Sunday, March 26, 2006

Knowing What You Know

As another round of exams nears, we need to make certain our students understand the difference between recognizing familiar concepts and actually knowing those concepts.  When students complain that they felt they "knew the material" but inexplicably did not do well on a test, they are closer to the truth than they realize:  they felt that they knew the material; they did not actually know it.

That false feeling stems from the way many students study.  They prepare for tests by simply reading their notes again and again.  As a result, each time they reread the same material, it naturally feels very familiar; so they believe they have learned it.  Familiarity creates for them the illusion of internalization.

Unfortunately, even on open-book exams, genuine internalization of material is critical to performance because the typical test question requires students to merge multiple complex ideas with complicated fact patterns and to do so under time pressure.  No time exists for looking up all of those ideas or for thinking through their relationships to one another for the first time.

We need to caution students to test themselves in real ways to see whether they can actually recall and competently manipulate critical concepts under pressure, as opposed to merely recognizing those concepts when they read them.  They need, for example, to take practice exams without notes and use model answers or study partners' answers to identify what they only thought they knew.  They then need to move beyond merely reading concepts over and over as a substitute for internalizing concepts through memorization and repeated use under exam-like conditions.

In other words, they need to disabuse themselves of any false sense of security about what they truly know if they hope to correct their deficiencies in time for exams.  The window may still be open for making those corrections, but it is closing fast.  For those who continue to think rereading material is the same as studying it, that window is going to close quietly; but it will close nonetheless. (dbw)

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