Psychology in the Classroom #6 – Automaticity

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five to ten minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

Today’s focus is automaticity. This is “a process that can be carried out rapidly and without effort or intention (an automatic process). This often occurs when a behavior has been practiced repeatedly…” (1) Usually, automaticity is applied to physical behaviors. For instance, when you first learned to drive a car, you probably had to cognitively focus on many aspects of the task; steering correctly, speed, others around you, using your foot to either press the brake or gas pedal, et cetera. Over time, most of these operations become automatic. Assuming you’ve been driving for a few years, you don’t consciously need to remember to move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal when you need to slow down. This physical process is automatic. This is automaticity. We see this same process in our form while swinging a baseball/softball bat; while working on your swing, mental focus is given to many aspects of ‘perfecting’ our form. But, after hundreds or thousands of swings, it becomes habit…neural networking…muscle memory…automaticity.

While the physical side of automaticity is certainly important, I am more interested in the more academic and cognitive side of automaticity. Of course, often the physical and cognitive are related. With respect to the example above, when your swing becomes physically automatic, this leads to a relieving of the cognitive demands, also. You no longer think about when your hips turn and move through the zone. You don’t need to consider your foot placement before the swing or where your elbow and wrist are in the batter’s box. This leaves you with the mental ability to focus on the pitch; the spin of the ball, the speed of the ball, the placement of the pitch, how the defense is playing you, et cetera. So much to mentally consider.

Now, let’s take this to the classroom. I am so incredibly fortunate to have three amazing children with my wife. Currently, the youngest (in kindergarten) is learning how to decode letters/words and read. It is an amazing thing to watch (As an aside – Elementary/primary teachers, you are absolutely amazing. I can’t fathom how you do your job. Simply astonishing). While assisting my daughter with practicing her letter sounds and sight words, it is quite apparent she is still at a point where she sometimes has to consider each letter individually and cannot blend letters on the larger words. This isn’t automatic or implicit to her yet. She needs more practice. On the other hand, when I read with her second grade sister and fourth grade brother, they roll right through the words. The concept of letter sounds has become automatic for them, leaving them with the mental ability to consider how the words construct the sentence and how that sentence fits into the paragraph they may be reading…reading comprehension. It all starts with the basics of reading becoming automatic/implicit so other aspects of the environment can be attended to and encoded.

The same can be said of of math and so many other areas of content. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, et cetera need to become automatic so students can more efficiently and effectively consider more complex concepts. I’m sure you can think of examples of this in your own content area, whether students be in elementary, middle, or high school.

Automaticity does have its downsides, though. Whether physical or mental, sometimes the efforts that become automatic/implicit still require attention. From the examples given above:

  1. Driving – 52% of all nonfatal car accidents occur within five miles of home (2). Once the physical aspects of driving become automatic, we focus on where to drive…but, once those routes we take daily become automatic, we stop focusing on where we’re driving, too. You ever start driving somewhere and then realize you missed your turn because you were thinking about something else? Because where we’re going on our everyday routes don’t really change, we begin focusing our cognition on other things…music, our phone, conversations being had in the car, et cetera. And then we hit that garbage can or car that’s parked on the side of the road that’s not normally there.
  2. Baseball/softball swing – Without focused practice on the basics of our swing, we start forming bad habits…our hands don’t make it through the zone, our batting stance is a little too open, we’ve dropped our elbows too early during the swing, et cetera. And with enough implicit practice of the bad form, it becomes our habit and we normally don’t notice it until someone else does and tells us.
  3. Reading – the English language is quite tricky. Letters don’t always sound the same or follow the same rules when placed around other letters. The rules we know become automatic/implicit, and that is fine until we attempt to read a word that doesn’t follow the rules.

What about teachers and automaticity? I’m sincerely asking. I’m struggling to come up with examples in our day to day teaching where this applies. I guess sometimes I forget to log attendance because I get out of my routine and then I assume it’s done. Most days as an educator are varied, no matter if you’re teaching the same subject/lesson from class period to class period. Maybe there are assumptions of learning and the curse of knowledge that is somewhat related to automaticity of using specific strategies. Help me out here. Where is automaticity likely while teaching? This is clearly my blind spot.

So, while teachers and students alike need to be aware of automaticity’s potential hurdles, we should all be thankful for our ability to learn some tasks so well they become implicit, allowing us to focus on other aspects of our environment. The good certainly outweighs the bad, here. Specifically, in the classroom, students need to be aware of how commiting the ‘basics’ of a particular concept is advantageous while also understanding when this may present problems. Teachers need to recognize these fundamental concepts and practice with students to create good habits to automaticity.

Where do you see automaticity in your classroom?

How can you talk with your students about automaticity in the classroom and in life?


6 thoughts on “Psychology in the Classroom #6 – Automaticity

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  1. Automaticity in teaching could be the language used ina addressing behaviour. Syronger teachers use consistent language, but it is difficult to train into teachers. I.e. try nd stop asking questions to a student want to modify behaviour and turn it into a statement i.e instead of asking why are you late, you would say Ive noticed your late. take your seat

  2. Automaticity is like habits. And it is welcome for teachers at the begginning of the year to establish a routine when entering in class. That’s why the start of a new year is not easy. But we can break this automatic behavior to augment attention, surprise them, and bring the focus to something unusual or very important. Like put some music one morning. (Sorry about my english i am french speaking)

  3. In teaching math, automaticity is knowing exactly where students are going to get lost in a problem, knowing exactly which concepts are confusing, and knowing the common errors that students make (e.g., the square root of a^2 + b^2 is not simplified to a + b). You get in trouble when what you assume is the issue isn’t really the issue. Sometimes a simple mistake is really a simple mistake, and sometimes it’s a clue leading towards a larger misconception. As a teacher, you have to have multiple approaches to explaining concepts so you’re not stuck when a student doesn’t follow what you’re doing. (I know teachers who “explain” by using the same words in a louder voice rather than changing tactics.)

  4. I think automaticity in the classroom centers primarily around behaviors. For example, the routines we establish, such as how and when we collect homework, how we form groups, how we set expectations for entering and exiting the classroom, how we review for a test or teach students to review… Automaticity is also very much a part of the culture in our classrooms, because of how we emotionally respond (or react) to students. For example, the way in which we respond to students talking out; how we respond to challenging behaviors; the language we use and the way in which we make individuals feel safe (emotionally and physically); how we communicate to them they are valued… Automaticity is also about our thoughts, especially our biases and judgements. Due to past experiences we learn to automatically expect certain outcomes (behaviorally and/or academically) based on how a student dresses, looks, or behaves… Lastly, automaticity is linked to our emotions (teacher and student). Does your voice get loud when you are frustrated, do you pose a defensive stance when you are challenged, do you become argumentative when someone disagrees with you? Automaticity is typically not part of the problem-solving, flexible, collaborative, open, agreeable part of our brain (prefrontal cortex). It is down in the lower part of the brain, where neural pathways are thicker and flexible thinking is more difficult. Unless, we recognize the emotion and and understand the behavior that will follow. Then we can have strategies in place to intentionally stop, such as take a breath (or two), and think, what are other options, how would I react if I were relaxed and accepting.

    So, the upside of automaticity is it frees up cognitive space, the down size is it can get us stuck in a negative rut.

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