reference manuals

I just came upon something new in my academic career. My Thermodynamics professor is letting us use our books on tests because she feels that we’ll have reference manuals when we are working in industry. (We can’t use our notes, however, because it’s been her experience that notes are too messy to be used in this manner anyway) It seems to be a reasonable explanation to me. I’ve had teachers give open book tests, or even let us use books on all the tests, but this is the first time that any of them have given this reason. It’s usually because they are more interested in having us learn how to integrate rather than memorizing the obscure integral to arctan, or [insert other appropriate example here that isn’t in my head right now].

I came here wanting to ask a question, but I’m not really sure what it is I want to know. I guess I’m just looking for general comments on the situation…

I think being able to find what you are looking for (good searching skills) is better/more valuable than having a bank of stored information.

Sounds like your teacher is training you for the real world, I love teachers who do that. I mean, yes, you have to know the basics. 1+1=2, which witch is which, the difference between a phillips head and flat head screwdriver, but most things are such elaborations that you will not need to memorize them, but rather just to look up the answers if you ever come across the need for them.

It depends. I am thinking that for certain situation and certain careers, this approach is contraindicated. For example, I would certainly prefer that a surgeon have all the required knowledge regarding site preparation to prevent immune complex glomerulonephritis when installing a ventriculoatrial shunts in his/her head and readily accessible as a well-learned skill. Seeing the surgeon stop mid-incision to start looking up material in a reference manual is not likely to fill one with confidence that the surgeon is actually up to the task.

The point is that while having the abiltity to find information in a variety of reference sources is a useful skill, it does not replace a good, complete, fundamental knowledge of your subject material.


In a society where many corporations base their ideologies on the whole “Time is money” concept, having to search through references every time a fact is needed may decrease the overall efficiency of a company.

This is not to say that searching through references is negative, though. It increases confidence, because whatever a person is looking up from a reference is tried-and-true. With memorizing, there is a large possibility, because of human nature, that a person may make a mistake and input the wrong information in whatever he or she is working on.

If you use it a lot, it’s important, and you’ll remember it.

hmm i see pros and cons here.

I think back to Apollo 13 and how much information had to be recalled and couldn’t be simply referenced to. In this situation, I’m glad the astronauts and people down on Earth behind the mission had the majority of their information at hand and not in a book somewhere.

But I have noticed that some jobs do have this convenience. I guess it depends on what your job is and how important spontaneity is.


When I was in college, for mechanical engineering, we were able to use our books/notes/cheatsheets for almost all our upperclass (2nd yr +) subjects. The reason was simple - it’s better to know how to apply the materials you’ve been learning than to cram it into memory the nite before an exam and forget it afterwards. The reasons were very similar to what you were given - in industry (for engineering) you should know where to go find the information if you don’t have it in memory, you have access to reference materials in industry and should focus on application during school vs straight memory.

I found myself many times not remembering the exact formula, but remembering what chapter, and what side of the page it was on. I think that happens a lot, so it’s nice to have use of reference materials.

I always created cheatsheets regardless if we were allowed to use them. I found that just by writing the information out, formulas, constants, etc, that I remembered them better when I got into the test and didn’t need the cheatsheet so much. Plus, I covered more material looking for what I should put on my cheatsheet, so it’s a nice review. During tests you don’t have much time to flip through pages looking for information - so you need a combination of memory and ability to locate info quickly.

But like others have said, it depends on your job function and the info that needs to be recalled.

Even in HS, I find a great variation in how tests are given. One teacher had a closed-book policy, however he allowed one test to be open-book because we didn’t have enough time to learn the chapter very well. Another teacher said absolutely no open-book tests, we should know this stuff. (In that class, the textbook author gave us some information that he said we didn’t need to know for the test. He also gave study sheets in the book. :smiley: ) A third teacher declared all tests to be open-book, including finals and midterms.

If you don’t know something, and you can use a reference book/CD, you use it. If you think you know it, but aren’t sure, use the reference anyway. If you know it asleep, don’t bother. As has been said in this thread and others, If you use something a lot, you will learn it; if you don’t use it a lot, why waste time memorizing it when you have a reference book?

Don’t forget the Apollo 11 mission (I think). It was the only mission where lighting struck the rocket and created a freakishly weird error message. Oddly enough they didn’t have to abort because someone actually memorized that error message and knew which switch to throw to get the mission back on track. On the other hand, my one college professor told me that you are allowed to bring as many books as you can when you are taking your P.E license exam.

However, you can only go through the door once, so you have to bring them all in one trip. When I took the PE many people brought 5 or 6 milk crates loaded with reference books and set up their own little library.

I kept it down to a single backback. I think it was 6 books. Most important was my PE reference manual, by Lindberg. It has a touch of everything and lots of data and tables on things like pipe sizes. I also brough one thermo book, one statics book, a structures book that also had good materials data (mostly for the data), and a calculus book (Thomas 4th ed). I had a book I liked better as a text book for calculus, but in Thomas I could “remember the sides of the pages” for things I felt I was likely to need. I was not nearly as familiar with the other book. Oh and I almost forgot, Mechancal Design by Shigley, an absolute classic. All sorts of little problems, like stress on a hook, neatly solved.

If I could only keep one of my reference books it would be Lindberg, it is especially good at bringing back all the stuff you used to know. In fact during the first three weeks of build, when we are doing our design work, Lindberg is rarely far from my side, in spite of weighing something like 10 lbs.

If you have too many references, you spend too much time looking for things. Knowing where to find key items quickly is much better.

But Dave is right too, there are certain things you should just know. Like stress=Mc/I or F=ma

I don’t see a problem with it, because researching skills and the ability to find critical knowledge quickly are much more marketable than hordes of information stored on the hard drive of your brain.