Science Teaching 2.0: Atomic Habits for Teachers and Students

What are “Atomic Habits”?

Atomic habits are a series of small changes and tiny breakthroughs that compound over time to help you fulfill your full potential (Clear, 2018, p. 7, 9). It can be succinctly summarized as “tiny changes, remarkable results” (Clear, 2018).

With this definition of atomic habits in mind: 1) how can we, as teachers, use atomic habits in our science classrooms and 2) how can our students use atomic habits to become student scientists?

For teachers, atomic habits can be implemented in the science classroom in two important ways: 1) environment design and 2) reflection and review.

1) Environment Design

Exemplary science teachers design the classroom environment to foster good habits for themselves and, in turn, their students. Clear (2018) advises making “cues of good habits obvious in your environment” (p. 90). Obvious cues in the science classroom that can promote the habit of teaching and learning through inquiry include:

  • Having plants and animals in the classroom
  • Creating discovery stations around the classroom
  • Keeping class materials and resources organized and accessible
  • Making the classroom interesting and inviting by considering desk/furniture arrangements, hanging posters, signs, etc.

2) Reflection and Review

In Atomic Habits, Clear (2018) defines reflection and review as “a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time” (p. 250). Like the Career Best Effort (CBE) program utilized by the Las Angeles Lakers, exemplary science teachers consciously reflect on and review their own performance by:
  • Monitoring progress made toward goals or objectives
  • Identifying mistakes and areas for improvement
  • Considering ways for improvement in the future

Real-world application: Create list of realistic goals and systems to accomplish those goals for the academic year. Ask yourself: what went well, what didn’t go well, and what did I learn? Designate a time (i.e. quarter, semester, and/or annual) to review your outcomes, reflect on successes and shortcomings, and adjust your goals and/or systems if needed.

For students, atomic habits can be utilized in the science classroom in two important ways: 1) understanding what progress looks like and 2) using habits to develop the student scientist identity.

1) What progress actually looks like for students

Students (and teachers) often expect learning to occur quickly and in a linear fashion (Clear, 2018, p. 20). However, breakthrough moments in learning are usually the result of diligent work and consistent habits over time.

Clear (2018), p. 22.

It’s important for students to understand that the small changes they make will not often appear to make a difference until the critical point is reached – learning is a compounding process that requires patience and diligence to keep going until the desired outcome is reached (Clear, 2018, p. 28).

2) Using habits to develop a student scientist identity

How can students become student scientists? It requires a change in identity, and “identity emerges out of your habits” (Clear, 2018, p. 41). Clear (2018) provides two steps that students can take to change their identity from student to student scientist:

1) determine the kind of person you want to be (e.g., a student scientist) and,
2) prove that you are becoming that person taking small steps toward your desired identity each day (e.g., reviewing science notes 20 minutes each day) (p. 39).

Real-world application: A useful strategy for students who want to improve their study habits is a form of implementation intention called habit stacking (Clear, 2018, p. 70-72). Habit stacking pairs a new habit with a current habit (Clear, 2018, p. 74). For example, a student can make a habit stacking plan by stating that “after I finish eating dinner, I will review my science notes for twenty minutes.” Using this technique, a student will create a new habit of reviewing their science notes after completing the habit of eating dinner.

Check out this interview of James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, describing how your identity is linked to your habits.

Final thoughts: Understanding how atomic habits work can help both teachers and students design and implement them in a way that creates a more productive and efficient learning environment.

References: Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits & break bad ones; tiny changes, remarkable results. Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


  1. Hey Lauren! I liked your blog post! I found your ideas on reflection and review quite insightful. That’s a part of the book that I hadn’t considered implementing into my classroom. How do you plan on using these ideas in the classroom? How do you think you’ll monitor your progress towards goals? Will it be based on how your students are doing, grades-wise, or will you be evaluating your own teaching?

    • Hi Tommy,
      Thanks for reading my post! Great questions – I plan to on using the ideas of review and reflection for both myself and my students. One of my ideas for myself is to create specific goals such as implementing a certain number of inquiry-based labs, taking the class outdoors, and improving my classes average grade by a certain percent. These goals will depend on the class and students so it’s hard to say specifics at this point, but those are some general ideas. For my students, some ideas would be for them to write out realistic goals and systems and habits for them to achieve their goals. As a class, we would review and adjust our systems at the beginning of each quarter and at the end of the school year. And, students goals don’t necessarily have to be academically related, some can be personal goals as well. I want my students to know that I, too, am working on my habits and goals right along side them.

  2. Hi Lauren! I really enjoyed reading your post! I think it was so unique and I really appreciated the fact that you took atomic habits and separated out teachers and students. I think it’s so important to look at how atomic habits can be built for both students and teachers alike, but, obviously, the habits and methods that may be used are different. For your “real-world” application of reflection and review, would you also ask your students to reflect on the past X time frame? They could not only reflect on how they think the classroom interactions are going, but they could also preform the same task of self-reflection and review.

    • Hi Colleen,
      Thanks for reading my post! You make a great point about also asking my students to review and reflect on their own performances during the past X time frame – great suggestion! I think review and reflection can be a really powerful way to monitor your habits and progress towards goals so I will definitely include review and reflection for both myself and my students in my future classroom.

  3. Lauren,

    Wow! What a great post. I think it is amazing how you incorporated Clear’s ideas of the influence of our environment on our lives into in what you plan to do in your classroom. Many of us do not realize just how important our surroundings are to our daily actions and accomplishments. Vision is one of our most powerful senses! So, if our students are able to see cues of good habits in the classroom, there is a greater chance they will adopt these good habits into their own practices.

    • Hi Emilia,
      Thanks for reading my post! Out of the many ways atomic habits could be applied to the classroom, I found the concept of environmental design to be one of the most compelling. Like you mentioned, a visually stimulating environment can be a powerful component of learning experience.

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