System 1 and System 2 and exam technique

During the Easter break I have been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, this (2011) book describes how (in his view) cognitive and social psychology explains how we think and make decisions; and why we so often ignore statistics and probability, even when we know the facts. Kahneman writes engagingly and convincingly. When he describes a choice, and explains how and why most people make the wrong choice, my first instinct is usually that wrong, popular option.

Kahneman explains this by invoking two systems (1 and 2). System 1 is the default, the before you blink choice, the intuitive feeling, the conditioned response. System 2 is a choice to think rationally, to consider all the facts, draw the probability tree, calculate the percentages, weigh the relevant evidence, and discard the coincidental occasional correlation or plausible explanation unless there is theory and fact to support it. Kahneman describes system 2 as lazy, it doesn’t start to work unless we prod it into action.

In an early chapter he gives a simple example, which I shall anglicise. You are in a café, and want to buy a scone. This is the sort of café where the pat of butter or spread is charged separately from the scone (I know, next time go somewhere nicer or buy a biscuit). The total is £1.10p. The scone costs £1.00 more than the butter. How much was the butter?

Okay, maybe you have resisted the temptation to say 10p. I’ve tried it on several people, only one thought it through and realised that would be wrong – and she acknowledged the temptation as she thought aloud and said,’ I know it’s not going to be 10p.’ Then took a while to calculate 5p. System 1 clicks in as we first read £1.10p and we have to make a conscious decision to think the question through more carefully.

What has this to do with exam. prep.? My plan is to ask a class (with mini white boards) this question. Then, after the students’ response, to talk about ways they can force themselves to read an examination question carefully, using highlighters, arrows and underlining. The aim being to engage a lazy system 2, to think rationally and explore an idea thoroughly so they can demonstrate their academic ability.

I hope if I share this insight from Professor Kahnemann with my students, it will convince some of them that there is a reason for the advice I give them about examination technique.


About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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