Becoming automatic (CC Image)

Mental operations that process information with little or no conscious awareness represent automaticity (Feldon, 2007). We come across these every day: driving a car, walking, speaking. The benefits to us is that these activities impose little or no cognitive load and our working memory is freed up to consider other things. I hope you can all recognise that this transfers to the classroom and is something that we should aim for with our students for a number of processes. It means that they can tackle more complex concepts without their working memory being taken up by those lower level pieces of information, because they have learned those to the stage of automaticity.

One thing that has struck me at my current school is the level of expertise students can achieve because they have learned the key equations in physics to a level of automaticity. They are required to do so for the IGCSE examinations, whereas students who study GCSE sciences are given equation sheets with almost every equation given. (Ironically, at A Level they are given equation sheets). My newfound interest in Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) immediately flags up that this is so very obviously an advantage. Having the equations stored in the long-term memory from GCSE reduces the cognitive load when tackling concepts because it keeps space in the working memory open for the cognitive loads associated with thinking about the ideas. This effect carries on wonderfully into A Level and they make use of their automaticity and continue to learn their equations without the reliance on the equation sheet. The classes I teach have a very similar spectrum of prior attainment compared to my previous school, yet my current classes are gifted more time to tackle the more complex concepts and are able to do so more easily with their working memory freed up. Physics is one of those subjects where there is such a lot of content that is ‘low-level’ and so many skills that are fundamental and relatively simple. Developing these to automaticity has to be high on the priority list.

This effect clearly has implications across all subjects and for a number of different knowledge and skill areas and I look forward to reading more about it.


  1. Regular low-stakes quizzing to include plenty of work on memorising equations and the units, including at A Level. I do this already informally with mini whiteboards and general questioning, but will formalise the approach and increase the frequency with which I do it
  2. Review how we learn equations. Considering the split-attention (and modality) effect from CLT, what is the best way to present equations, units and symbols such that students most efficiently/effectively learn them?
  3. Think and discuss more with others about how learning sequences should be delivered/planned – should we spend more time on the basics, drilling these until they are automatic, and then move on? For example: rearranging equations. The bane of any A Level Physics teacher’s life is when students come up from GCSE and seemingly cannot do it. Why not drill until it is perfect, then that no longer poses a cognitive issue to most students?
  4. What about the weaker students who struggle? When do you stop attempting to achieve automaticity? Do you stop? Can everyone achieve it?

As always, I would love any thoughts via comments or Twitter.

Image from Wikipedia

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