Bert and Sally are two students who ran into difficulty on their final exams, and complained that there was an unreasonable amount of material to memorize for the course. So why did Bert and Sally not try to understand the course material rather than just memorize it? Maybe they thought memorizing would be easier and faster, or maybe they weren’t far enough along to transition toward understanding. But I suspect there is another reason. I suspect that they underestimated how much they would be expected to know, and how well they would have to know it. As a result, they prepared too superficially.
1. Approach to the assignments
In the course that Sally and Bert took, students do assignments which are often accomplished by paraphrasing the textbook in a way that is only slightly better than copying it outright. Because of this approach, they can get the right answers (and therefore good grades) without actually understanding key parts of what they’ve written. There seems to be a chain of reasoning that runs: “I didn’t really understand the assignments, but I still did well on them. Therefore, I will be able to do well on the final exam with a similar level of understanding.”
In fact, it is never safe to take one’s performance on assignments at face value unless one can be confident that the conditions of the exam will match the conditions of the assignment. For example, if you refer to your textbook while solving physics problems, this is not the same as having to solve a physics problem on an exam without your textbook and while under pressure. A good grade on that physics assignment would tell you very little about how you will do on the exam. In the case of the course that Sally and Bert took, a look at students’ performances over many offerings of the course shows that there is effectively no correlation between assignment grades and exam results.
Another problem with paraphrasing the textbook very closely is that while I suspect that students who do so are not clear on what they are writing, I have no way of knowing for sure what they do and don’t understand. That means I may give a student full points on a question even though that student might have misunderstood the text that he or she paraphrased. In that case, getting full points might convince a student that his or her understanding is correct, when in fact it isn’t. That student has eliminated any chance for me to find the error… until I grade the exam, that is. Then I hear from Berts and Sallys.
2. Reasonability assumption
When filtering out what is and isn’t necessary to study, a starting point might be the assumption that an instructor will not be unreasonable and will avoid demanding complex details, or asking questions about extremely difficult topics. One problem with this assumption, however, is that someone who is new to a field of study will not have the same perception of what is difficult or complex as someone who has worked in the field for a while. An idea that might seem complicated to the uninitiated could be a very basic principle in that field. A second problem is that sometimes a complicated or difficult topic can be very important for a particular area of study, and therefore necessary to learn even though learning it might seem nearly impossible at the time.
You may think that another problem with the reasonability assumption is that some instructors are unreasonable and use exams to punish students. I can’t say that’s never the case, but I will point out that a “reasonable” exam is not an exam that any student can pass- it is an exam that a student can pass if he or she has done a reasonable job of covering the stated course objectives.
In the end, if you’re not sure about whether something is important or not, and you can’t determine that from the learning objectives or course objectives, just ask your instructor.
3. Perceived importance of the course
I sensed that Sally was unhappy about taking the course. It was the last one she needed to get her degree, and she was anxious to move on with her life. She seemed to feel that the course was a pointless hoop to jump through, and just wanted to get it over with. Understanding the course material was not a priority for her, and maybe her feelings about how much work she should have to do for the course coloured her perspective on how much work would actually be required.
Sometimes students in Sally’s position assume that the instructor understands that the course is not important to them. They assume that the instructor knows better than to make the course too demanding and get in the way of a student graduating. However, even if a student’s reasons for taking the course colour his or her expectations about what the exam will be like or should be like, it does not affect the reality. The requirements will be the same regardless of why a student is taking the course, and students should expect that there could be the same kinds of demands as in courses that they view as more serious, or more important for achieving their goals. Put another way, no-one should expect to get credit for a course without fulfilling its requirements. I would also recommend against telling your instructor that he or she should pass you because the course doesn’t matter.
4. Learning is what someone else does to your head
Every now and again I run into students who prefer to be passive participants in their own learning. These are students who think that I should put more effort into helping them than they are willing to put into helping themselves. Frank was a classic case. Before assignments came due, he would email to ask what pages the answers were on in the textbook. An email exchange with Frank would look like this:
Frank: “I can’t find the answers to questions 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 3, 5, and 7. Can you tell me where I should read in the textbook?”
Me: “For question 1b asking what igneous rocks are, you can find the answer in the section titled “What Igneous Rocks Are” starting on page 53.”
Sometimes it is hard to find a specific topic amid other details, so I explained to Frank how he could look up the page numbers in the index of the textbook. Frank disregarded my explanation, and continued to ask similar questions.
I want to be careful to distinguish between students who take a passive approach, and those who ask a lot of questions about different topics, those who ask for help with the same topic repeatedly, or those who need assistance deciphering their textbooks. By definition, these students are not taking a passive approach because their questions have arisen out of an effort to understand the course material. In fact, I would prefer that more students contacted me with those kinds of questions. But this is very different from asking me to look up pages for you in the index.
Students who are passive about their learning will inevitably underestimate the amount of understanding that is required because they believe on some level that learning and understanding are things that they are given. That’s just not the way learning works.