Jeremy Côté

Memorization in Education

Educators have unrealistic views about memorization.

If you’re reading this as a student, think about any time a teacher spoke about their thoughts on memorization. Unless the point of the class was to memorize certain facts, I’m guessing the teacher did not love the idea of memorization. In fact, for those who teach subjects such as physics or mathematics, they might have gone on a rant about how memorization is a terrible thing to do and one should focus on understanding the material. They might tell you that it’s not a problem if you forget a small detail in a formula. You know the concepts, so you should be capable of working out the details if you ever forget them.

If this describes a teacher you’ve had, they weren’t being fair at all.

Before you start thinking that I see myself as apart from this issue, don’t worry, I’m just as culpable. I’ve given reasons quite close to what I wrote above to students, even though on reflection I know it’s not true.

It’s a seductive message. If you know your core concepts, you can work out anything you forget. Therefore, you don’t have to be a “memorization machine”. You can focus on deeper understanding, not on memorizing formulas. It’s the dream of every teacher. It indicates the students are engaged with the material, not on passing. What more could a teacher want?

The problem is that our educational system does not reward deep understanding. Sure, deeper understanding can be good for the student in the long-term, but there is no incentive present in the system. This creates a dilemma for the students. Is it worth investing the struggle and the effort for deeper understanding, or should they only focus on getting good grades?

“But wait,” you might protest. “Getting good grades in school requires the student to have a deep understanding of the subject.”

This argument is incorrect. A student that has a deep understanding of the subject might do well, but it’s by no means necessary for success. From personal experience, I can say that getting good grades in a class did not mean I had a deep understanding of the subject. It just meant I did well on the assignments and the tests, which is what the grade reflects.

This is why most students don’t have deep understanding as their primary objective. They are making a calculation, and coming up with the answer that the most important thing is to get good grades. Since a deep understanding isn’t necessary for success in a class, students won’t seek it out. I’m not saying that they don’t want to have a deeper understanding of a subject. It’s just that they won’t be sad if it doesn’t happen.

The world rewards good grades, so that’s what students have learned to chase. It means that if they don’t understand a concept, looking for a deeper explanation may not be the first thing they try. Instead, a student may opt for memorization, because it’s the most efficient way to achieve their goal. As teachers or tutors, we can’t blame them for that. They’re acting in their own best interest (at least, in the moment).

So what’s the solution? As usual, I have no clue, but I do have some suggestions. First, we need to accept that memorization is how students choose to study in some classes. That’s not going to stop until our grade-crazy system is changed. Instead, we should encourage students to look at our explanations and ask themselves which is easier to remember. If it’s easier for them to memorize the information, than I don’t think we should do anything about it. A deeper understanding of a subject should end up looking “obvious” to students, in the way that memorization is not. After all, a deep understanding creates a sense of cohesion that pure memorization cannot.

The other suggestion is to create questions that don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. By asking students about the concepts in a different way than usual, they won’t be able to just bring up a formula. Questions that aren’t only plug-and-play will reward students for doing more than memorizing. Plus, it should translate to getting good grades.

It’s a long road from memorization to deeper understanding, and the external incentives aren’t there to encourage students. However, there are long-term benefits of a deeper understanding, so it’s important to convince students that memorizing isn’t the only way forward.