What is Academic Automaticity and how does it work?

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What are the necessary considerations we should think about to help students reach academic automaticity? Should we drill, drill, drill? Should students learn the age-old strategy of cramming? Should practice be done during one lesson or over several lessons?

What is Academic Automaticity?

Let’s back-up a minute. What is academic automaticity? Academic automaticity is the ability to do something without needing to think through each step – the process/recall is organic. Think about a great golfer – do they need to think about where their foot placement should be when lining up to put? Do they need to think about how far to pull back their arms before taking a swing? What about their hand placement on the putter?

Hopefully it’s automatic. However, academic automaticity is more than not needing to think through steps. It includes the ability to blend skills and ideas, knowing how and why the blending will probably work – in other words, they understand the process/idea so well they can connect it to other processes and ideas, transferring their learning. Academic automaticity allows the learner to place their efforts on new learning that builds off of what is now automatic. In other words, the learner faces less cognitive overload because certain learning is in place.

Example: English proficient student VS English learner

Compare two students. Student A is an English proficient student. Student B has been in the country three years and is still learning the English language. Both students are in an 11th grade history class. They are asked to read 7 pages in their textbook. Student A is able to read the text, but is challenged by new ideas presented by the author along with a few new vocabulary word. Student B attempts to read the text but is challenged by many of the words and the ideas presented. Student A is able to focus all efforts on understanding new ideas and concepts while making connections to past learning because reading the text was automatic. Student B must place effort on both because neither is automatic.

Which student reaches cognitive overload faster?

How do we help students reach academic automaticity?

Let’s go back to our original question – what are the necessary considerations we should think about to help students reach academic automaticity?  A few things should come to mind when planning lessons to be sure all students are able to successfully reach the goal(s) of the lesson. First, determine the prerequisite skills needed to be in place for students to begin learning something new.

For example, if a student is learning how to add single digit numbers, the students must be able to recognize something is a number, identify numbers, and count. If one skill is missing, it needs to be addressed before new learning will be successful. This might be done through small group front-loading (tutoring prior to the lesson instead of after the lesson when frustration has set in) before the whole group lesson.

Next, consider how you will use scaffolds to help students acquire the new learning. Let’s continue with the lesson on adding single digit numbers. Scaffolds needed to begin this lesson might include using counters, having students draw representations of the numbers, a teacher modeling their thinking and actions, partner work, and looking at examples and non-examples. As students begin to understand the concept of adding, the teacher pulls some of the scaffold away to allow students to work more independently.

Modeling might be the first scaffold removed. Next, the teacher may let students choose drawing or using counters instead of doing both. This process continues until students are able to add single digit numbers on their own. However, they have not yet reached academic automaticity. This time spent with students is called direct practice – the teacher is purposefully spending quality time helping students build new learning.

How spaced practice helps

After students show an understanding in their initial learning, space practice out over time so students continue to revisit the process/skill.  Spaced practice is the idea of revisiting a skill/routine/fact(s) over time, throughout several lessons, and then reviewed periodically to ensure retention.

Let’s say you plan to work with students on a new skill for a total of 60 minutes. The first lesson, 20 minutes, consists of the initial practice. The next day, you work on the skill for another 15 minutes. Two days later, you visit the skill and begin making connections to previous learning. This takes about 15 minutes. In three days, your warm-up focuses on this skill and a skill learned in the previous unit. The review requires students to retrieve information. Students might: use flash cards, answer questions using information from a graphic organizer, or partner share all they can recall about the topic. It takes 5 minutes. A week later you revisit the skill along with other learning from the unit in order to prepare for a final assessment.

Moving students towards automaticity of learning does not take more time; it takes spaced time. This means rethinking the way lessons are planned. Most learning does not happen in one given hour. Some takes less time, while other learning takes much more time. But, spaced practice is what makes the learning stick.

So, are we there yet? Remember, automaticity is the overall outcome. Just because the final assessment is over doesn’t mean students have done enough to retain the knowledge. Revisit the learning by spiraling ideas together bringing new learning together with previously learned material, making connections. Don’t set aside thoughts and ideas because the unit is complete. Make connections to the next unit, and the next, and the next.

Kim Watts spent 21 years teaching middle school in both inner-city and affluent schools. During her time in the classroom, Kim taught English/Language Arts, brought AVID to her campus as a certified AVID teacher, and taught Capturing Kids’ Hearts Teen Leadership. Kim was the SIM Coordinator for her campus’ Literacy Leadership Team, helping them to implement a school-wide approach to improving literacy using the Strategic Instruction Model.

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