The Bad Habits of Well Meaning Educators That Foster Lazy Learning in Students

“I’m lazy,” teens often tell me when I meet them for the first time. Parents often confirm this. And so do teachers, when I email them to get more info about how a client is doing in their class.

I know students often feel lazy. And they certainly seem lazy to parents, who watch their teens get sucked into the vortex of their phones, video games, and more.

But what if students are not lazy at all. What if — God forbid — the adults around them who are helping to create the conditions for this apparent “laziness”?

Let me be more direct. Is it possible that you as a passionate and sincere teacher, tutor, coach or parent — are partially responsible for creating this “laziness” in the students around you?

Oof. I’m imagining you might feel a little defensive reading this question. And if so, I don’t blame you. When I was a teacher, I would have gotten all riled up if someone suggested that I’m the one fostering laziness and passivity in my students. Teachers get so much blame already for society’s ills, do we really need to pile on more?!

I believe it is important for all adults who work with kids to have the courage to look at our own behaviors and acknowledge the UNINTENDED IMPACT we may be having on our students, even if our INTENT is good.

Let’s slow this down so that I can explain what I mean:  

As an academic life coach with a glimpse into hundreds of classrooms throughout my career, I’ve noticed two different tendencies amongst the students who seek me out for extra support:

  1. Some students seem to try really hard. They stress themselves out keeping up with their school work. Despite their best efforts, these kiddos still perform poorly on tests. Argh! Why?!
  2. Other students seem apathetic, unmotivated and lazy. They can’t motivate themselves to learn, despite teachers’ best intentions to make curriculum interesting and their parents’ best efforts to keep them on track.

I’m guessing that YOU are the kind of educator who has also noticed this trend… and is doing what you can to reverse it.

You are sincere, creative and a hard worker, no matter what your role is:

  • As a teacher, you’ve done your darndest to design a curriculum that will be motivating and effective for students.
  • As a tutor, you spend countless hours patiently explaining — and re-explaining — important content to your students.  Your intent is so, so good.
  • As a coach, you work on helping kids (etc)

Everyone’s intent is so, so good. We really care about our kids and want to help them

So why are students STILL struggling so much?!

What are we missing as educators that holds our students back?

In my thousands of hours talking to stressed out and/or unmotivated students, one pattern has emerged from these conversations. It is striking.

Students don’t know how to study. Everyone TELLS them to study, schools and parents EXPECT them to study. But no one has actually taught them how.

“But that’s not true!” you might be thinking. “I tell my students exactly how to study for my tests. I give them study guides, quizlet sets and teach fun mnemonics! Why isn’t that enough?!”

I don’t doubt this is true. Many educators ARE giving students a zillion resources to help them study. However, this is what I’ve learned in my hours coaching teenagers from around the country:

The way adults talk to students about their own learning may be backfiring!

That was true for me, at least, for the years that I was a classroom teacher. Once I became an academic life coach, I discovered that I needed to unlearn a number of bad habits about how to talk to students about learning and studying.

Although my actions were intended to help students become more engaged, proactive learners — instead they created the opposite effect.

Students became passive learners, dependent on their teacher’s creativity and curriculum development expertise to guide their learning. They didn’t know how to teach themselves.

Now that I am an academic life coach, I’ve been unlearning these bad habits. I’m watching my student clients transform their learning, lower their stress level and raise their grades in unprecedented numbers. I’m also watching the teens who seemed lazy perk up and start taking action.


If I can do this as a coach, you can do this too — as the incredible teachers, counselors, tutors, and coaches that YOU are.

So, what are these bad teaching habits to which well-meaning educators fall prey? What can you do instead?

Here are the top four bad habits that I discovered in myself and have observed in other teachers, tutors and coaches:

  1. We overuse the word “study,” assuming it communicates something of value to our students.
  2. We teach specific strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.
  3. We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study effectively.
  4. We break learning down for students into bite-size, motivating chunks and provide clear instructions for students.

Well hold up, you might be thinking! Aren’t these the tenets of good, progressive education? How can they possibly be bad teaching and tutoring habits?

Let’s take a closer look at each of these bad habits that are plaguing well-meaning teachers, tutors, and academic coaches:

Bad Habit #1 – Educators encourage their students to “study.”

Imagine the following scene:

It’s Wednesday, 4th-period chemistry. The teacher writes on the board, “Study for test on Friday.” Students make a mental note, “Ok, I better study for that test”; some even write “study” into their planners. Parents, coaches and tutors see the word “study” in the planner and follow up by asking, “Have you studied for the test yet?” The student responds somewhat impatiently, responds, “Yes! Yes! I’m studying.”

Go back and count: How many times was the word “study” used? Was anything of value about the learning process communicated in these brief interactions?

I’d argue NO! This entire conversation about studying is largely meaningless. How do students decide what they need to DO to study?! How will they know when they’ve been successful studying, and are ready to take the test?

