Time Well Spent, Hopefully: L2 Study Habits and Learning Efficiency

Time Well Spent, Hopefully: L2 Study Habits and Learning Efficiency

By: Harumi Kimura

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are forced to make behavioral changes such as hand-washing and mask-wearing. We avoid crowds, maintain social distancing. and take measures for ventilation to prevent infection, even on cold winter days! Now, these new behaviors are part of our daily routine. Without thinking much, I frequently wash my hands and regularly wear a mask.

During this period, I have also developed a new study habit: listening to a foreign language program on the radio and studying Spanish for 15 minutes three days a week. It is obvious that 45 minutes a week is too short to build solid language skills, but I have made a start and maintained the habit for almost a year now. In a sense, this pandemic helped me create a new studying habit. It is a small but significant achievement I myself feel proud of, since I had stumbled in my Spanish learning more than a few times before.

The aim of this article is to explore how well, or badly, L2 learners are establishing, managing, and maintaining study habits. I start with sharing two undergraduate theses, both of which I was advisor for. One of them was on the time use of L2 learners of English and the other was about learning French outside of class. Then, I relate my Spanish learning routine to neuroscientific findings about human memory to promote efficient study habits.

L2 Learners’ Time Use

Hinano Suzuki was an English major. She conducted a mixed-method study to investigate (a) what individual difference characteristics are linked to efficient time use in studying English and (b) how English majors in a Japanese university set aside time for studying English outside of class (Suzuki, 2017). In terms of the first research question, she hypothesized that L2 students who make efficient use of time are conscientious and possess meta-cognitive strategies and, as a result, they become more proficient in English.

To test this hypothesis, she collected self-report survey data and conducted correlational analyses. The second research question was exploratory: she interviewed volunteers and interpreted the interview data.

In fact, time use efficiency is a less-explored variable in the field of second language acquisition (SLA), so Suzuki first consulted past studies in educational psychology. Kelly and Johnson (2005) found that efficient time use for study was positively linked to conscientiousness, one of the big five personality traits (the other four traits are extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness). Conscientiousness is comprised of self-regulation, being hard-working, and trustworthiness. Since conscientious people are also known to have a tendency to make and organize plans, Suzuki thought that conscientious people would have good metacognitive strategies. Oxford (1990) divided metacognitive strategies into three groups: “centering your learning, arranging and planning your learning, and evaluating your learning” (p. 136). These strategies include setting goals and objectives, and planning how to deal with tasks efficiently. L2 learners who use these strategies are likely to study more effectively; thus, they are more likely to develop L2 skills efficiently.

Suzuki administered a questionnaire (8 items for time use efficiency, 11 items for conscientiousness, and 9 items for metacognitive strategies) to 27 4th-year English majors and asked them to provide their most recent TOEIC scores. She confirmed the links, at statistically significant levels, between time use and conscientiousness (r = .66), conscientiousness and metacognitive strategies (r = .61), and time use and metacognitive strategies (r = .54). However, time use, conscientiousness, and metacognitive strategies are NOT correlated with TOEIC scores at a statistically significant level.

The interview data from five students among the 27 demonstrated that students appeared to have established their own study routine: mostly when and where to study. All of them talked about taking measures to allocate time for their studies, following their routine, and keeping priorities straight. However, the data did not dig into how they used their time.

The remaining question was why these learner characteristics were not related to TOEIC scores. Suzuki speculated that efficient time use should be an essential factor for academic success, but it would take time to reap what was sown. A positive relationship between time use and proficiency, for example, might have been established if she had collected the proficiency data not just once but twice: in the first year and the fourth year, and used the improvement, not the present proficiency, as a variable. Another possible interpretation is that allocating time is one thing, but using the time efficiently may be another. Yet another is that there are quite a few intervening variables; thus, the story is not so simple and correlational studies cannot deal with complex relationships of a variety of factors.

Studying French Outside of Class

Yuki Ohtomo was an education major. She conducted a quantitative study on independent language learning in which she was the participant/researcher (Ohtomo, 2018), like R in Schmidt and Frota (1986). Ohtomo developed an interest in learning French and took five French courses in her first and second year, although learning French was not part of the requirements of her department.

