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IELTSychology - Thinking Fast and Slow and the IELTS Exam

March 28, 202413 min read


Thinking, Fast and Slow
and the IELTS Exam

In memory of Daniel Kahneman March 5, 1934 – March 27, 2024

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

1. Background

I drafted this blog a long time ago, but I hadn't gotten around to posting it - perfectionism is procrastination's best friend - but with the recent passing of Daniel Kahneman I felt the time was right to finally put it out into the world.

Before I talk about the relevance of Thinking, Fast and Slow to the IELTS exam, I'd like to give a bit of background to my connection to this book and Kahneman's ideas in general.

I studied philosophy at university, but I wrote my dissertation about the psychology of moral judgments. I enjoyed the research very much, and in writing this paper I discovered, at the end of my degree, that I probably should've studied psychology rather than philosophy, ha!

A large part of my thesis focused on the notion of a “Dual-Process theory of moral cognition” - that some moral judgements are quick, automatic and driven by emotion, while other judgments are slow and deliberate and driven by so-called 'higher cognition'.

This idea, that the brain works on these two levels, although not originally conceived by Kahneman, is a big part of his psychological philosophy. He says that our mind has two systems.

According to Kahneman, “System 1 Thinking is our brains’ fast, automatic, unconscious, and emotional response to situations and stimuli.” while “System 2 Thinking is the slow, effortful, and logical mode in which our brains operate when solving more complicated problems.” (Decision Lab, 2024)

This way of thinking about the human mind has stayed with me ever since completing my dissertation. You could say it’s so deeply embedded in my mind, that it now automatically informs my judgments about the world at a subconscious level. I read and processed these ideas with my System 2 until they became part of my System 1.

I wrote my dissertation in 2010, and I honestly can't remember if I read any Kahneman at the time (his name isn't in the bibliography), but the main papers I read had certainly been influenced by Kahneman's work, or at least ran parallel to it.

When I started working in a busy café after graduating, taking a large order of different drinks, having to remember it, and then make them all as fast as possible seemed impossibly demanding, but it quickly became an automatic process which I could do while chatting to my colleagues or daydreaming about the football scores.

When I first started teaching, getting through an hour-long class took an immense amount of deliberate and conscious effort, but 13 years later, many complex elements of teaching are now an automatic, reflexive set of behavioural patterns.

This topic came up in one of my CAE classes, and one of my students very thoughtfully gave me a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s not a long book but it was slightly dense for the 4 neurons that I possessed at the time (I think I briefly boosted that number up to 6 last year when I was studying for the Delta, but now it’s back down to around 3).

I did get round to reading it a few years later - along with about a hundred other psychology, politics, business and economics books which all reference Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking - and it has been immensely satisfying to have my now-default way of thinking explained and validated so thoroughly in such a variety of contexts.

Which brings us to Thinking, Fast and Slow and the IELTS exam.

In the article, I’d like to discuss how Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 come into play in the following areas:

  • In IELTS Preparation

  • In the Writing Exam

  • In the Speaking exam

Not only is this a pet subject of mine, I also believe that if more learners were meta-cognitively conscious of these processes - of the interplay between slow, conscious System 2 and fast, automatic System 1 and - it could help them achieve success in the exam.

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow and IELTS Preparation

When starting out, the grand majority of serious IELTS students (ones who need to get a band 7+ so take the time to properly prepare) can feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to learn.

There are about 9 different types of questions in the listening exam, there are about 8 different types of questions in the reading exam, there are about 14 different types of questions in the writing exam, and there are also a variety of styles of speaking questions which could be on a wide range of topics.

Ideally, students will become familiar with all of these and learn strategies to deal with each of them - all of this while also working on their reading skills, listening skills, grammar, vocabulary, coherence, fluency, and pronunciation.

It might seem like an insurmountable task, but many thousands of students manage it, and manage it well.

These students start off doing things slowly and deliberately but by exam day, they’ve internalised and automated many tasks which previously took great amounts of conscious effort.

I believe that if more learners were meta-cognitively conscious of this process - of the interplay between slow, conscious System 2 and fast, automatic System 1 and - it could help them achieve success in the exam.

Indeed, on exam day, doing four cognitively-demanding tests back-to-back, with each test potentially deciding your future life, the time in each test goes past quickly and you’ll likely be nervous/stressed/tired.

Beforehand, you need to have consciously worked on exam strategies as well as consciously worked on your English so that on exam day, you can delegate a large part of the work to a very well trained System 1 autopilot. Your System 1 autopilot will help you through the exam with the minimal expended effort, so that your System 2 conscious driver can take over when necessary.

Kahneman says: “acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgements and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate.”

3. Thinking, Fast and Slow and IELTS Writing

In my experience as a teacher and a test taker, the set of skills necessary to get a good score on the writing exam are the hardest to acquire. I’d like to talk about a few of these skills and how the two thinking Systems come into play.

These skills include:

  • Understanding the question (Writing Task 1 and Writing Task 2)

  • Understanding the data/picture (Writing Task 1)

  • Understanding what type of report (Writing Task 1) you have to write

  • Understanding what type of essay (Writing Task 2) you have to write

  • Generating arguments, supporting points and examples (Writing Task 2)

  • Organising your ideas at the paragraph level

  • Organising your ideas at the sentence level

  • Paraphrasing the question

  • Developing your thoughts into sentences

  • Varying your vocabulary

  • Avoiding vocab mistakes

  • Avoiding grammar mistakes

  • Spelling words correctly

  • Using punctuation correctly

  • Checking your work

You need to do a great deal of effortful writing practice with regular feedback from a teacher in order to internalise and automate these skills.

At first, the practice will be hard and you’ll do the tasks slowly, but with enough conscious work and conscientiousness, you can convert these writing skills from slow System 2 tasks into fast System 1 tasks.

