Automaticity in novice chemistry learners…

I suspect I am well behind in the discussion about this but it is something I have been musing on in the past few weeks as we I have been marking assessments in both my roles.

Automaticity (Bargh) is the ability to do things automatically, without troubling the mind with low-level details. On the plus side, automatic behaviour is associated with efficiency (low cognitive load), an attractive thing for an educator!

So what kind of processes in chemistry learning would I like students to do automatically?

  • Recall the formulae of common substances or construct them from first principles (eg, from knowledge of common ion charges or the Periodic Table)
  • Recall with reasonable accuracy which are the metallic and non-metallic elements (after all there aren’t that many non metals!) [as this can form the basis of more complicated understanding eg, working out the type of bonding!]
  • Balance symbol equations
  • Make a common sense check of the magnitude of a number in relation to the question given (eg, it is unlikely that the atomic mass you have just calculated is 1020….)
  • Check the units of the result of a calculation

And outside of chemistry and in the general learning arena…

  • When beginning homework, get out their exercise book/textbook to use alongside and not just get out the sheet the homework is on

On the more negative side there are other characteristics associated with automaticity. A lack of awareness of the mental process, initiation of the mental process without intention from the person and the possibility that the person may not be able to control the automatic response. These can become evident when automaticity focuses on so called ‘exam technique’. An example of which I will discuss below.

A colleague of mine had a useful acronym to use when answering questions about the properties of ionic substances.


Strong Electrostatic Attraction Between Oppositely Charged Ions! This was the preferred phrase from the exam board at the time.

The boys picked this up very well, when discussing questions in class they would often ask ‘is this SEABOCI?’ They began to develop automaticity with this phrase however this soon began to present problems including –

The exam board moved on its its requirements for the perfect answer on this, so it became SEABOCI + energy, then SEABOCI + energy + forces acting in all directions in a giant lattice. SEABOCI would no longer get them their guaranteed 3 marks.

Students misapplied SEABOCI, at any mention of ions they would put the automatic phrase, even if it was completely irrelevant.

Students applied SEABOCI to any question about bonding, their response was automatic and they seemed to have little awareness or control of the initiation of the response.

So, automaticity can be a double edged sword. To my mind it should focus on the fundamentals and not as a shortcut for exam technique.

What are your thoughts on automaticity? Which would you like your pupils to ‘do’ automatically?


3 thoughts on “Automaticity in novice chemistry learners…

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