Forget Memorizing!
September 29, 2005 8:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm researching the pros/cons of brute memorization as it applies to the classroom.

For instance, a recent art history exam required I memorize the artist, title, year of composition, and significance (yes, he had an itemized "significance" for each piece, don't get me started) for a list of ~50 different pieces. I completely understand that such knowledge is useful in conversation, and in simply piecing together and appreciating the ebb and flow of the past -- but I am skeptical as to its actual benefit, given that most people simply forget this information a year, semester, or even a day later. With increasing availability of internet access and search -- specific figures, dates, etc are becoming less and less important to remember, as all this information (and more you'd never normally remember) is so easily and readily obtained.

This CNet article got me thinking about this, and reafirmed my long-standing grievances. Is forced memorization fading away along with the slide rule and slate board? What is the use of such a practice if you simply forget all the information shortly afterwards? Would a course not better serve to enrich by having a more discussion-, analytical- based environment -- helping students form more profound connections that will undoubtedly last longer than a list of dates and people? For courses such as art history, wouldn't integrating internet access during class, allowing for instant retreval and cross-referencing of pieces and ideas being currently discussed, be a logical step away from having our heads buried in textbooks or staring blankly at PowerPoint presentations? Why not free up our brains from the barrage of factoids and focus on actually doing something with this knowledge?

I'm interested in your thoughts, and in any articles, resources, people, etc that argue for and against this idea. My initial Google-fu has not turned up much. I've heard of some schools that don't even give examinations, or distribute grades. This isn't directly related to what I'm getting at, but interesting simply because of it's deviation from the typical concept of "school". Basically, I think that memorization should be a natural result of interest and energy invested into a subject. Think of the knowledge you have almost effortless recollection of, simply because it "came with" larger ideas you are genuinely concerned with. I'm open to any insight.
posted by jruckman to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think that an intensively fact-based approach can be a good way to begin the study of a subject; it gives you the base of knowledge and vocabulary from which you can start to engage with the material on a higher level. My biggest regret about my undergraduate education is that I took too many classes that started out with a highly theoretical approach, when I didn't even have any exposure to the object of the criticism.

But if all you're going to do is take one class, then I agree that pure fact memorization is pretty useless, and unfairly advantages people who have one certain type of brain configuration. (Case in point: my college art history class. I happen to be a good crammer-memorizer and I got an A on the exam. My roommate, who was in the same class, got a B -- but six months later, she still remembered the art and artists, whereas I had completely forgotten them.)
posted by footnote at 9:02 AM on September 29, 2005

'The most profound engine of civilization is the inability of a larger and larger fraction of the population to do the basic things needed to survive. Many people fail to realize this. In a society where everyone knows how to hunt, grow food, and make shelter, and knows these things well enough to survive, no one has time for much of anything else--even for perfecting one or the other of these basic skills. In early tribal societies, some people were undoubtedly better at one thing than another, to the point where they would probably have had a hard time outside the group. The best arrow makers probably weren't very good at weaving shoes, and would have had a lot of blisters without some help from the shoe weavers. Few people would argue that people who are bad at weaving shoes are somehow inadequate, but it's surprising how strongly people feel this way about "modern" skills such as the ability to add well. Technology's greatest contribution is to permit people to be incompetent at a larger and larger range of things. Only by embracing such incompetence is the human race able to progress.'
posted by driveler at 9:03 AM on September 29, 2005

Rote memorization is relied on by teachers who are clueless about the subject they're teaching or possibly too lazy to grade actual questions. I don't care if the subject is history, economics, art history, solid-state circuits or computer programming.
posted by substrate at 9:04 AM on September 29, 2005

Try the search terms "rote memorization" rather than "brute memorization" and you may get more info. Also, you could try "educational theory" or "learning theory."
posted by arcticwoman at 9:18 AM on September 29, 2005

if you want to get good grades on tests you're going to want to memorize questions and then the related answers.
posted by CrazyJoel at 9:21 AM on September 29, 2005

Is forced memorization fading away along with the slide rule and slate board?

Nope. If anything, you can expect to see more of it (or at least more testing of it) as class sizes increase. Memorization-based testing isn't relied on by teachers who are clueless or lazy; it's relied on by teachers who cannot turn an essay test around in a reasonable time frame.

