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Making the skills automatic February 17, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Management, RUSA.
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I was recently struck by part of  an article in the most recent issue of Reference and User Services Quarterly. In an article entitled “Facilitating Students’ Intellectual Growth in Information Literacy Teaching” by K.W. Wong (read it here), the author cites D.N. Perkins, who says that there are 3 stages of learning process: 1) acquiring skills, 2) making the skills automatic, and 3) transferring the skills to other contexts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “making the skills automatic” in the context of my job. In training the folks I currently oversee, I’ve found that getting another person to make skills (or thought processes) automatic can be hard. While my team has done well and their addition has been a huge help, I’ve found the “automatic” hump to be trickier than I thought.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I think a big part of the problem one faces in training others, whether they be colleagues or students, is to see things from the other person’s perspective. In my case, I’ve been working on the BIP team for so long that I’m way past the “automatic” point –I’m able to notice weird things in a catalog record on an almost subconscious level. How do I convey to another person what to look for when I don’t even have to think about it any more? Also, I’ve found that there is a downside to “being automatic” when doing cataloging work on a large journal run: zoning out. It’s easy to write down an incorrect volume number on a sheet or type the wrong publication year for an item when you’re doing hundreds of issues of a publication in a row. You just have to look at things with a critical eye to avoid making mistakes. Of course, that’s easier said than done–after a while everything starts to look exactly the same. That’s why coffee breaks were invented!

“Making skills automatic” is a very subtle process, and I’ve got a lot more to learn about it!