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The Six Hour D

Students who simply read well often report that this course is easy. They read the chapter, they take the quizzes, and they get top grades.

However, this astonishes another group of students who struggle to memorize 110 answers per chapter (the typical number of quickcheck questions in a whole chapter).

A student trying to memorize answers (without really understanding) might spend hours studying and still do poorly on a test. Such students become frus­trated, especially when they see other students appear to get top grades without much effort.

More than once I heard comments like, "I studied for six hours and I got a D. My roommate just read the chapter once and she got an A." In the United States, a D is almost a failing grade, while an A is the top grade.

The student who reads it once and gets an A probably has previous experience with similar material. If new information meshes with existing knowledge, a student can just drink it in without apparent effort. Also, some students are just good readers, and we will discuss what that means.

The other type of student–the frustrated one–spends hours trying to pound information into memory by brute force and repetition. But little of it sticks.

Some students prove to be dyslexic (see below). In those cases, a change in study habits might not be enough.

Some students are fluent in English and not dyslexic, but they come from high schools where reading comprehension was never required, as they readily admit. For those students, changing study habits can make a huge difference.

Lack of comprehension is revealed when a student tries to answer study questions with the book closed. I invited students to visit me during office hours if they wanted to review a quiz. We would go over the quiz items one by one, if they wanted to.

If students were struggling I offered them help. If they wanted help, I would go to the most recent chapter and ask a quick­check question or two. I found that, almost invariably, such students could not articulate the answers to the study questions, even when the questions were from the chapter they just studied. The student might say:

"I read that…I understood that stuff."

They felt like they were understanding it, while they were reading it. What I did not hear, as a rule, was a coherent answer to the study question.

So: what happened during those hours of studying? Why did the process leave so little residue in memory? If problems in English fluency could be ruled out, the cause of their difficulties seemed to be one of two things:

  1. The 6 hour D student typically adopted a verbal approach, running sentences through the mind, trying to memorize them. This consumed study time, but it did not produce deep learning. Speaking, reading, or reciting sentences was not enough in itself.
  2. The 6 hour D student typically did not do effective self-testing. Consequently, these students misled themselves about whether they truly understood the material.

They felt like they knew it, because they had put in the time, and they had become familiar with it. However, the simple test of asking a few questions showed the truth: they weren't "getting" it.

What seems to cause the 6 Hour D?

The remedy for the first problem is to consciously abandon all forms of meaningless memorization. Do anything possible to get engaged, fascinated, or involved with the material.

The goal is to use vivid imagination and relate ideas to other ideas. Vivid experi­ences lead to automatic (effortless) learning of vast amounts of information. The following pages will have tips for encouraging this.

The remedy for the second problem is self-testing. After I tested students on a few quickcheck questions during the office hour, it was pretty obvious what the students had to do. They should test themselves the same way.

They could easily ask themselves the study questions when the book was closed or the answer was not visible. Then they would know if they were understanding the ideas well enough to discuss them.

Some students are dyslexic and do not know it. Dyslexia is a reading disorder we will discuss in Chapter 12. The most common type of dyslexia involves an early stage in the reading process: sounding out words.

If a reader struggles to pronounce large words, this diverts mental resources away from comprehension. A student who shows signs of dyslexia should be referred to a school's center for learning disabilities. Most schools have a center where counselors can diagnose reading problems and offer helpful compensating strategies.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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