Monday, October 15, 2012

Cheating At Solitaire

"What gets measured, gets done."  - Anonymous

So it's officially midterm week now.  It's actually reduced op tempo for me, because a lot of our classes aren't being held this week...still, a walk through the main building (E-62) reveals even more students doing the "Sloanie Shuffle" with an oh-so-slight increase in the pace, staring just-so-slightly more intently into their Smartphones, with brows just a bit more furrowed.

I could probably stop to let them know that their idols like Gates, Buffett, Thiel, Zuckerberg, and Page (Larry, not me) don't bounce through their corridors like that...but I'm not sure I'd be able to get a word in edgewise (I'll save more observations of the 'Sloanie Shuffle' for a future entry).

Anyway, back to the midterms.  One of the things that theoretically takes a lot of the pressure and pain away from the whole ordeal is that MANY previous midterms are freely available on OpenCourseWare, and then many others are posted on an internal course website.

Given that the material doesn't change much year to year, this begs an important and obvious question: "Well then why doesn't everybody ace all the midterms?"

This was asked at one our recitations, and someone older and wiser explained it like this:  "Well, you've got three main culprits there.  First, some people just don't have time to study.  Whether it's from recruiting events, clubs, outside social distractions, or whatever, they don't prepare, and it shows.  Second, people study the wrong stuff.  Yes, studying the old midterms is the best way to do it, but some people will review unimportant chapters from the book, or cases from the course reader that we've told you would not appear on the test.  But third, there's a more interesting phenomenon that occurs when you put so much material out the way we could refer to it as the 'cheating at solitaire' effect.

Boiled down quickly, what he meant was this:  If you use the practice tests and answers in a way that challenges yourself (i.e. answer the questions first, then look at the answers, then retake...rinse and repeat, with time taken for dissection and understanding along the way), you're doing it right.  However, there's a natural and easy tendency to just sort of glance at the questions, then glance over at the answers and say to yourself, "Oh, okay...I got it."  That's what most people have a tendency to do.  It sort of makes sense, too -- it saves time, and if the steps taken to get the answer seem logical, then maybe you really do 'got it.'

The problem, though, is that just like a quick rearrangement of cards in solitaire can be done because that's what you 'really meant' and because no one else is watching, a quick glance that yields an 'I got it' may stand in the way of gaining actual, deeper understanding of the material. It's really easy to just do that in an offhand way while you're preparing, but then when the test throws you the slightest curveball, you're bound to stumble.

I thought that principle was interesting enough to take the time to write about and it ties in with the reason a buddy of mine who wanted to learn programming signed up for some actual CS classes.

He knows several Computer Science wizards who assured him the classes weren't needed and he could just breeze through a manual, but he still opted to spend some money on the courses. Because he did that, he was forced to learn enough of the material to get through all the problem sets and other words, he couldn't just take a quick glance at a manual, casually declare "I got it" and walk away.

I think that basic concept helps to explain why classes can be a great way to learn for anyone...even someone who is a natural autodidact with lots of self-discipline.  

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