She used her old textbooks to review, listened to a French program on the radio, watched animated TV programs, and used published mock tests for official French proficiency tests. Before she started her independent study, she took the 3rd and 4th grade tests (the pre-intermediate level and beginner level) as pre-tests and failed both. After a year of study, she took the tests again as post-tests. She passed the 4th grade test, but failed the 3rd grade.

Ohtomo analyzed the test results in relation to SLA theories. Here are some key findings.

  • Input: Because her learning materials included a lot of dialogs, Ohtomo was mostly successful on dialog items on the tests. On the other hand, she did not do well on passage reading items. The type of input mattered.
  • Spoken output: She used textbook dialogs for shadowing. It was not creative language production, but she learned not only pronunciation and prosody, but also words and expressions.
  • Written output: She wrote French sentences by personalizing content using words, expressions, and sentence patterns she learned, but she did not receive any feedback on her writing, either for content or for language, either from teachers or other people. Productive skills might be difficult to develop without some kind of feedback, or without interactive use (See #4).
  • Interaction: She was not able to find a study partner. Her school did not have a self-access facility, either. Without partners, she did not have any chance to interact with another learner of French to negotiate for mutual understanding or practice newly learned language; thus, it was difficult for her to feel a sense of accomplishment and maintain motivation. She felt isolated and almost lost interest, being unable to control her boredom.
  • Planning: She made a flexible study plan so that she could easily adjust her plan and keep on studying. However, the plan allowed her to go easy on herself and she was not able to accomplish as much as she had expected.
  • Keeping records: She took notes of what she actually did each day for the purpose of completing her thesis (a requirement for graduation), but not for formative assessment to improve her study habits. She could have used the record for ongoing reflection as well.
  • Learning materials and goals: When she decided on her learning materials, Ohtomo just chose what was available to her: old textbooks, a radio program, and animated films. She did not think deeply about her purpose for learning French: for future short trips to French speaking countries. She should have chosen learning materials better suited to her specific goal.
  • Motivation: The primary purpose of her independent study was to make her travel more enjoyable: an extrinsic motivation. However, she also had an intrinsic motivation as well. A French-speaking individual was part of her future self-image. However, the image was not elaborate enough to guide her study: it fell short of providing a clear vision for her study (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014).
  • Situational influences: During the first four months, she studied French regularly. Because of her need to look for a job, however, her priorities among the things she had to handle changed, and so did her motivation, from learning French for her future (a long-term goal) to just doing it for her thesis (a short-term goal), just like a duty. Motivation ebbs and flows under prevailing circumstances.

Ohtomo concluded that independent learners need to be more strategic than school learners in setting learning goals, choosing learning materials, monitoring learning processes and outcomes, managing commitments, controlling emotions, and maintaining motivation. Her conclusion also resonates with ongoing discussion in the SLA self-regulation literature: managing behaviors involves managing affect (Dörnyei et al., 2016).

To recap: Suzuki’s study demonstrated that rather stable learner-internal characteristics contribute to time management for study; Ohtomo’s study indicated that learning an L2 outside of class requires learners to transform hope into strategic learning behaviors and that situational factors also influence maintenance of good study habits. Thus, both L2 learning motivation and behaviors fluctuate. However, neither study went further into how students use the time they allocate for study and this is the topic of the next section.

Successful and Unsuccessful Learning

Time on task, the length of time when learners are actively involved in a task, is one of the important variables that feed into academic success. It is usually associated with the factors that keep people on track or off track. However, we need to examine what learners are actually doing when they think they are on track. In fact, that’s exactly what makes a difference in our learning outcomes.

"Much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort."
Brown et al., 2014
Publication Authors

By using suggestions in Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown et al., 2014) as a yardstick, I critically reflect on my Spanish learning. They write, “People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways. Empirical research into how we learn and remember shows that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort” (p. ix).

It looks like I do some things right, but other things completely wrong.

Don’t cram.

