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Thinking slow in online learning

By Polly Myers

For students and teachers alike, online courses can be overwhelming because of altered patterns of time. Learning Management Systems like Canvas and social media sites like Facebook provide a means for online programs to run 24/7. Students and instructors can spend either too much time online or not enough. As Brigid Schulte points out in her compelling book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, technology “splinters the experience of time into thousands of little pieces. And living in an always-on technological haze leads to mental exhaustion.” (26) “Thinking slow” has been advocated as a means to resist the frantic pace of universities that are increasingly corporatized and focused on efficiencies. See, for example, this recent Inside Higher Ed piece on the book “Slow Professor.”

The art and practice of “thinking slow” may seem out of place in online education, but it is critical for combatting technological fatigue. Attention to the technological pressure to speed up educational processes in fact presents a unique opportunity to share with students the opportunities and benefits of a college education. Here are a few ways I do this:

  • Introduce thinking slow as vital to college education

    I have students read a speech from Harvard President Drew Faust titled “The Case for College.” I like how she emphasizes that even amidst the changes in technology, where information is right at our fingertips, a lot can be gained by slowing things down:

College teaches us to ‘Think Slow.’ No one denies the value of speed, connectivity, and the virtual world in an economy that thrives on all three. But college can also help you to slow down. And that, perhaps, is a lesson that you don’t hear taught all that often: Slow your processors down. College teaches you to sift through an enormous amount of daily information, to assess it, to use it critically. In other words, you learn to reject information as well as receive it. The ability to examine a piece of information skeptically, before deciding whether to accept it or not, is a vital skill in the workplace, and a vital skill in life.

I introduce Faust’s speech at the beginning of the quarter to prepare students to engage with the practice of “thinking slow” in their own learning.

  • Build in breaks as an expected part of learning

    Due dates can do this, of course, but it is also important to address times when everyone should be off-line. Simply identifying a few days in the quarter when I will be offline, and I expect the students should be too, is quite powerful. I share studies that show that productivity goes up when people take breaks (such as this quick and easy read in the Huffington Post).

  • Use physical books and paper

    Hand written student work
    Notes by Denise Ireland

    We don’t read or write things online the same way we do on paper. Even in an online course I have students write and brainstorm on paper (and then simply take a photo or scan of their notes). I also use physical books. Finally, I share with students data on how our brains best process information and paper, it turns out, is a key part of the process, as this recent NPR article notes.

Building in time to appreciate the nuances of education as a process, where time is best used to think in thoughtful, deep, and slow ways, is a crucial practice for online education. After all, as Faust points out, “College can help you learn how to think, more than what to think.”

Works cited

Bartolotta, Kate. “5 Science-Backed Ways Taking a Break Boosts Our Productivity.” 16 November 2015. Web. 2 May 2016. <>

Doubek, James and NPR Staff. “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away.” 17 April 2016. Web. 2 May 2016. <>

Faust, Drew.  “The Case for College.” Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Dallas, TX. 24 October 2014. Keynote Address. Web. 19 April 2016. <>

Flaherty, Colleen. ‘The Slow Professor.’ 19 April 2016. Web. 19 April 2016.<>

Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time (HarperCollins, 2014).


Polly Meyers, UW lecturer Integrated Social SciencesAbout the author

Polly Myers is a full-time lecturer in the Integrated Social Sciences program and the History Department at University of Washington. She received her PhD in History from the University of Minnesota in 2008.