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Tips for Test-Takers from “Thinking Fast and Slow”

Redding. LSM, Wpt, etc for posts 074Dear Friends,

Have you ever felt like there were two people inside you vying for control?

I’m rereading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist who studies reasoning and decision-making. Kahneman explains that our minds do contain two agents: A System One which makes quick, emotionally-based decisions, and a System Two which reasons slowly and deliberately.

The premise of Thinking Fast and Slow is that we’d all be better off if we learned awareness of these two systems so as to use the right system for the right purpose.

Most of the time, System One works just fine. It makes its decisions by applying heuristics (rules), which are stored in the brain innately or through prior experience. Because its answers are prepackaged, System One’s decisions are quick and feel easy and use little mental energy. System One works well in simple situations and on problems that are similar to ones that have been solved before.

But when situations are complex or novel, System Two ought to be hauled out. Many financial decisions (Should I buy this house?) and academic ones (What is the correct answer to this SAT question?) are properly the province of System Two. They ought to be reasoned out slowly and deliberately, with a vigilant eye out for mistakes and skipped steps and unfounded assumptions.

And yet, we all too often apply a System One-level decision to a System Two-level problem. That’s because “going by our gut” feels so pleasant and satisfying, whereas the application of meticulous mental effort is drudgery.

System Two thinking is physiologically uncomfortable. It burns more glucose (it literally consumes “mental energy,” which is why students should carry energy bar snacks to their standardized tests). Heart rate and blood pressure rise and pupils dilate. System Two work is a lot like running, and most of us would much rather walk:

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” 
― Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow

Many of the questions on standardized tests tempt students into solving a related easy problem instead of the appropriate hard problem. And, yes, the test-makers are purposely trying to be “tricky.” Standardized tests attempt to assess students not just on how much knowledge they’ve acquired, but also on their ability to access that knowledge in the service of Level Two reasoning:

“Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 
― Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow

Here are some examples of standardized test traps students fall into:

  • Given five vocabulary words, the student only knows the definition of one of them, and he knows it is incorrect, yet he chooses this word anyway, because he recognizes it. (This is called The Familiarity Bias; we like and trust things we recognize, even though, in this case, it is blatantly illogical to do so!)
  • Given a reading passage, the student selects the answer choice that contains an eye-catching word used in the passage, instead of carefully reading the question or referring back to the passage. Let’s say the passage uses the interesting word “gadget,” and one of the answer choices also contains “gadget;” test-takers are likely to grab this answer choice without further consideration. And the test-makers know it.
  • Given a multi-step math problem, one of the answer choices is the correct answer to a middle step in the problem. Students will grab that answer and move on, forgetting all about finishing the problem.

So what’s the fix?

Adults can help by checking in on a regular basis to see that students are not just practicing, but doing so deliberately. This means that kids are examining their errors and analyzing and learning from them. As one teacher put it, “make sure students are learning and not just answer-seeking.

  • Have your student rework any missed problems on math and science tests, and rewrite essay and short-answer questions according to the teacher’s comments.
  • When your child does a practice standardized test, sit with her and discuss her wrong answers.
  • KhanAcademy, and other online learning tools are great, but do sit with your student once in a while and make sure that when he misses a question he is reading and digesting the explanations, and not just clicking mindlessly until he hits the right answer.
  • Ask your child to tell you about her summer reading book. Does she “get” what she’s been reading? And remind her that rereading, looking up unfamiliar words and asking you questions are things good readers do!

Warm Regards,

Tips for Test-Takers from “Thinking Fast and Slow”

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2014). Tips for Test-Takers from “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Aug 2014
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