Grandma's Way ain't the Only Way to Cook a Ham

By Peter Connor

Are there any drawbacks to having your students learn to do something—or to respond to specific stimuli—so automatically that thinking about it becomes unnecessary? Can something be over-learned to the point of becoming problematic? When does automaticity hinder learning?

In her book, Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom, Marilla Svinicki (2004) illustrates the problem of automaticity and how a little mindfulness can shed perception-changing light on future learning situations.

My favorite story about such mindless acceptance of behavior involves a young bride who was having her mother-in-law over for dinner for the first time. She was baking a ham and before putting it in the oven, she cut off the two ends. Her mother-in-law asked her why she was doing that, to which she replied that's what her mother had always done...(qtd. in Reis, 2010, para. 3).

A basic trait among problem-solvers is curiosity. Using prior knowledge to better grasp a problem and all of its underlying constructs is essential to the process of satisfying that curiosity. But what if one’s prior knowledge is, at best, ill or under informed? In Sviniki’s illustration, the young bride seeks out a better answer to her mother in-law’s question:

[She] called her grandmother, who said "Well, when your mother was young, we didn't have much money for fancy pans, so I had to use the same old small pan for everything. A ham didn't quite fit in it, so I always had to cut it down to fit my pan before I could put it in the oven" (qtd. in Reis, 2010, para. 3).

Performing by rote, the new bride had been mimicking a habit of her mother's who had, in turn, been mimicking the habit of her mother’s. It’s a good thing Grandma was still alive to ask. There’s no telling how many generations would have continued cutting off the ends of the ham for no apparent reason.

The development of critical thinking and advanced problem solving skills rests, in part, on encouraging students to learn how to learn: to question pre-conceived notions, to analyze their own existing body of prior knowledge, and to alter their thinking in light of new or different information.

To read more about automaticity vs. mindful learning, please visit Tomorrow's Professor posting #993: How Much Learning is Enough?


Svinicki, M. D.  (2004). How much learning is enough. In R. Reis (Ed.), Tomorrow’s Professor: Msg. 993. Retrieved from

Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.


Thanks to Dr. Erica Suchman, Assoc. Prof. in the Dept. of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University for this Teaching Tip suggestion.