However, in the writing test (maybe more than any other part of the exam?), you’ll also need to use the careful deliberation of your System 2, especially in the pre-writing and post-writing stages.

In Writing Task 1, before you start writing, you need to make sure you understand what the image represents - it’s not just a bunch of lines of numbers, it’s a line graph showing you how much money a country made from banana exports - and you need to be able to understand the main trends.

With some practice, you can do this quite spontaneously, but you should always double check your System 1’s quick first-impressions with your System 2’s slower, more careful analysis.

In Writing Task 2, before you start writing, you need to read, then re-read the question, making sure you fully understand exactly what you’re being asked to write about. Panicking under time pressure, students often rush this step and write essays which are only generally about the topic rather than specifically answering the given question.

Interestingly, Kahneman writes, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.”, and I often see this in students’ essays who use their System 1 to superficially get the general topic of the question, then answer a very different question which their System 1 mind has made up.

Students also need to generate a set of simple, relevant, specific arguments to answer the question and to put these ideas in a logical order which flows.

Again, understanding the question and generating ideas are things which do become somewhat automatic with practice, but on exam day, it’s highly recommendable that you slow down and use your conscious System 2 mental resources to get the pre-writing stage right.

It’s also recommendable to call on System 2 in the post-writing stage, when checking for mistakes, repeated vocabulary or arguments which could be tidied up and made clearer.

And yes, clarity and simplicity are the goals in the writing test (and the speaking test), where you need to communicate your ideas clearly and simply, so that the examiner can effortlessly understand what you’re trying to say without having to think too hard to decipher the message. That is, you want your writing to be so clear that the examiner can easily understand it with their System 1 without having to invoke their System 2.

Relatedly, Kahneman writes:

“The general principle is that anything you can do to reduce cognitive strain will help, so you should first maximize legibility … If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.”

As such, beyond the IELTS marking criteria, where the legibility and clarity of your language and arguments are evaluated, findings in psychology also suggest that in general it's better to aim for clarity and legibility rather than showing off with complicated ideas and difficult vocabulary.

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow and IELTS Speaking

Now when it comes to the baile en pareja that is the speaking exam, there is a great amount of choreography that goes into training your speaking muscles and reflexes.

You must learn the steps, how to dance them your way, how to respond to the questions your partner (the examiner) poses and how to improvise spontaneously, but smoothly, without missing a beat.

The 11-14 minutes of the speaking test go by extremely fast and there is very little time for slow, conscious System 2 deliberation. If you’re well prepared, your System 1 automatically will answer the questions reflexively, skillfully and accurately.

You’ll use System 2 in those moments when you take a breath and think of your answer before each question. You’ll use System 2 to plan your Speaking Part 2 talk. You’ll use System 2 when you monitor your own speech and choose to correct yourself. You’ll use System 2 to navigate a slightly tricky grammar structure or verb conjugation.

However, I’d suggest that a well prepared IELTS candidate will use 95% System 1 in the speaking exam with about 5% System 2. This is reflected in the marking criteria with reference to a candidate's level of hesitation, with Band 9 students only hesitating to think of ideas and lower bands hesitating more to think of language.

If you’re aiming for a band 6.5+ in the speaking test, and you find yourself using large amounts of conscious System 2 effort, then you’re probably not ready yet. To get a band 6.5+ you should practise to the point where everything flows automatically as well as accurately.

The concepts of ‘flow’ and ‘automaticity’ are deeply interesting. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the concept of of flow (as popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) as:

“A state of effortless concentration … [it] neatly separates the two forms of effort: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention … [it] requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.”

Which chimes nicely with the concept of automaticity in linguistics:

“If you can perform a task automatically, you can do it without having to focus your attention on it. In this way, you free your limited attentional resources for more demanding activities. Somebody who is a novice in a skill has to perform a task step by step, and to focus on each step. As novices become more expert, they simplify the process. They combine (or chunk) the steps and set up associations that link one step with another” (Thornbury, 2006)

5. Conclusion

To conclude, I'd like to summarise some of the main points of this article in short summary quotations, much like Kahneman did himself after each chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

  • "When I first studied that new concept, it took a lot of mental energy, but now I easily apply it in my everyday life. It was part of my System 2 thinking, but now it's part of my System 1."

  • "When I first started that new job, all of the new tasks took a lot of effort, and I was very slow, but now I can do them quickly and automatically. I had to use my System 2 a lot, but now I can do them using System 1."

  • "Many aspects of IELTS preparation take me a long time and a lot of effort, but if I practice them enough, I'll be able to do them quickly, effortlessly and automatically. I need to use my System 2 in order to really master them, and practice them enough so that my System 1 can take over on exam day."

  • "Before the writing test, there are many skills I need to practice so that I can do them quickly and automatically under time pressure; however, in the pre-writing and post-writing stage, I need to slow down and pay very careful attention to reading the question, planning and checking my work. I need to utilise both my System 1 and System 2 thinking."

  • "I should write simple ideas with clear, simple language so that the examiner can easily understand what I'm trying to communicate. Ideally, I want my examiner to understand my work quickly and automatically using their System 1, rather than making them have to slow down and use their System 2 to try and work out what I'm trying to say."

  • "I need to practice my speaking skills and become so familiar with the speaking test that on exam day I can let everything flow. While I'm practising, if I always have to speak really slowly and consciously, always looking for words and grammar structures, then I probably need to simplify my message, or I need to keep practising until I have a greater level of automaticity."

Rest in peace Daniel Kahneman and thank you for your contributions to the world.


An A-Z of ELT (Methodology): A dictionary of terms and concepts used in English Language Teaching, Thornbury (2006)

System 1 and System 2 Thinking, (Accessed 28/3/2024)

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman (2011)

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