Where am I going? (Part 2)

Where am I going? (Part 2)

In the previous post, Where am I going? (Part 1), I mention automaticity and some of the challenges that come when students (or any of us) are on autopilot. But is automaticity all bad?

In a word, no.

Automaticity can be a negative thing in education when students go through the motions without thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. But automaticity can also help students focus on specific parts or more challenging aspects of a problem. In general, this automatic processing for a particular task doesn’t require an individual’s attention, doesn’t need the individual’s effort to do it, and is processed quickly. So if students can do some things automatically, they can focus their attention on other parts of the problem.

Let’s think about an example.

When I first learned how to ride a bike, I was not focused on the rules of the road and how to ride on the road with cars and not get hit (in fact I was very far away from any cars and roads and people). All I was focused on was how to not fall over. And that took a long time for me to get to the point where I didn’t fall. But once riding a bike was automatic, I could focus on other things like riding my bike to my friend’s house and figuring out the best route to get there. I didn’t have to focus on not falling over (usually) and I could focus on riding with traffic, obeying traffic laws, and other things that you should do when riding a bike. But I had to practice riding a bike first.

The same is true in educational settings. Students often need to practice simpler problems before we throw all the complexities at the student. But once some things are automatic, students can focus their efforts and attention on more challenging aspects of a problem.

Let’s think about a few more examples related to the education of engineering students.

  • When students have mastered topics such as algebra, they can focus their attentional resources in their upper-level math and engineering courses on the material that is specific to that class (be it differential equations, dynamics, design courses, etc.). This automaticity with the math concepts can help students focus their attention on other material which could help them develop expertise in these other topics.
  • In some situations, engineering students participate in design classes early on in their engineering education. These early design classes can give students opportunities to practice using a design process (identifying requirements, evaluating alternatives, researching information, etc.) that makes them familiar with the design process. Then in future design classes (or once the students begin working as engineers during internships or after graduation), students are already familiar with the design process and can focus their attention on other aspects of their work or project.

Practice can help students develop automaticity. Practice can help students be more efficient in what they do, can result in a shift in how students approach problems, and can help students be more knowledgeable about a topic which requires less attention to solve problems related to that topic. That is often why we have students practice things multiple times. This helps it stick, helps it get to a point where it requires less processing.

So automaticity can be a good thing if it is something that students have gained a lot of practice with and that allows those students to focus their attention and efforts on specific parts or more challenging aspects of the problem. However, as mentioned in the previous blog post, automaticity can be a bad thing if students go through problems and courses automatically without understanding what they are doing and without gaining expertise with that topic.

Here are a few suggestions to help students use their automatic processing to solve new and different problems without letting students use that automaticity to avoid thinking about difficult problems.

  • Have students explain what they are doing and why. This could help students better understand their own processing (whether it is automatic or not), and helps make that processing more explicit to both the student and the instructor.
  • Have students summarize key steps in a process, key ideas in a paper, key points in a chapter, etc.
  • Explain various aspects of a process being taught to students instead of just listing steps in the process.
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