Because students aren’t actually taught the theory behind effective study and the strategies associated with that theory, they often go home and do one of two things:

  1. They try to “study” the best way they know how, often by rereading the textbook and reviewing and highlighting notes (which scientists have proven are the very WORST ways to study). Some make flashcards, though this technique is often a time-waster too (more on that later). Or…
  2. They simply don’t study, either because the actions I’ve described above are unmotivating and uninspiring or because they don’t believe they need to study.

When test grades are published, student’s spirits are dashed. “But I studied!” they say. “How come I got such a bad grade?” The answer is — because they studied in ways that felt effective but are are not actually effective.

As an academic life coach, I am on a mission to banish the words “study” and “review” from the English language. Ok. I know. That’s pretty impossible. But what if educators, parents, and students used it a lot less? How would you talk about test preparation with students if you weren’t allowed to use either the word “study” or the word “review”?!  Too often the use of these words allow us to live under the illusion that we are communicating something of value about the learning process, when truthfully we are not.

What should teachers, tutors, and academic coaches do instead?

Stop using the word “study” so much. Really. Cut it out! It’s super hard to do, but I double dare you. By reducing the number of times you say the word “study,” you’ll be forcing yourself and your students to think more creatively and specifically about what EXACTLY they need to do to learn the material at hand.

Start equipping yourself with better action action words for studying that actually point to specific actions that students can take to do their studying. Bonus points if those action verbs are based on solid brain research about how students learn effectively and efficiently.  

Next Step: Sign up for my free course: Study Cycle 101: The First Crucial Tool in Teaching Students to Study Strategically. Or keep on reading to see if you identify the other three bad habits.

Bad Habit #2 – Educators teach specific study strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.

I’m guessing you are one of the many thoughtful teachers, coaches, and tutors who DO teach specific strategies for studying. Or so you think. I’ve seen the two kinds of interventions amongst the teachers, tutors and academic coaches that I’ve seen:

  • They teach strategies, but they are the WORST strategies. Re-reading the textbook, highlighting, taking exhaustive notes. All of these foster boredom.
  • Perhaps you suggest flashcards or provide mnemonics to help students memorize complex information. Maybe you hand out a study guide with suggestions for how to use it. Some teachers (I was one of these!) even build studying for a test into the curriculum, guiding students through the steps they need to prepare for the exam.

Yes! This is all good pedagogy!

Here’s the problem:

First, usually, we pick the strategies that worked well for us when we were students. But not all learners are going to rock the information just because they’re studying it in a way that worked for you.

Also, well-meaning educators often suggest strategies without explaining WHY these strategies tend to work. We assume that the strategy in and of itself is what will help the student study. But even the BEST strategies can fail if implemented in ways that ignore how the brain is built to learn. I know so many students who are bored to death by flashcards, but who use them anyway because they’ve been taught it is a successful learning strategy. They just assume that they have to suffer boredom in order to learn effectively.

The problem is: Many educators themselves don’t truly understand how learning happens in the brain. They know what strategies worked for them as learners, and even what strategies seem to work for many students they teach. But they don’t truly understand WHY these strategies work.

I sure didn’t, before I became an academic life coach. In our teacher education programs, we are taught strategies for engaging students, but we aren’t taught how this fits into a brain-based model for how learning happens.

When we teach strategies without teaching the underlying theory about why that strategy might work, we are creating kids’ dependence on the specific strategies. We are teaching them that the way to study is to throw a random strategy at the problem and hope you learn the information.

No wonder students get exhausted or simply refuse to work. It can feel so useless to throw random strategies at their learning and hope that some of it works.

As an educator, are you guilty of this bad habit? If so, what could you do instead?

Stop Suggesting Strategies if you can’t also explain, using good brain theory, when that strategy is effective and when it it not effective.

Start by learning Brain Theory! Equip yourself with more information about how learning happens in the brain. Understand why your favorite strategies are sometimes wonderful study tools, but also be open to WHEN they are appropriate and when they might get in the way of learning.

Next Step: Sign up for my free course: Study Cycle 101: The First Crucial Tool in Teaching Students to Study Strategically. Or keep on reading to see if you identify with the final two bad habits.

Bad Habit #3 – We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study and learn effectively.

Many educators — myself included! — have espoused learning styles as an important factor in increasing student motivation and performance.

When I was a classroom teacher, I had students take learning inventories, and then I would use the results of this inventory to help individualize student learning. For example, I’d have students who tested as “visual learners” do history projects that were primarily visual; students who tested as “logical” thinkers could write an essay or create a chart filled with information.

When I was trained as an academic coach, I was taught to use these same inventories with my clients, and then apply the results to help the students maximize their learning.

In the last few years, however, I’ve stopped giving these inventories. I DO still believe that every person learns differently and that it is important for students to understand — and advocate for! — learning methods that reveal their strengths.

However, I’ve noticed that too much of an emphasis on learning styles makes students less inclined to learn in ways that are *not* their learning preferences. In recent years, brain science has backed up my observations, stating that the most effective learning strategies use all parts of the brain, regardless of whether the students has a specific preference for that strategy.

As an educator, are you guilty of this bad habit, just as I was? If so, what could you do instead?

