Slow and Fast Learning in the Digital Age

Linda Essig

The proliferation of online learning tools requires us to take a closer look at how we think, teach and learn.

The boom in online learning has sparked a vigorous debate about its transformational effect on higher education — from its impact on school budgets to university culture. What is just as critical, or more so, is how it affects the way students think and learn. This debate comes down to very basic questions about the effects of cognitive processes: How does the way we think affect what we think about? What we choose to teach and learn? And what pedagogies we employ?

A useful starting point is the work of psychologist — and Nobel laureate in economics — Daniel Kahneman, who identifies two primary modes of cognition: the intuitive (fast) and the rational (slow). I also like the metaphor of the network and the line. I employ this framework for meta-cognition, or “thinking about thinking,” in my arts-entrepreneurship classroom and with my coaching clients to explore decision-making processes. It is also a framework for approaching two types of knowledge: one that is fixed, and therefore discoverable via a linear process, and one that is unfixed, in which meaning is created in the process of discovery itself.

My recent experience in developing an online course in arts management is a telling example of the difference between the two. It forced me to think a lot about how the concept of fixed knowledge and the value of open-ended questioning play out in developing student learning assessments. The course designers pushed for multiple choice exams so that the assessments could be machine graded, which in turn meant the number of students enrolled would not be limited by the need for human evaluators (i.e., professors and teaching assistants). However, I still wanted to give my students the opportunity to ask and answer questions so that they could exercise both their linear and nonlinear thinking.

For example, in the unit of the course on strategic planning I emphasized the need to use both modes of thinking – to think synergistically and connectively in the brainstorming and idea generation phases of planning and linearly in the implementation phase. To execute this two-pronged approach, I settled on using a mix of linear problem solving (e.g., analyzing budgets for specific information about an organization), fact-based multiple-choice questions, and open-ended writing prompts that required students to synthesize reading materials with their own experiences.

In the end, the students were responsible for exercising their cognitive muscles across both platforms. As measured by final grades, the students who engaged with all of the material, who drew connections between the different parts of the course content, and who interacted with the instructor learned more than those that did not. In general, students performed well on multiple-choice exams and on writing prompts, but they struggled considerably with “fill in the blank” questions that require one right answer to be “solved” from diverse sources of information. These were not “regurgitated” questions, but ones that fell somewhere between exercising the ability to recall information and creating something new via a short essay. As majors in various arts disciplines, these students were literally schooled in creativity and taught to color out side of the lines, not fill in the blanks. It did not surprise me that students found the latter task challenging.

A colleague who teaches online courses of 100-250 students shared his similar experience. He remarked that he prefers teaching live to online because he likes to “talk, debate, and converse.” In a live class, he can stop and start video examples, discuss them interactively in the moment, and react immediately to students’ questions. When I employ this technique in my live classes, even allowing for occasional digressions if warranted by class discussion, I can literally see students making connections within and across the network of ideas. I cannot say empirically that online teaching discourages students from making similar connections. However, as an instructor, I will not see those connections until they are expressed in a written assignment or project. By then, the “thinking fast” moment — and the learning-teaching opportunity that comes with it — has passed.

The way in which these two modes of thinking relate to academic disciplines and their epistemologies (ways of knowing) became clearer to me while I was “lecturing” in a professional development workshop for graduate students of all disciplines, totaling 15 to 20 PhD and MFA students. The focus was on teaching efficiently and effectively; namely, how to teach well while maintaining time for one’s research agenda. My presentation followed that of a material-science colleague from the engineering faculty, who addressed the students with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Each slide was carefully organized with topic headings and three or four bullet points. He stood behind the table at the front of the room and described how he teaches, using a textbook, quizzes, and multiple-choice exams, and he explained how he uses a real world example of the Hawaii Airlines crash of 1988 to underscore key concepts of material science. The students did not ask any questions following his presentation.

In contrast, when my turn came, I chose to sit on the edge of the table, rather than stand behind it. I asked the students about themselves, their areas of study, and what they hoped to learn from that day’s session. They wanted practical advice, which I gave them by sharing several personal experiences, and asking them whether they had similar experiences. I connected an experience that an engineering student shared with an analogous experience from an art student. As in my own physical classroom, I could see the students making connections with one another and the information.

On leaving the room, I realized that the difference in our delivery and our teaching style was both a disciplinary one and a cognitive one. Material science has a basis in fixed knowledge. If a plane makes too many take-offs and landings, its steel skin will fail. An engineer can calculate that failure point with a certain degree of accuracy. Artistic creativity, by contrast, does not rely on a fixed base of knowledge. We make discoveries through intuition as much — or more — than we do by linear experimentation. Through learning by experience in the studio and the Socratic method in the seminar or lecture, students and instructors alike use and develop their cognitive skills in ways that are not as applicable to disciplines that lead to “one right answer.”

That point brings me to my last example. Nowhere is the emphasis on “one right answer” more pronounced than in the Chinese system of education, which culminates in that country’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination. I recently lectured in Beijing to a group of education policy graduate students (who all spoke English to varying levels of proficiency) on the topic of creativity and pedagogies that support it. The irony of doing so did not escape me. Nor did it escape a visiting colleague from the University of Toronto, who was not surprised that the students had had no arts experiences. With an entire system of secondary education geared toward test preparation, it is no wonder that it does not emphasize the kind of creativity supported by network thinking and intuitive cognitive skills. When I tried to engage these graduate students in a networked discussion, similar to the one I had led with the graduate students back home, I was met with silence. Questions followed my lecture, but they were about the empirical research on which my lecture was based rather than on the connectivity between the ideas presented.

Ultimately, we need to use both types of thinking — the intuitive and the rational, the fast and slow — to successfully navigate the world outside of the academe. Within the university, thinking about thinking not only affects the output we request of students, but the actual learning outcomes that result from the way we teach and evaluate. As universities and non-university entities move swiftly to develop online education resources – whether they are “massive” and “open” or not — course developers will need to design not only content but assessment tools that exercise and strengthen students’ abilities to remember, apply, synthesize, and create knowledge. Without these skills of application, synthesis and creation, on-line learning formats will produce graduates who may be encyclopedias of facts but not necessarily drivers of innovation.


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About The Author:

Linda Essig is Professor of Arts Entrepreneurship and Arts Management in the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University and directs the ASU Arts Entrepreneurship Program, Pave. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter @LindaInPhoenix.