Monday, September 6, 2010


At the risk of stimulating the philosopher that lurks in the farthest recesses of your mind, I’d like to first describe briefly what is covered in a philosophy course called “epistemology.” It is the study of the nature of knowledge especially with regard to its limits and validity. In epistemology, we think about questions like, “If you know, does it follow that you know that you know?”

And that’s the difference between learning and studying. In learning, you come to know something; in studying, you ensure that you know that you know it and can use the information when appropriate -- on a test for example.

So you’ve done your duty and competed every homework assignment. You might even have checked your answers, found your own mistakes and corrected them. You’ve LEARNED the material. Now comes the test and it’s time to actually STUDY. Here are a few tricks to help design a smart study plan.

1. REVIEW PAST ERRORS. Look at your Math homework, for example. Rework any problems that you didn’t answer correctly the first time. If you’ve been correcting mistakes on daily work, you should have learned the algorithms and now is the time to check to make sure that the steps have been effectively stored in long term memory. You’re asking yourself, “CAN I SOLVE THAT PROBLEM OR ANSWER THAT QUESTION CORRECTLY NOW?”

This is a cyclical process. Any mistakes put the problem back in the cycle until you can correctly answer without error. It’s like when you were in grammar school and had those weekly spelling tests. To help you study, your mom may have quizzed you on the words, eliminating each as you could spell it correctly but coming back to any “misses” until you got it right.

Homework assignments are just the beginning. Save and review all related quizzes and class notes also.

2. LOOK AT A QUESTION BACKWARDS. Actually, you’re looking at the answers and thinking of questions which would result in those answers. This is an especially useful tool for anyone who is thinking in only a straight line. It happens frequently in Algebra. If you see a quadratic equation, you instinctively know to factor, set the factors equal to zero, and solve for X. But what happens if you’re given the binomial factors? Normally the instruction would be to FOIL, so you do. But if you were supposed to solve the problem, your straight line of thinking would have led you down the wrong path. By looking at problems “through the back door” so to speak, you’re developing a deeper understanding of the role each solution step plays. You’ll be able to jump into a question at any point and be sure you’re working through it in the right direction.

3. PREDICT TEST QUESTIONS. By looking at a Math problem backwards, you are predicting the kinds of questions which could be asked on the test. But this strategy works well in other disciplines also. Take History as the example. If you have learned a series of dates, you can predict that a question might ask “What happened next?” -- or “What caused this event?” -- or “How is this event similar to or different from another?” Thinking about what might be asked puts you in better position during the test because you’ve already considered how to answer.

It is also useful to look at questions that weren’t covered in homework. In History, look at the chapter review questions that weren’t assigned. In fact, in EVERY class, check out all of the textbook resources (the questions, study stimulators, discussion starters, and reviews) that were never assigned. Some teachers create the tests from these assets.

4. LIST TOPICS AND RELATED ISSUES. If you did any “webs” in grammar school, you understand this process. Start with a central idea and branch out to related concepts. Some elementary schools use KWL: what do you Know, what do you Want to know, what did you Learn? Start with a central idea and list every thing you already Know about it. Same strategy, one using a visual diagram with words and the other using a list of words. (Refer to the blog on learning styles to discover which approach fits your style.)

5. BE PHILOSOPHICAL. Ask yourself the question, “Just because I know the material, do I know it in such a way that it will be useful to me on the test? Do I KNOW that I KNOW?” Your grade on the test will provide an answer for you, but too late for you to do much about it. So study what you’ve learned and be truly prepared to achieve the "A" you deserve.

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