Stop teaching students to study only  in the Learning Styles that they Prefer. This limits their ability to learn in brain-friendly ways, especially if their learning preferences are not conducive to the subject at and

Start teaching students that the brain needs to learn information in a multitude of different ways. If one method doesn’t seem to be helping them learn, then students should be flexible enough to choose a different learning strategy, even if it’s NOT their preference or dominant learning style. Equip yourself with a full enough toolbox of information.

Next Step: Sign up for my free course: Study Cycle 101: The First Crucial Tool in Teaching Students to Study Strategically. Or keep on reading to see if you identify with the final bad habit.

Bad Habit #4 – We break learning down for students into bite-size chunks.

When I did my teacher training, I learned of the importance of breaking tasks down for students to help them be successful. I mastered the art of creating engaging, complex curricula for students, as well as how to break it into discrete, doable parts with clear instructions so that students wouldn’t get lost in all the details.

This is an important teaching skill! I don’t knock it, and I hope you continue to do it!

However, a side effect of this kind of teacher-intensive curricula is that it can accidentally foster dependence rather than independence in students.

Students depend on the instructions. They wait to be told what to do, for the adults to initiate action.

I can’t tell you how many of my clients have answered my question, “Why didn’t you take notes in class today?” with the, “My teacher didn’t tell me to.” Argh! I stifle my frustration at this answer with, “Your teacher shouldn’t have to tell you to take notes!! You should know what’s good for your own learning, and be able to take initiative on your own!”

The side effect of our willingness as educators to break learning into digestible parts is that the teens themselves don’t have to learn to do this for themselves. They’re off the hook and don’t need to understand how successful learning happens for them. Instead, they mindlessly follow (or resist) the teacher’s instructions, a habit that is not conducive to lifelong learning.

Even tutors foster passivity and dependence in students. I’ve had several students who’ve told me, “Oh, I don’t need to study for the Spanish test by myself; I’ll just do it with my tutor.”

When students rely on their tutors and teachers to guide their study process, they are abdicating responsibility for their own learning. So what should teachers and tutors do instead?

As an educator, are you guilty of this bad habit, just as I was? If so, what could you do instead?

Actually, I don’t want you to stop doing anything on this one. Breaking learning down into digestible parts is simply good teacher. However, please do the following…

After you teach a lesson, ask students to reflect on what they just learned and how they learned it. Ask them to notice the ultimate learning objective, and how you structured the learning to help them get there. If you have taught them the Study Cycle (which I teach in my free course), invite them to notice how you incorporated the Study Cycle into your planning of the lesson, and how they might build on the Study Cycle when they are preparing for tests.

Sign up for my free course. The Study Cycle: The First Crucial Step in Teaching Students to Study Strategically. I’ll teach you all of this here… Or keep on reading to see what over bad habits you might identify with.

Is It Really This Simple to Help Students Break Through Passivity and Become Strategic Learners?

Yes! In my experience, most students are eager to learn how to become more effective learners. However, adults make it seem so complex! When they are introduced to a simple, easy-to-understand model for how to learn strategically, they rise to the occasion.

That’s why I’m such a fan of the 3-Step Study Cycle. I teach it to all my clients now, and I’m watching them become creative, engaged, skillful learners as a result. In fact, just a week ago a college freshman who’d been getting C’s and D’s on most of his tests this semester, came to his session with his eyes beaming. Here’s a summary of our conversation:

Student: Guess what?! I got an A on the test!!!!!!!

Me: OMG! Seriously?! Wow!!! How’d you manage that?!

Student: I followed the study cycle. And I worked really hard to hone my notes*.  In the past, I could usually narrow the multiple choice answers down to two that seemed similar, but I never knew what the right answer was. This time I totally knew! It was clear to me because I’d taken the time to encode the stuff I didn’t know in new ways*.

I’m so proud of this young man for working so hard to understand how to study strategically and raise his grades. He clearly worked hard! In that respect, it’s not simple to become a strategic learner; it involves hard work!

However, it is simple to teach students how to study strategically. And in my experience, it all starts with a 5-minute conversation that I fondly call the 3-Step Study Cycle.

I’m such a believer in this process that I want as many educators as possible to share it widely. That’s why I created a free 10-day course called The Study Cycle: The First Crucial Step in Teaching Students to Study Strategically. Click here to sign up for it

In this short instruction manual, you’ll receive:

  • An overview of the Study Cycle, a brain-based model for effective and efficient learning
  • A video demonstration of how I teach the Study Cycle to students, and step-by-step instructions
  • Seven more sets of  tools for your Strategic Study Toolbox  
  • Three case study interviews with classroom teachers and university lecturers, academic coaches, and tutors and tutoring centers about how they apply the Study Cycle
  • Invitations to several free, live webinars with me about the 7 Different Types of Struggling Learners, The Secrets of Sticky Teaching and Learning, and More.
  • A free sneak peek into my Art of Inspiring Students to Study Strategically online course,
  • And more

Phew! That was a lot to take in! If you have questions or observations for me about any of these bad habits, please feel free to post below. I look forward to engaging with you.

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