Crossing the Rubicon

If you’re a history buff, you know that the Rubicon River played an important role in ancient Rome. Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon in 49 BCE, on his way to invade someplace — I think. This was a decisive move — once he was over, he couldn’t turn back.

More recently, "Crossing the Rubicon" means passing a point of no return.

Stay with me…

I think that we know that chemistry still gets a bad rap when it comes to memorizing. I remember, years ago, when a parent told me, quite sincerely, that her son couldn’t memorize everything. I pinched my leg under the table to quell my rage, before I gave her my spiel about concepts rather than facts . . . yada . . . yada . . . yada.

To reduce reliance on memorizing, I give each student a 3” x 5” recipe card a week or so before a test. He1 can write whatever he wants on the card, provided that it was in his own handwriting — no computers.2

At first, in spite of my best efforts, some chose to not take this seriously, either by not using it at all, or by bringing it to the test with a only a few random facts.

It takes several months of almost daily epistles on the value of distilling3 one’s notes several times until an entire unit of study can be summarized on both sides of a card — in a micro-font, complete with colour-coding. Students eventually realize the value of honest-to-goodness revision of notes — on a class-by-class basis — not at the 11th hour. And they see that this is a pen-and-paper task.

I compose this piece as my AP students are writing a test on organic chemistry. Everyone brought his densely-written card; no one is looking at it. They don’t need to. The learning is in their heads — the card is simply a security blanket — a chemical teddy bear, if you will.

My students have crossed the Rubicon. There’s no going back to their old ways of studying.

  1. Crescent School is an all-boys school.
  2. Exception: anything to do with nomenclature
  3. Pun intended