (2012)  How do habits guide behaviours  ; Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48 : 492 - 498


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