Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 9, 2008

How to Study: Lighting the Fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”


~ William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), Irish poet and dramatist



(continues from— ) 

You may be thinking that the Great Migration sounds more like filling a pail than lighting a fire.  However, you cannot light a fire without kindling, and the information you migrate to your head is just that—kindling. 


So, the info does not simply migrate to your head and then onto an exam in the form of an answer.  No, first it needs to be fired and then it is ready for the exam sheet.  That is, you need to understand it.  Math courses are especially good at demonstrating this point.  If all you ever do in a math course is listen to the instructor and read the textbook, then you are in for a big shock come the first exam!  You need to work problems—lots of them—and do calculations and solve word problems until you fully understand the material.


The same is true of any material you must learn.  Acquiring information is not enough.  You must be able to turn those ‘facts’ over in your mind and make associations with them, relate them with other facts, and question why certain facts are listed together in a particular concept.  In short, you need to be curious about what you are learning.  Never be satisfied to simply regurgitate what you have learned.


Would you like an example? How about the directions to get from your home to your school?  Suppose you did not know the way to your school (having never been there) but had asked for the directions and had them memorized.  You are able to recite them to anyone who asks you, but if he or she should ask you, “why that particular route?” or “how long does it take to get there?” you would be at a loss for words.  Likewise, you would be similarly helpless if a detour was required.


However, after you have become quite familiar with the route you will probably know a half-dozen different ways to get there. You will be able to say why that is the best route and what it is like taking that route at different times of the day. Moreover, you will be able to provide directions to your school from many points other than your home.  That is the level of understanding you are seeking of your coursework.  It requires playing with the subject matter and that requires time. 


Unfortunately, the mistake many students make is in delaying the migration of information into their heads.  Then when the exam comes they are like someone who has only memorized unfamiliar directions—they are not likely to be successful if any roadblocks arise.


So, how do you reach this level of familiarity with the subject matter?  Often, textbooks have questions at the end of the chapter designed to get you to “think further”.  Use these as a springboard to your own questions (even if the teacher does not assign them). 


In addition, you can apply these questions to almost anything you are learning (originally from Jared Haynes,  ):






What is the purpose, goal, or point?

What is the problem or issue being solved or described?

On what data or evidence is the decision / definition / problem based?

What inferences are being made from what kind of data, and are these inferences legitimate?

What is the solution, outcome, or resolution of the problem or issue?

What are the short-term and long-term implications of the solution / consquences of the outcome?

What are the biases or assumptions behind the inferences, selection or collection of data, or framing of the problem / experiment?

What are the basic concepts or terms being used? How do these definitions affect the framing / understanding of the problem?

What point of view is being expressed? What political / ideological / paradigmatic considerations inform or govern or limit point of view?

How would someone from a related but different discipline look at the problem / solution / issue, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis / discussion / evaluation?







Your goal is to become adept at asking your own questions about the material you learn.  Be curious and cogitate!



“Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.”


~ Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), British philosopher and mathematician




Addendum  Sept. 7, 2008


Annotating texts is a good technique that forces you to think about what you are reading.  See this link for more information—




Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom gave a more formal description of what is meant by “lighting the fire”. His 1956 report is a classic that characterizes intellectual behavior into six levels (from lowest to highest)—

1.               Knowledge: arrange, define, duplicate, label, list, memorize, name, order, recognize, relate, recall, repeat, reproduce, state.

2.               Comprehension: classify, describe, discuss, explain, express, identify, indicate, locate, recognize, report, restate, review, select, translate.

3.               Application: apply, choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, practice, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write.

4.               Analysis: analyze, appraise, calculate, categorize, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test.

5.               Synthesis: arrange, assemble, collect, compose, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, manage, organize, plan, prepare, propose, set up, write.

6.               Evaluation: appraise, argue, assess, attach, choose, compare, defend, estimate, judge, predict, rate, core, select, support, value, evaluate.

(- from )


A student is progressively more engaged with learning as he or she moves down this list.


Bloom’s Taxonomy:



Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.







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