Assessment Opinion

Memorization Through Application

By David Ginsburg — May 30, 2012 3 min read
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Last post I introduced Concept Cards, a note-taking system that helps students store, retrieve, and use information more efficiently than traditional note-taking methods. Now, here are a few tips for maximizing the benefits of Concept Cards:

  1. Alphabetical Rather Than Chronological. One problem with taking notes in date sequence using a notebook is that it can take a while to find information that was covered earlier in the course. (This is especially problematic if your assignments and assessments are spiraled, as I recommend.) By keeping their Concept Cards in alphabetical order, students can find what they need when they need it.
  2. Notes-Success Connection. As a new teacher, I urged students to take notes and shamed them for not taking notes, but it had no effect on them (no positive effect, that is). Students need to see for themselves the connection between taking notes and succeeding in class (or between not taking notes and failing). Teachers must therefore facilitate this connection through natural consequences (rather than rewards or punishment). Open-note quizzes and tests are a great way to do this.
  3. Card Customization. What one student understands another student may find confusing. Advise students to include on their cards information they would benefit from referring to, which may be different from one student to another.
  4. Word Wall. Maintain on a wall in your classroom a chronological list of topics covered to date so that students returning from absences can identify concepts for which they need cards.
  5. Color Coding. Students may want to use different colored cards to identify groups of related cards (same chapter, same unit, same sub-category, etc). This way they can still keep all cards in alphabetical order, but have other sorting options too.
  6. Subject-Specific Content. Advise students to only make up cards for content that is unique to your class--e.g., concepts, skills, events, processes, properties, formulas--as opposed to including general vocabulary cards. In literature class, for example, students would make up individual cards for literary devices such as metaphor and simile, but they would not make up a card for each new word they encounter in a piece of literature.

The Concept Cards system and these related suggestions have helped improve learning for my students and those of teachers I’ve coached. Still, some teachers are skeptical when I present Concept Cards at workshops. It’s not that they have an issue with the system itself, but rather some of the above suggestions--especially open-note assessments. “What about when they take standardized tests and can’t use their cards as a crutch?” many teachers have asked.

It’s an understandable concern, given all the pressure to raise scores. In reality, though, the more you look something up, the more likely you are to remember it. (I still recall my friends’ phone numbers from when I was a kid--no speed dial or cell phones.) I recently visited a class where the teacher introduced Concept Cards in September. Yet only a few students had cards out as they worked on a year-end project. “Most students don’t need their cards,” the teacher said. “They’ve memorized everything by now.”

To me, this is the ultimate benefit of students having a reliable, efficient note-taking system: teachers can assign engaging, challenging activities where students have to look up and apply information rather than recall it. In other words, activities that promote memorization through application--and help increase test scores whether or not students are allowed to use notes.

Image by Stocksnapper, provided by Dreamstime license

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