Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Secrets of Academic Success: Secret #3: Words and Lists

Secret #3: Words and Lists (or How to Fish)

"So, Dr Hart, what’s going to be on the exam?” This I sometimes hear.

Let me share with you a secret that I discovered when I was a student. [Wait, wait, you know what, I probably learned it from some book. But, it sounds better to say I discovered it. I could have learned it from a book titled "How to Read a Book” by Adler. That’s another book that I’d strongly recommend to students.] Now where was I?  Oh yeah… words, lists and fish.

So, let’s just focus on a single textbook chapter. Got your favorite textbook chapter in mind? : ) Good. Now, how would you study for a test just on that chapter?

I once overheard a couple of students say they did not know what to study for an exam, so they just picked pages at random and “studied” them. The problem here is focus. What exactly do you study?

When you read/study a chapter you can use some of the techniques described in Secret #1 to figure out what to study. But, here let me add my own two cents. I’d suggest you see the chapter you are studying as a collection of words and lists.

The words would be the jargon/terms, names (people and places), key fact, etc. Examples: Communication is the exchange of information by which…, John Harper is the author of …. (Hint: Some textbooks may boldface these words for easy identification. Some textbooks have lists of words (or “key terms”) at the end of the chapter or better yet, some textbooks have a glossary of the terms in the back of the book.)

The lists would be sets of words, events on a timeline, points in an argument, steps in a procedure or process, etc. Examples: The 4 C’s of media management are … The first communication revolution was writing and the second revolution was… In the 1920s radio was … and in the 1950s TV… Television broadcasting begins first with signal generation and then…

Try it. Go get to a textbook chapter right now. I’ll wait…

No, I’m serious. Go get the textbook.

O.K. Now, pick a chapter. See what I mean? There’s some fluff in there, but at the heart of the chapter are some new words and lists to learn centered on the topic of the chapter. (Hint: If your textbook has detailed chapter outlines, you can more easily see a chapter as a mixture of words and lists. By looking at the outline you can see words within lists and lists within lists. See how it all fits together?)

This words/lists approach may not capture 100% of everything, but let’s say it covers a heck of a lot. For example, you may say, “Dr. Hart, what about diagrams?” My response: “Diagrams usually accompany some word or list already in the chapter. For example, a diagram may illustrate some procedure or process already described verbally in the chapter. The diagram is just a visual representation of the word or list. So, include it as part of your words and lists collection.” Or you may ask, “what about some key fact like the date of the Declaration of Independence?” I’d see that as fitting into the word category. It is something like a definition. Communication is the exchange… The date of the Declaration of Independence is 1776.

O.K., so lists and words. Got it. But, what about how many words and lists? The number of words and lists depends on the length of chapter and the level of detail in the chapter. Based on experience I’d estimate 20 - 40 words or lists per chapter. So, for a mid-term which covers six chapters that’d be 120 – 240 words and lists to study. For a comprehensive final exam that’d be approximately 200-500 for a course. That’s what it boils down to by the end of the semester. You are hopefully learning 200-500 things (words and lists) by the end of the course. Have you ever heard it put this way?

When should you find these words and lists? For goodness sake, don’t wait until exam time to cram. Gather the words and lists as you are doing your readings each week.

What to do with the words and lists once you’ve collected them? Two quick suggestions: My first suggestion is to try flashcards (the real things or you might find some flashcard systems online). You can put a word (or phrase) on one side and the definition or other corresponding information on the other side. As for the lists you could put the title of the list on one side and the list on the other side. Example: On one side put “List the steps of TV broadcasting.” On the other side of that card put “Step 1: Signal Generation, Step 2…” (See advice for flashcard studying above.)

My second suggestion for how to study your words and lists would be to write the words and lists from one chapter on one side of a sheet of paper. This way the whole chapter is captured there on one sheet of paper. (If you study it enough, you may be able to close your eyes during an exam and see answers exam questions.) You might have to write small (or get a bigger sheet of paper). For those of you who are visually inclined, you may want to draw lines and pictures on your sheet (see mapping in Secret #1). For those of you who are more verbally inclined, you may want to make your sheet look more like a well-organized chapter outline.

Now, how might the lists and words you’ve studied show up on an exam? Remember Secret #2 above about how professors write exams? If you’ve read the highly recommended article mentioned in the Secret #2 section, then you probably already see the connection between words and list and exam writing. You probably already see clearly that words make great multiple choice questions and fill-in-the-blank questions and lists would work well and short answer or essay questions.

