Strategy and tactics

The 2014 Canadian Oxford Dictionary states that strategy is a “long-range policy designed for a particular purpose”, such as a strategy for effective learning. Tactics, on the other hand, refer to “a plan or method used to achieve something”, like completing all homework and studying well in advance of tests. I learned the difference between these terms when I was a senior undergrad enrolled in “Protein Structure and Function” — a course in which I had no business, after earning a “D” in my previous biochemistry course. Ten minutes into the first lecture I was in shark-infested water. The sharks were hungry for protein — mine. I had a bigger chance of being struck by lightning in a subway tunnel than I had of making sense of the material. Forced to amend my “understand everything” strategy, I now focused on simply getting a good grade. I implemented excellent tactics to support this less-than-laudatory goal: paying super-close attention — forsaking cartoon-drawing and joke-telling — in lectures, taking copious notes, reviewing and re-copying them after class, reading the readings ‘til I knew them by rote, maintaining an on-going review... and most important: working through and studying — basically memorizing, I hate to say — past tests or exams. I found, wrote and rewrote the answers like a person-possessed — to the point where shares in the BIC pen company may have rose a few dollars. On a beautiful spring morning, I opened the exam and saw that every question corresponded to what I had prepared. Joy of joys! I (figuratively) cracked my knuckles, put my head down and got to work. Three hours and three exam books later, I was spent. Wrung out. Done.

Final grade: 85%. FOR NOT LEARNING ANYTHING. My strategy was questionable but my tactics were successful.

I suggest students be made aware of the nature of strategy — long term goals and outcomes — and of tactics — how to realize these goals. Strategically, they all want to earn good grades, but what they really want is to understand the course work. Without effective tactics, however, many students will not realize their strategic goals.

As teachers, we employ strategy and tactics to maximize student learning. Our strategy is to help students learn chemistry. Tactics can include everything from Socratic lessons, PowerPoint presentations, class webpages, engaging assignments, interesting lab activities, to a “flipped” classroom or small group learning. Teachers have aligned strategies, but our tactics vary; these are an individual choice. (I heard that we don’t teach the subject matter as much as we teach who we are. This scares my students.)

Teenagers need to understand these terms and know how to apply them. Students’ number one strategy should be about effective learning. A secondary strategy — which is not necessarily dependent on the first — concerns earning good grades. Students need to employ tactics to help them realize their strategy. Important student tactics include paying attention in class, taking good notes, completing homework, submitting problem sets… And — ahem — working through previous exams.