Friday, February 12, 2010

The Essentials

I believe that every course—whether Accounting or Zoology or anything in between—contains a number of true essentials that all students should learn (and learn well). Once a student knows these essentials, they can serve as building blocks to help that student develop a deeper and more complex understanding. Without an adequate knowledge of these essentials, it is really hard to learn anything more complicated. Students who struggle in my course often do so because their knowledge of the essentials is shaky.

Therefore, in my class, I strongly push knowledge of the essentials. To do this, I suggest that my students make a list of “three second questions” for every chapter. A “three-second question” is one that is so basic that they should be able to read it, count to three, and give the answer off the top of their heads. In fact, I suggest that they make these into flash cards, with a “three-second question” on one side and the answer on the back. Then, as they study, they read the question, count to three, and give the answer. I don’t want them to look up the answer; I don’t want them to think about the answer; I want them to know the answer. This is a question that is so essential that they really should be able to give the answer off the top of their heads. I have found this to be a great way to help them solidify their knowledge of the essentials.

To aid them further, I strongly suggest that their answer cannot be longer than 10 words. If they cannot edit the answer down to 10 words, I suggest that they need to break the question into two or more questions. Students often want to answer every question with a long essay. This exercise is about knowing the essentials. To me, an essential should be 10 words or less in most cases.

Students often make scores of these flash cards and will ask each other the questions to see if they can respond in three seconds. Obviously, I want them to know much more than the basics. However, when my students have those essentials down pat, I find that going into deeper and more complex territory becomes much easier for them.


  1. Joe,
    Do you find that they struggle to discern what are the "essential questions?" Do you guide them? Because it seems to me that before you have the big picture, it can sometimes be hard to know which of the building blocks will become foundational.

  2. I think it depends on the teacher's strategy. One possibility is that the "3-second questions" are provided when the new material is started. In that way, they serve as a type of outline to help the student mentally organize and structure the topic. In that case, either the teacher or the textbook has to provide the questions although the answers may be optional. A second possibility is to have the students write the essential questions as soon as coverage is complete. In that way, they are forced to evaluate the material and create their own organizational structure. I have done both at different times; they both seem to work.