  • The date of the Declaration of Independence is ____.
    • (A) 1776 (B) 1735 (C) 1860 (D) 1544
  • John _____ is the author Communication Revolutions.
    • (A) Harper (B) Smith (C) Hardy (D) Davis

So Dr. Hart, how about you just give us the words and lists, you know kinda like a study guide? No, I’m sorry. I’m not that kinda guy – I’m not a study-guide-kinda-guy for two reasons. First, I think you are going to learn the material better if you dissect that chapter yourself. If you tear it apart, you are better going to understand how it was put together. Secondly, have you ever heard the Chinese proverb: “Give a person a fish and feed them for a day. Teach them how to fish and feed them for a life time”? I really like this proverb. It speaks to me. As a teacher I’m not interested in giving you a fish. I’d prefer to teach you how to fish, so you can do it yourself without me. I’m not interested in giving you an answer. I’m interested in helping you find an answer, so you can find it yourself without me. I’m not interested in giving you the learning (the words and lists). I’m interested in teaching you how to learn, so you can do it by yourself without me.

Closing Thoughts

So, I’m sorry to say that the secrets that I’ve shared with you are not some foreign-sounding words that you say three times and suddenly you have grand success with grades and college. I know that it may kind of a bummer. But, that’s reality. That’s life. It is going to take some work, but now you at least know some secrets that are going to help you.

With that said, let me leave you with a funny story…

“An eccentric philosophy professor gave a one-question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics. The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up his chair, plopped it on his desk and wrote on the board: "Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist."
Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, however, was up and finished in less than a minute. Weeks later when the grades were posted, the student who finished in less than a minute got an A. The rest of the group wondered how she could have gotten the best grade in the class when she apparently gave the exam such little effort. This is what she wrote: "What chair?”

To be continued…

What are your thoughts?

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The Secrets of Academic Success: Secret #2: How Profs Write Exams

Secret #2: Bloom’s Taxonomy (or How Do Profs Write Exams, Anyway?)

Consciously or unconsciously, your professors are guided by a teaching philosophy when writing exams. A philosophy is a belief about how to live or how to deal with a situation. There are reasons they (your teachers) do what they do. Believe it or not.

Professors learn these reasons explicitly as part of their graduate training and implicitly through experience.

How do profs write exams? Imagine if you knew that. What power you’d have. You could anticipate types of questions on an exam and you could bend a spoon just with the power of your mind. Well, maybe you wouldn't be able to do that bend-a-spoon thing.

I learned this secret explicitly as part of my graduate teacher training and I guess I use it consciously. At least that is what my syllabus says (see the teaching philosophy section of my syllabus).

I’d recommend you read:
How to Write Better Tests: A Handbook for Improving Test Construction Skills
You may also want to check out Bloom's Taxonomy.

Now you know how an exam is written. You did visit and read that sites above, right?  If so, you now have a better understanding of how a prof. writes exams. But, what about the content of the questions? You now know the how, but where’s the what?

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The Secrets of Academic Success: A Student Guide - Secret #1

There are some things about academic success that you may not know.
But your professors know.
The University support staff knows.
However, you as a student may not know. So, what are the secrets?

In a recent book titled The Secret, the author promises to reveal to you the “The Secret to everything - the secret to unlimited joy, health, money, relationships, love, [and] youth.”

Well, I can’t promise all that. But, I do think I have some information (some “secrets”) that just might help you with academic success. What I share with you below applies not only to my courses, but to all your courses. What you’ll learn here will certainly help you in my classes and, more than likely, it will help you in your other classes as well.

What follows are some secrets that I learned as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student and as a professor. I’d like to share these with you.

Secret #1 (Well, kinda a secret)

There is nothing more fundamental than the fundamentals.

Former MIT prof and Chesapeake, VA resident, Randy Pausch wrote a little book that I'd highly recommend. Pausch’s book is called The Last Lecture. You may want to see the YouTube video of Pausch’s Last Lecture. If you can't watch the full lecture below, please at least see the first 10 minutes or so.  Note that this video has been viewed over 16 million times.

You may also want to check out a short clip of Dr. Pausch over on

This prof. makes many important points in the video and his book, but one of the most important is about the role of fundamentals in education. Pausch learned this lesson early in life from a grade school football coach. “Fundamentals. That was a great gift Coach Graham gave us. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. As a college professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore, always to their detriment: You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.”

Here we are not playing football, but the same idea applies. Here we are not learning the basics of blocking, but the basics of studying, the basics of learning.

There are few good study skills sources that I’d recommend sources that are online. I especially like “Influencing teachers.” I’d also recommend the following study fundamentals pages from the Study Guides and Strategies site:

So, after reading the above, you may say “those are not secrets, I knew that already.”  I’d argue that there is a difference between knowledge and practice. You may “know” them, but are you practicing them? If you know these and consistently practice these, then you have the fundamentals down. If you don’t, then please don’t skip past these. Take them seriously. Practice these fundamentals, “otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.” Practice them. “Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.”

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