Importance of memorization

Key ideas behind mindfulness is that it is the antithesis of memorization and education focused on memorization stifles creativity. Learning mindfulness seems like learning a combination of critical thinking skills and how to question authority. And I agree- students should be taught these skills. Students should be taught about bias and perspective. At the college level, these ideas should be taught in first-semester courses. In middle and high school, these ideas should be introduced when discussing history, science, and literature.

However, not all courses can or should consist purely of questioning facts. Most careers require learning linguistic cornerstones (aka memorization of terms). You cannot begin to debate the nuances of a topic unless you are able to read and understand previous work on a topic and know the language of the debate.

Learning terms should not just include memorization of the words that describe the terms but understanding the concepts behind them. Part of this process of memorization is mindfulness- students should be engaged in thinking about how these terms fit together and how they fit into the broader topic. When we discuss learning techniques with students, we should be emphasizing that learning requires the hard work of memorization and simultaneously making mindful connections.

9 thoughts on “Importance of memorization

  1. Your post is very insightful, thank you. I love your statement, “You cannot begin to debate the nuances of a topic unless you are able to read and understand previous work on a topic and know the language of the debate.” I also completely agree that learning terms is not just about memorization. When I think back to my experiences in undergraduate Chemistry courses, I remember struggling with understanding the Chemistry up until I was able to understood the meaning of the words used to describe the Chemistry. Now, when I witness my student’s going through the same struggle I remind them that they are just unfamiliar with the language. However, once they understand the meaning of the Chemistry terms, the Chemistry will make sense.

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    1. Good point about students being lost due not understanding the building basics of the conversation. And I think that point is one I’ll use when explaining why it’s important to learn terms in the intro classes: You can’t always look up 15 unknown terms (and understand them) in the middle of a lecture.

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  2. What gives me pause is mindless memorization—not necessarily memorization itself. Think of all we commit to memory that we apply daily—people’s names, our home’s location, our day-to-day schedule.

    It’s our methods of evaluation that are problematic, and it’s what I interpret the author to see as the issue, too. In my experience, this kind of testing encourages mindless, rote, self-protective memorization. For your example of learning linguistic cornerstones, for example, rather than quiz students on definitions, I’d prefer to assign them readings in which the studied terms are employed, discuss their applications in class, and ask students to practice these terms by applying them in writing (or in some other hands-on method) that requires them to go home, meditate on the concepts, and use them in their own work, as doing so is more hands-on, lasting and meaningful. Doing so relates to your note that students should be engaged, should think about how terms fit together. This idea of yours is mindful and blends the practices of memorization and, most important, mindful connections.

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    1. I agree- mindless memorization is not what I consider learning… I also really enjoy trying to create those practical application exercises, because (hopefully) it helps students learn and shows them how the information/terms are applicable to “the real world.”

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  3. This is such an interesting way to approach memorization. When I was in undergrad, memorization was often thought of as pump and dump. Cram as much as possible before a test and then afterwards you forget everything. Not the best way to learn. I think as students though the idea of memorizing something can be daunting and we need new avenues to help this process along. I love the idea of mindfulness being a part of memorization. If students paused and thought deeply about the concept they were memorizing and how it applied to other facets of their learning, it may stick with them longer than typical memorization techniques. And like you said, many of the concepts that we memorize are foundational to our fields of study, so its important to think about this sometimes monotonous task in a more creative way.

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    1. I’m not sure I’d consider cramming before a test and forgetting the content immediately after turning it in “learning.” This is a good example of how common methods of assessment encourage students to not truly learn or fully understand the information they’re supposedly being taught. As instructors, I think it’s important to think about the types of assignments and assessments that will help students better understand, think critically about, and retain the course content.

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      1. I agree that cramming is not learning. Ideally, students will be trying to make connections and understand the terms/ideas as they sit in lectures and complete labs/assignments. But even if they only try to learn right before a test, our assessment methods can encourage/require them to do more than just memorize and regurgitate mindlessly.

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  4. Insightful post this week Sabrina! And these comment threads are interesting. I agree that there must always be balance in what we are expecting our students to learn & take away. The practice of mindfulness is not yet widespread, so I am looking forward to seeing how this practice takes shape in different disciplines.

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  5. Hi Sabrina,

    I really agree with the core of what you wrote in this post! Sometimes students need to build a basic knowledge base from which they can begin to expand, integrate and critique.

    I think this is especially true of introductory courses; though, as instructors, the onus is on us to make sure the students are understanding the basics in a meaningful way that will allow them to analyze and think critically in the future.

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