Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Secrets of Academic Success: Secret 3

See: Secret 1 | Secret 2 | Secret 3

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

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

How to Read a Book (A Touchstone book)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 the links above 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 revolutions 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 above). 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 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?

See: Secret 1 | Secret 2 | Secret 3

Visit WilliamHartPhD.com


  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  2. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.
    After the semester gets started I want to check these videos out. Sounds like a great find. Any little clips available online (YouTube, etc.)?

  3. Im a person who can't paass a test if the asnwers were given to me, but your secrets really helped me especially the "Funny Story". That is something I would have said and knew that I failed for saying it. Thanks for the help!!



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