Sitting long hours at one time is unproductive. For one thing, our brain needs a break to be productive. For another, cramming, massed practice, might work for immediate tests, but is not good for long-term retention. A fifteen-minute Spanish program was a good choice.

Spaced practice.

Breaking study time into separate periods creates better results. When we come back to what (we think) we have learned, we can interrupt our forgetting curve. After I have listened to the program, I get back to the same program a week later since it is available for a week after the initial broadcast. My learning was spaced out. However, waiting for one week after the first learning was not a good decision. The first spaced repetition should have been immediate, rather than a week later, to block a rapid forgetting curve.

Make effort to retrieve.

Re-reading the learning materials and notes is a bad strategy. It is easy and the brain is not working hard. “(H)ighlighting, underlining, and poring over notes and texts are the most-used study strategies” (p. 15), but mindless repeating or reviewing, i.e., the practice-practice-practice technique, is an unproductive strategy. Why is that? Because it is effortless. Learning should be effortful. Making effort helps change our brain. Furthermore, mindless repeating produces a familiarity fallacy: We think we know something just because it is familiar, when in reality we do not know it well enough. What I have been doing to study Spanish is this mindless repeating. It was passive and effortless. I could sit back and take it easy since the program was familiar. It gave me the illusion that I already know the material. Repetitive exposure alone does not build memory for later use. Instead, I should intentionally make myself exert effort for retrieval. Testing myself is one way. Something that requires more brain power is beneficial for memory consolidation.

Alternate two or more subjects.

It is a wise strategy to interleave learning with other subjects rather than to continue the same subject on and on, i.e., to cram. Our intuition tells us that mixing subjects is confusing, but in fact that is a myth. When we alternate subjects, learning may feel slower, but it is actually stronger. When you come back to the first subject after working on another, you have to work harder to remember. This hard work, the retrieval effort, helps build your memory. I hope that alternating learning and working in my daily routine will also do my brain good. If so, this is good news for adult learners like me, who want to save some time for study, while working full-time.

Use variation.

Varied practice is cognitively more challenging than repeating the same practice. It helps improve our ability to transfer learning in one context to another. Take measures to make use of a variety of activities. For example, when recalling Spanish vocabulary items, I can reorder the items alphabetically, make groups under different parts of speech, or try to recall the English counterparts. These will increase my learning gains.

To recap this section: neuroscientists advocate spaced, recall-based, interleaved, and varied practice, instead of mindless cramming. Students in Suzuki’s study, who were good at time management but did not score higher on TOEIC than peers who were less skillful at it, might have been using unproductive ways to practice and learn. Ohtomo might have been able to pass the 3rd grade French proficiency test if she had employed some of the memory-enhancing techniques brain researchers promote.

Let us get rid of such study habits as cramming and mindless reviewing. It may not be easy to make drastic changes to the habits that we have developed. Our habits are formed, at least partly, according to our rather stable characteristics like personality traits. Besides, our motivation to learn is influenced by situational factors. However, we can make small but meaningful changes in how we learn. Some people say we are what we read and others say we
are what we eat. Maybe brain scientists say we are what we regularly do.


  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Dörnyei, Z., Henry, A., & Muir, C. (2016). Motivational currents in language learning: Frameworks for focused interventions. Milton, UK: Routledge.

  • Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  • Kelly, W. E., & Johnson, J. L. (2005). Time use efficiency and the five-factor model of personality. Education, 125(3), 511–515.

  • Ohtomo, Y. (2018). Studying French outside of class [Unpublished undergraduate thesis]. Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University.

  • Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. New York, NY: Newbury House.

  • Schmidt, R. W., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner of Portuguese. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). New York, NY: Newbury House.

  • Suzuki, H. (2017). Language learning strategies, time use, and personality [Unpublished undergraduate thesis]. Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University.

Harumi Kimura teaches at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Sendai, Japan. She earned her doctorate from Temple University. She researched second language listening anxiety in her doctoral study and her academic interests include learner psychology and cooperative learning. She coauthored a book with G. M. Jacobs, Cooperative Learning and Teaching (2013).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *