Are We There Yet?

Why School Textbooks are Incomprehensible


For a number of years, I taught a course in educational methods to behavioral science students at a nearby college. The course was one of those compacted type in a program in which you needed a university degree in order to apply. My course was held in their final semester.

As a behaviorist, I wanted to know as accurately as possible what they already knew about behavioral science. I asked them to write a list of as many behavioral terms as they could think of in a period of one minute. We know that humans can write 20-30 words per minute on material with which they are fluent. The highest score in the class was 18. The median score was 11 and the lowest was 8. It was clear that there were gaps in their knowledge of the lexicon of their discipline. How do you read the research, understand a presentation or participate in a discussion if you can’t even name the concepts? These students did not have an extensive understanding of the language of their discipline and they were about to graduate and make decisions that affected real people. It was not their fingers that were holding them back; it was their lack of information about their subject matter.

I returned to the next class with a list of and definitions for the 100 most commonly used terms in behavior science. I instructed them to purchase some index cards, write the term on one side and the definition on the other. They would study the terms and would be checked out by me in a one minute measurement. From my data history, I knew that they could go through 20 cards in a minute.

When a student made an attempt, I would take their 100 cards, shuffle them, start the measurement and count any errors. Flipping 20 cards and defining each term with fewer than 2 errors meant that they were now fluent with behavioral terms. Less than that provided an opportunity for more practice. There was no limit on attempts to master the task except that they would get an incomplete instead of an “A” on the course if they could not demonstrate fluency..

The students also tracked their progress daily, marking both corrects and errors on a chart. They have a defined task (100 cards), which when shuffled gave them a random sample of the entire set of 100 terms, ( a complete review); gave them clear daily progress measures of errors and corrects (hard current data) and even helped to predict how soon they would complete the project (given their current rate of progress).

When we are teaching or learning, we always want to know if we are improving. We want to understand how much better we are now than we were before and if possible, how soon we will reach our objective.

Most learning situations do not give us reliable, continuous feedback on progress. There may be periodic tests of parts of the course, unit tests, pop quizzes and the like, but they usually do not summarize all of the material in each test. They are also infrequent, so as to miss areas of study. There is a simpler, more direct and comprehensive approach.  Count the frequency of your behavior using a prescribed body of information for a predetermined amount of time and compare it to your previous performances. Now you know.

Like most things I have produced, I wish I had had the genius to have created this system. It’s called SAFMEDS (Say Each Fact a Minute/Day – Shuffled). It is the combined brainchild of the late Dr. Steve Graf of Youngstown State University and the late Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley of University of Kansas. I simply adapted it to my college course.

At first my students hated it, probably because of its clear accountability. Later they came to terms with it, saw it value in their understanding of the language of their science and even began to adapt it to other courses which had a high number of terms to remember.

SAFMEDS are highly versatile. You can see the term and define it. You can see the definition and label it. You can study on the subway or in a lineup. You can use them in most coursework whether academic or professional. I used SAFMEDS to learn nautical terms when I was taking a sailing course became a captain of my sloop, Aloha. I finished the first multiple choice exam in under 8 minutes. The proctor followed me out of the exam because he thought I was giving up. Not so. I also nailed the exam.

So if you have a project with a whack of terms you are expected to know, go get a deck of index cards, write the term on one side and the definition on the other and carry them around with you. In those usually wasted minutes between meetings, whip them out and practice. Do a one minute measurement each day and record your scores. 20 -30 /minute with no more than 2 errors makes you fluent.

Do not be deceived. These are NOT flashcards. These are SAFMEDS, a system for tracking learning with real daily data to demonstrate improvement and a clear goal to reach.

Note: Watch how you flip cards. If you flip them up, write the definition so that it is not upside down when you flip the card. Do a test card to be sure you have it correctly written.


  1. Excellent Michael.

    Your wrote; “When we are teaching or learning, we always want to know if we are improving.” I agree completely. We are at odds with educators who say, “Teachers do too much testing. Testing steals time from teaching.”

    The SAFMEDS are a wonderful learning procedure. I trim a small triangle from the upper left-hand corner of each card. The student assembles the cards with the trimmed corners all at upper left. The term is always face up. (Inexpensive remedy)

    Michael, you are a scholar.

  2. Arthur,
    Thanks for the encouragement and especially for the tip about clipping the one corner so the index cards are always in the correct orientation. I swear that even as I approach 75, I am still being tutored by my professional community to make our materials better. Thanks.

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