Beyond Index Cards

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Lately I'm seeing students, even in classes where they should be beyond it, thinking in "index card" mode, where they view learning as disconnected factoids that can be put on an index card and memorized for exams.

It's Never About the Exam

Exams are always a spot check to see how well you know the material. When you go to a surgeon, you don't care how well he did on his exams. You care whether he knows what to operate on and how.

One exam almost everyone takes at some point is a written exam for a driver's license. Some of the questions are stupid (How far back must a tail light be visible - who designs their own tail lights?) but the test is useful because most of the questions are so basic that if you can't answer them, you can't possibly operate a motor vehicle safely. But even if you get 100 on the exam, if you do something dumb enough you will show that you are really not qualified to have that license. Drive drunk or commit too many violations and it won't matter that you aced the exam. Your actual performance, measured in the only way that counts, takes precedence over the exam.

In any test, it's whether you know the material, not whether you write the correct answer or blacken in the right bubble, that counts. If you happen to get an exam with questions that mostly can be answered that way, you can pass and come away with the impression that you know the material when you may not. But if you get an exam with questions that can't be answered that way, where you have to analyze the question or integrate multiple pieces of information, then what?

Index Card Questions

The typical index card factoid is a concept and its definition. Example: "Tides: regular daily rise and fall of sea level."

If you're given the concept, you have to supply the definition. "Which of the following describes tides?"

Alternatively, you get the definition and have to supply a term. "Regular daily rise and fall of sea level is called what?"

And then one day you get the question: "Why does the earth have a tidal bulge opposite the moon?" Now what?

Beyond Index Cards

The typical index card study mode concentrates on concepts and their definitions. Your boss, however, isn't going to care that you can define HTML as "Hypertext Markup Language." She wants to know if you can write it. So let's say it's an economics class and you've learned that inflation is a rise in prices.

The start of understanding any concept is knowing how it works. Okay, why do prices go up? Well, sellers raise their prices for some reason.

Things work the way they do because of some underlying cause. Why did sellers have to raise their prices? Basically, supply and demand got out of balance. Either supply decreased or demand increased.

And outside factors are going to affect how the concept works so you need to know the important things than can affect the concept you're studying. Maybe sellers have to raise their prices because their own costs went up, that is, something they need is in short supply. Or maybe demand increases and sellers realize they can get more for what they're selling. Maybe what they're selling has become scarce. Maybe the government went nuts and printed scads of extra money, so that demand for goods increases.

No university has the resources to teach frivolous things, so everything taught in every class means something. Not just meaning in the dictionary sense, but significance. So what does inflation mean? It means supply and demand are out of balance, but what does that imply? Maybe it's a temporary interruption of supply. Maybe something critical is running short. Maybe the government is trying to buy political favor by artificially lowering prices or printing more money.

So what does the concept affect? What does inflation affect? Prices go up, so people who aren't in a position to increase their incomes have less buying power. People don't save because their savings will decrease in value. People don't give to charity because they can't be confident of their own future financial situation.

An Example

Let's go back to the first example: "Tides: regular daily rise and fall of sea level."

Why are there tides? The simple answer is the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, but since both are far away from the earth, don't they pull the same on everything? Well, no. The real reason for tidal effects is there's a difference in gravitational pull between the near and far sides of the earth.

The underlying cause is the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Often (as this case) it's clearer to learn the underlying cause and then learn how it works the way it does. But the bottom line is you have to learn not just the concept, but how and why it works.

So if I go to the shore when the Moon is overhead I should see high tide, right? No. Because all sorts of other things influence tides. Tides can't move around freely because of land masses, and tides in small bodies of water like enclosed bays may take hours to reach the far end of the bay.

So what do tides mean? Not the narrow dictionary sense, but what do they imply for other things? Well, first, since tides encounter friction as they move around the earth, they slow the earth's rotation. Also, since tides are created by the difference in the gravitational pull of the sun and moon between two places, small bodies of water like lakes and even the Mediterranean don't have tides.

So what do tides affect? Well, they affect anything affected by changes in sea level. If a high tide is coupled with a severe storm, it will result in coastal flooding.

One Last Point

Here's something many students don't think of. If you insist on studying from index cards or a test bank, expect to get the same percentage on the exam as you get when you quiz yourself. I once had a student lament that she studied and studied and only got 75% on the exam. I asked her how many questions she got right when she tested herself against the question bank. "Oh, about three quarters." And she was surprised to get 75%! If you prefer the memorization approach and you want to get 90% on the exam, you have to get 90% of the questions ccorrect when you test yourself.

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Created 31 March 2008, Last Update 13 December 2011

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