Youth Canada

Stop and Think: Don’t Fall into the Trap of Autopiloting

22-09-2008 by Joshua Liu

Stop and Think: Don’t Fall into the Trap of Autopiloting

The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

A few days ago, I had my first peer tutoring session of the year. Last year I tutored chemistry to first year students, but this year, I am now also tutoring first year biology and mathematics. I love teaching and helping students succeed in general (this blog itself should make that obvious!), and I am really hoping teaching plays some role in my career.

The very first student I tutored this year needed some help with chemistry. She was very enthusiastic, and was obviously keen on learning, which I like a lot. However, I quickly noticed the reason why she was having trouble with the chemistry problems; it was the same thing I have seen many times in numerous students who were not prepared for the jump to university.

I remember one question she asked me in particular. It was a chemistry problem that provided a chemical equation, as well as the mass of one of the reactants (I’m not going to go into too much detail for those of you who have not taken chemistry, because there’s a more important point I want to get across). We read the question together, and then afterwards, she immediately started converting the mass of the reactants to its amount in moles. However, after reading the question again, I realized that the calculation she was doing was pointless; the calculation she was doing was irrelevant to the answer. But she was doing the calculation anyways because she was on autopilot.

What is Autopilot?

Autopiloting occurs when feel like you’ve done something so many times, that you just act without thinking. For example, a musician who knows a piece of music inside and out, can perform many pieces without consciously thinking - they have practiced it so many times, that they can regurgitate the performance with little to no visible thought. Or take a video game expert who navigates through a level without blinking an eye; he has mastered all of the elements of the level so well that he can simply autopilot through the level effortlessly.

When you’re autopiloting, you expend much less energy because you don’t need to think. This is fine if you’re just repeating something you’ve done before, but trying to autopilot in situations that are dynamic and changing can be dangerous.

Imagine trying to autopilot while driving a route you take everyday - you’d probably get into an accident! Although the route has not changed, a lot of variables have: the other drivers, weather, pedestrians, etc.

Autopiloting in Schools

This was the same problem that the student I was tutoring had, and the same problem I see being faced by so many first year students. In high school, most of the information provided in a problem is useful. So for example, whenever students are given the mass of the reactant in a chemical reaction in high school, it is almost always right to convert it to moles to answer the question. Now students are great observers, so by the end of their high school careers, they realize they can finish their homework or tests more quickly by immediately converting any masses they see to moles.

Many high school students jump into first year science at university with the same mindset. They tackle problems immediately without actually figuring out what they should be doing. See a number in grams? Convert it to moles! Given the mass and acceleration of an object? Let’s find the force applied!

Problems with Autopiloting

However, what worked in high school just doesn’t fly in university anymore. While autopiloting might have saved time before, it can actually waste time now. If I had just left the girl I was tutoring to autopilot, she would have finished her mole calculation. But then she would be confused. She would try and try to manipulate that number somehow to force an answer that made sense, but she would never figure out the correct answer unless she realized that the calculation she did was useless. Hopefully, she would figure out what she actually needed to do, and then determine the correct answer. Unfortunately, there are times when students just give up because they become frustrated when the initial numbers don’t work.

Imagine how much time students waste doing this. Not only is it bad while they complete their homework, but it is even more dangerous on tests. You don’t get that much time on tests, so you need to make the most of it. “I wasn’t able to finish” and “the test was too long” are the most common things I heard after many of my first year chemistry tests.

Always Stop and Think First: Then Act

When I saw that the girl was starting to just convert the numbers, I asked her to hold on for a second. I asked her why she was doing what she was doing. I asked her what the question was asking for, and she soon realized that her calculation had no bearing on the actual answer. She then figured out that you only needed to multiply the number that was provided by 2, and that was the entire answer.

She turned to me, surprised, and said: “Wow! But that was so easy though. Is it supposed to be this easy?”

I told her that it isn’t meant to be hard. You just need to stop and think sometimes.

All of the students I know with really high GPAs in university often appear to be the slowest students. We are always the last ones to finish our laboratory experiments. We are the last ones to begin writing on tests.

But we are also the first ones to finish our tests. This is because we don’t waste time or get confused because of autopiloting. We read each question carefully, understand what is being asked, and only do the work that is necessary to get the answer. We stop and think: then act.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at

Image courtesy of user "aaronx" at via Creative Commons License.