The Challenge of Change: Why Changing Study Habits is Difficult

15/04/2024 by Louise David

Imagine sitting in the library, surrounded by textbooks, research articles, and lecture notes, trying to cram the mountain of information before your next exam. No matter how hard you study, it feels like you’re running in circles, stuck in the same old habits asking yourself, why you did not start to study earlier even though you intended to. Sounds familiar? You are not alone. In our latest research, we explored university students’ study habits to uncover the mysteries behind their habits such as the struggle of balancing short-term success with long-term goals and the challenge of breaking free from old habits.


How do university students experience their study habits, how do they form new effective study habits, and how do they (try) to break ineffective ones?


At university, students need to take charge of their own learning, by planning, monitoring, and executing their learning autonomously. This ability, also known as self-regulated learning (SRL), is crucial for success in academia and beyond (Dresel et al., 2015; Zimmerman, 1986). However, despite its importance, many students struggle to use effective learning strategies, such as practice testing, and instead rely on less effective strategies such as re-reading (e.g., Rea et al., 2022).

While learning strategy trainings such as Study Smart are successful in increasing students’ knowledge about effective learning strategies and their initial use of these strategies, students often have trouble putting their knowledge into practice sustainably (Biwer et al., 2020). Students are often stuck in old habits of using ineffective learning strategies, even when they know better (Rea et al., 2022). But what exactly are these habits, and why is it so difficult to change old habits?

In a recently published research study, we set out to explore university students’ study habits, how they formed these habits, and how they tried to break ineffective ones. We invited 29 university students to focus group discussions in which we asked them to reflect on their usual study methods and reasons for using particular strategies, their typical study routines, and their experiences with both forming and breaking habits.

We found that students’ study goals played an important role in shaping their study habits. Students aiming for short-term success (e.g., passing the exam) tended to cram before exams, while those with long-term goals (e.g., becoming a good doctor) prioritized continuous learning. In that process, students were strategic in their study approach. Thanks to Study Smart, students were generally aware of effective and ineffective learning strategies. However, they were balancing efficiency and effectiveness when selecting learning strategies. Thus, students often favored strategies, which they could apply with little effort and time while still being perceived as sufficient for passing exams. Students also often based their study methods on old habits formed during high school and attempted to change these habits by embedding new steps into existing routines. However, intentions to change were often not prioritized since students reached their short-term goals (i.e., passing the exam) and thus were sufficiently satisfied with their current study strategies. Experiencing a motivational rollercoaster throughout the courses and transitioning to a more independent environment during the transition from high school to university influenced students’ study strategies and intentions to change.


What are our key takeaways from this study?


Study Habits: Students’ study habits varied depending on their goals. Those aiming for short-term success tended to cram before exams, while those with long-term goals prioritized continuous learning. Thus, setting long-term academic goals might be beneficial for encouraging effective study habits.


Learning Strategies: Students were strategic in their study approach by balancing perceived efficiency with effectiveness. They often focused on passing exams while being time-efficient rather than prioritizing long-term retention. Thus, the way students were assessed (e.g., multiple-choice exams, open-ended questions, presentations) heavily influenced students’ learning strategies, which highlights the importance of aligning assessment methods with life-long learning goals. To increase efficiency and reduce time costs of effective learning strategies, more support from educators, such as providing practice questions or training sessions on formulating practice questions, might further help students to use active learning strategies.


Forming and Breaking Habits: Old habits die hard, students often base their study methods on habits already formed during high school. While students expressed a desire to change their study habits, such as better time management, their commitment to these changes remained unclear. Many students did not prioritize change because their current strategies were sufficient for passing exams but also they did not know how to change. Thus, gaining more insight into why students resist change (is it because they do not see the benefits of change or they lack knowledge of how to change?) is crucial for designing effective change interventions.


Motivation and Context: The motivational rollercoaster students experience and transition to a more independent environment influenced students’ capacity to study effectively and their intentions to change. Major life events, such as starting university and living alone, could serve as opportunities for behavior change but also pose challenges due to the lack of structure. Thus, helping students during this transition from high school to university, for example via academic bridging programs, could help them jump-start their university experience from the beginning.


Do you have any suggestions or questions regarding the Study Smart program? Let us know!





David, L., Biwer, F., Crutzen, R., & de Bruin, A. (2024). The challenge of change: understanding the role of habits in university students’ self-regulated learning. Higher Education.