Michael Johnston

Senior Lecturer
Speaking at


The role of cognitive automaticity in mathematics learning: implications for NCEA

Cognitive psychology is the science of human information processing, including the study of memory systems and attention.  As such, it has a great deal to contribute to educational practice and pedagogy, and yet the work of cognitive psychologists is seldom referred to by educational theorists and neither does it often appear to underpin the way in which teachers approach their practice. An important distinction is made by cognitive psychologists in relation to human information processes, between those that are effortful and demanding of attention and working memory resources, and those that are automatic, taking place with little or no effort or requirement for attention. Processes that are initially demanding of cognitive resources tend to become less so with practice and, with sufficient practice, can sometimes become entirely automatic. In this session, the implications of cognitive automaticity for learning and pedagogy will be discussed, with a particular focus on course design and assessment for mathematics under the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). It will be argued that typical current practice does not serve the sound learning of mathematics. In particular, mathematical concepts are often not learned to a level of automaticity sufficient to serve long-term progress in the discipline.


Dr Michael Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University. He has previously been a chief research analyst at the Ministry of Education and a senior statistician at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), where he conducted research and analysis contributing to evidence-based policy and development for New Zealand’s national qualification system for secondary-school students.
At the New Zealand Ministry of Education Dr Johnston initiated a major project to produce the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT), now in use, to assist teachers to make consistent judgements, and to measure students’ progress, against national standards in reading, writing and mathematics. Between 2010 and 2014 he conducted data analysis for annual reports on the National Standards: School Sample Monitoring and Evaluation Project.
Prior to his time working in New Zealand education agencies Dr Johnston was a Lecturer in psychology at Melbourne University and, prior to that, a Research Fellow at La Trobe University.
Dr Johnston qualified for his PhD at the University of Melbourne. He has extensive experience in experimental psychology and quantitative research in education, and has authored a number of peer-reviewed papers published in international and local journals, and contributed to books, on child and adult literacy and on educational assessment.
Dr Johnston is a member of a Technical Overview Group (Assessment), an independent committee providing expert technical advice to NZQA.