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Memorization is Not a Dirty Word

Some Old-fashion Teaching Ideas Need to Be Re-visited.

School is ending for the year, and students surely welcome the break. But they will do well to think on how they learn to learn so that next Fall they can be more successful with less effort. Interesting how that reminds me of my e-book for students, Better Grades, Less Effort.

In my experience with students, both the college students I teach and the secondary students that teachers tell me about, the biggest weakness students have is that they either try to remember school material by rote memorization or have no strategy at all, relying on some kind of magical mental osmosis.

Even among students who rely on rote memory, they generally lack much of a strategy for memorizing, relying on varying degrees of casual “looking over” the instructional material until they think they can remember it. Experiments show that students routinely over-estimate how much they remember and under-estimate the value of further study. Moreover, many educators at all levels have disdain for memorization, stating that we should focus education on teaching students to think and solve problems, as if you can think and solve problems without knowing anything. Too many teachers regard memorizing as old-fashioned and even destructive of enlightenment.

Disdain for memorization is a relatively new phenomenon in education. In ancient times, people took great pains and pride in memorizing huge quantities of information. The advent of printing greatly reduced the need to memorize history and cultural mores. In modern times, we have the Internet, where you can just Google what you need to know. So who needs to get brain-strain trying to remember things?

Now we have a book by Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, where he argues that there are no lasting facts. They all have a half life, that is, the number of years it takes to falsify half of what you think are facts. He argues that new “facts” are made all the time, often replacing what we had previously thought were facts. He argues we should just stop memorizing and look up whatever current facts we need on the Internet. But if there are no lasting facts, how are those you find on Google any more valid than those you memorize and can deploy in real time.

There are some serious errors in Arbesman’s position.

  1. Many facts are immutable; that is, they don’t have a half-life. Events in history did actually occur, and while revisionist writers of school history textbooks may change the reporting of those events, the facts remain true. Nixon covered up Watergate, Obama obfuscated Benghazi. The fact of DNA as a basis for heredity is not likely to change.
  2. Many facts that do change will not change in a given person’s lifetime and thus will be useful in daily living.
  3. The Internet is flooded with error, propaganda, and un-vetted assertions.
  4. You don’t always have Internet access.
  5. In many situations, it is not practical to look up what you need. Ever try to read or speak a foreign language where you have to look up most of the words? Ever try to use computer software where you have to repeatedly refer to the instruction manual?
  6. Expertise in any field of endeavor requires a great deal of memorized “facts.” And if you want to succeed in life, it pays to be an expert.

I can easily make a strong case for memorization, especially for schools. Here is a list supporting the importance of memorizing:

  1. Memorized information is always with you, even when you lack the time or access to sources where you could look it up.
  2. We think and solve problems with what is in working memory, which in turn is memory of currently available information or recall of previously memorized information. The process of thinking is like streaming video on the Internet: information flows in as short frames onto the virtual scratch pad of working memory, successively replaced by new chunks of information from real-time or recalled memory. Numerous studies show that the amount of information you can hold in working memory is tightly correlated with IQ and problem-solving ability.

We think by shuttling small batches of information as we experience it or from memory onto a virtual scratchpad called working memory. These batches are shuttled sequentially into our processing networks ("thought engine"). How well we think depends on what is on the scratch pad.From Klemm, 2011. Atoms of Mind, Springer.
  1. Memorization provides exercise for the mind. This is the reason schools used to require students to memorize poems, Bible verses, famous speeches, etc. The true advantage of such exercise is that generates mental industriousness. Any teacher will tell you that many students today are mentally lazy. Memorization also trains the mind to pay attention and focus intensely. Such skill also seems to be lacking in many youngsters, which is most obvious in the growing number of kids diagnosed with ADHD.
  2. Memorization trains the brain to develop learning and memory schemas that facilitate future learning. Learning schemas develop as you acquire competence in an area—call it skill A. Now, when you need to learn a new and related skill, B, you mind says to itself, “I don’t know how to do B. But I do know how to do A, and some of that can be applied to learning B.” Memory schemas are memorized frames of reference and association, where having memorized fact A, you have an association handle for memorizing fact B.
  3. If you learn strategies for memorization, as opposed to the rote memory approach of looking information over repeatedly, you accelerate the ease, speed, and reliability of learning new things.

Bottom line: the more you know, the more you can know!

Regardless of where you stand on the importance of memory, most people believe that learning is a good thing. But what good is learning if you don’t remember it?

If you are convinced that you or your loved ones could benefit from better memory, many ways to do it are explained in my books, Better Grades, Less Effort (e-book for students) and Memory Power 101 (paperback from