When I have a class with 10 students, they get open-note, open-book, take-home eight hour exams that require synthesis and analysis of existing material as well as novel, creative application of that material to a new topic. These often come back to me as 20+ page essays. When I have ~50 students, their tests are a mix of multiple guess and short-response, and they write a short (~8 page) paper. When I have 130, they get multiple-guess scantrons. In all these cases, the driving force is the need to get these back to the students inside a week or over a weekend.

I think that memorization should be a natural result of interest and energy invested into a subject

If you ever teach a class, especially a required or introductory class (or, worst, a required introductory class), you'll quickly realize that the average student has little interest in the class and invests little energy into it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:32 AM on September 29, 2005

Bloom's taxonomy defines six levels of mastery that teachers can ask of students. None of my own teachers ever asked more than the first level, "knowledge" -- rote memorization, as you say. I think they'd probably plead lack of time/resources.
posted by futility closet at 9:35 AM on September 29, 2005

I am biased on this because I memorize things with great ease. That said, I think a basic level of memorization is desirable even if you can look everything up, because not having to look everything up can make for more room and time for complex thoughts.

Besides, you often need basic knowledge to know what you need to know and how to find it. I would think the best schooling would combine basic understanding, which often means memorizing, with analysis and research.
posted by dame at 9:54 AM on September 29, 2005

"Why not free up our brains from the barrage of factoids and focus on actually doing something with this knowledge?"

I've heard intelligence defined as the ability to make connections between facts. To do this, you need to have the facts at your disposal. Don't get me wrong--reference sources are great. We need to have an outboard brain. But you cannot form these connections if the facts aren't already loaded into your inboard brain. Memorization is, to a greater or lesser extent, how we do that.

Having facts in your brain also makes you a much stronger debater. If you're arguing with someone who makes an assertion that you think is flatly wrong or conveniently ignores some hard facts, it is a hell of a lot more effective to say "you're wrong, because so-and-so wasn't even alive in 1642" than to say "you're wrong, and let me get back to you on why."

I agree it is silly to memorize the "significance" of a work of art as if it were a factual bullet-point. It's fine for the teacher to explain it, and show how it influnced other works, etc, but to memorize that as an atomic unit of knowledge reveals a limited attitude towards learning on the teacher's part.

In short, what dame said.
posted by adamrice at 10:41 AM on September 29, 2005

Great question.

When learning any subject, it's useful to divide it up into items you should memorize, items you should access via reference materials and items you should deduce.

You should memorize the subject's foundation items. For instance, it's really hard to do even the simplest math without knowing the digits by heart.

You really need to boil down the "memorization list" to as few items as possible, because it's difficult (and time consuming) to cram many items into your brain. So for second-order info, you're best off working with reference materials. (i.e. memorize the primary colors; look up what you get when you mix them.)

Finally, there are many items that need to be deduced, because they can't be codified as memorized (or referenced) facts. When I program computers, I generally hold the common commands in my brain; I augment my brain with reference materials, which are for obscure commands. But I must DEDUCE a way to cobble these commands together into a program. No book (or brain) can hold every possible program.

(It's almost impossible to deduce without first mastering the first two categories. In other words, before you'll be able to do any original work -- deductions -- you first have to memorize and learn how to use references. You can't make cake without ingredients.)

Obviously, people will disagree over which items belong in these three categories, but agreeing on the categories themselves gives us a good starting point for discussion.

Unfortunately, when you attempt to learn a new subject, you will be clueless as to how to categorize its items. This is where you need help from an expert. A good teacher will point you towards the items you should memorize, the references you should use, and the items you need to deduce. He will try to minimize the number of memorized items, but, such as they are, he will strongly urge you to memorized them.

Alas, most teachers (in my experience) don't think this through. They just throw items at you willy-nilly, asking you to memorize some and not others almost at random (well, probably based more on tradition than randomness).


A simple example is language:

Memorize: all the letters, the rules of grammar, and a fairly large vocabulary of general-purpose words.

Look up (don't memorize): obscure words.

Deduce (build from memorized and looked up items): unique sentences.
posted by grumblebee at 11:20 AM on September 29, 2005

Response by poster: I don't want to mark anything as the best answer, because you've all been helpful. Note to self: research "rote memorization" and "bloom's taxonomy".

The challenge of actually grading ~125 students' worth of insightful responses seems to be a big limiting factor to a more engaged seminar. I wonder what solutions there are to this? Having only a midterm and final, but more involved? I think I'm almost making a graduate style course out of a basic undergrad course -- but there has to be a better way to guage people's understanding of something than quizzing them on facts and figures ...
posted by jruckman at 8:24 PM on September 29, 2005

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