Why Bother with Memorization

I have gotten into many conversations about whether or not students should be doing any memorization work at all when they have access to all of the information they could ever need right in their phones. In a day and age of Google and all of the other sources on information – YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr – why should any student be required to memorize facts. It is clearly not a higher level thinking skill to commit information by rote to memory. So why should we ask it of our students?

I would argue that there is one primary reason, which is that the process of figuring out how to effectively memorize teaches a student about how his or her brain works. If we teach students multiple ways to commit a series of facts to memory, they can experiment and learn which one works for them. Is it easier for them to learn by reading the information over and over again? Is it easier if they read it aloud rather than silently? Are they more effective when they draw charts of the information on large sheets of paper? Does hanging those sheets up in their bedroom help them learn it? Do they need to take a walk and teach the lesson to their dog, speaking it aloud.

We need to teach each of these strategies in the classroom. We need to model how each is done and then have them practice that strategy at home that night with a lesson. The next day should be a time of reflection on the process. Take a quick quiz, not for a grade but to evaluate retention of the material. Then have a class discussion about whether it was an effective strategy. Find out about when and where they used it and how it might be adapted to be more effective. It is empowering for the student to go through the process of using different strategies. They begin to understand how they learn while doing a relatively simple task of memorizing a set of facts. Each student begins to develop his or her own personal strategy for tackling their next learning challenge. There is a direct sense of personal power in this understanding of how you learn the most effectively that can be translated into more complicated tasks. Because our brains change and grow, this is an important task for most years of school.

I have no desire to return to a rote-learning classroom, where there is no investigation and student-driven work. On the other hand, I want to avoid throwing this particular baby being thrown out with the bath water. Access to information is not the same as knowing how to gain control over it and work with it. We need to teach our students every possible skill that will allow them to do that, and memorization is simply one that should not be forgotten.

16 responses to “Why Bother with Memorization

  1. Excellent post! I agree that there are appropriate times to memorize, but most importantly to develop and foster metacognition in our students. My class knows that we “think about thinking” to reach authentic learning. Sometimes, the memorization is a necessary step as we develop our personal learning strategy and as you say, personal power! Love it! Nancy

  2. Great post! Too much of these morsels gets lost in the larger debate. I believe our way we account for learning inadequately prioritizes skills and recognizes asynchronous learning, which leads to the baby out with the bathwater syndrome. Unfortunately, too much is invested legacy systems and thought processes associated with measuring purely content. Hopefully disruptions in the market show us the way forward.

    • Shane, There are definitely aspects of where we are right now that feel like the swings of the pendulum. All rote to all student-driven. Somewhere in the middle would be a great place to land. ­čÖé
      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I love this post. You are setting up your students for success by paying such close attention to why and how to approach memorization. Another benefit of it (from someone who has been guilty of skipping over it entirely to focus on higher level thinking skills) is that it gives the students who are still very concrete a chance to shine. It can be a nice change of pace to do a minute or two of vocab review with popsicle sticks after digging deep to write thought-provoking thesis statements. It’s like giving those students a minute to catch their breath.

    • Ann, Thanks for the comment. I had forgotten about how much it helps the concrete students, though there have definitely been times when supporting them was the whole point of giving some memorization.
      Happy 2011!

  4. Great post! In my own dilemma of facing down the daunting task of assigning what can only be considered rote memorization I had not considered the value it does have in allowing students to discover more about themselves as learners. And really what better skills could we possibly be developing than teaching them how to learn?

  5. “It can give them a new sense of power over their own minds!” — I believe what everyone says and want to add one more thing.
    When I taught 4-5 grade we had a poetry recital every year. Kids wrote and recited their own poems but also memorized a poem to recite. I couldn’t believe what they could memorize! The Highway Man, the first paragraph of Moby Dick (I was flexible about what constituted poetry), The Owl and the Pussycat, Casey at the Bat, Shakespeare sonnets… After the recitals they would ask each other to recite the poems again and again – The repeated exposure to poetry has to have a lasting effect. AND as people who can recite from memory I figure they’ll always have a go-to trick for cocktail parties!

    • Jane, thanks for the comment. The power of “knowing” something – poetry, countries of Europe, whatever, can lead to a desire to learn more that then leads students to higher level thinking. I am always fascinated by how excited it can make so many students. Not all the time, of course, but as one of the tricks in our Bag of Tricks!

  6. As someone who has been studying Japanese for over 5 years, I see memorization as a hugely important skill. Especially with Japanese because it has three alphabets, one of which is character-based. I believe that language learning is hugely important in general and although vocabulary and phrases can be accessed online, if a student doesn’t have that word or phrase memorized she or he could never speak fluently. Learning memorization skills outside of learning a language can better prepare them when they enter the language classroom and with these skills could hopefully have less of a difficult time learning a language.

  7. Kaushiki Dunusinghe

    As a Math student and also as someone who’s interested in STEM education, I always wondered about the importance of memorization in Math and Science education. For instance, is it necessary that students memorize the multiplication table when they can just use a calculator? Should they have to memorize mathematical/chemical formulas or should we focus more on teaching them how to use those formulas to solve problems? Memorizing the multiplication table, formulas and such is only useful in the basic levels of Math and Science education anyways. (You don’t even use numbers in upper level Math classes) So, is it worth spending a lot of time memorizing these basic things, while that time could be used learning how to apply those in problem solving and such? Should standardized test systems
    change in order to focus more on applications rather than on memorization?

  8. “I have no desire to return to a rote-learning classroom, where there is no investigation and student-driven work” I love this. I definitely agree that investigation is necessary. I think this is one instance in which having technology to readily available may actually be doing the student a disadvantage (and I am a student myself). It astounds me at the amount of times I have heard, “just google it” in my dorm room. I quickly fall into this. Memorization is still a totally relevant and important tool.

  9. well my name is nina and i am an 8th grader at labrum middle school in philadelphia, pa and we are doing a debate on whether or not students should have to memorize the multiplication table and i ve been assigned to the negative side but i have been doing research and cant seem to find any goo reasons on why not until i came across this artical. I was wondering should we really have to memorize he times tables or not because we do have calculators and pencil and paper so i feel that there is no need to i feel as though our teachers are overloading us!! and i agree with the author of the artical because alot of us do have internet on our phones and can easily look up any information we might need that and more schools these days use calculators and computers so why should we have to memorize times tables!?

    • Thank you for your comment on my blog. What a great way to get help for your debate!

      I do think that endless memorization is far less necessary than it used to be. When it was impossible to get a hold of information unless you had memorized it, then students had to memorize or they could not use the information. I use memorizing to help my students understand how they learn. In order to successfully memorize pieces of information, you need to figure out how to learn it. Should you write it down lots of times? Should you make a song up to help you? Should you say it aloud again and again? Should you make pictures to help you? Everyone’s brain works just a little differently from anyone else’s. A student needs to figure out how she learns in order to have success at other kinds of learning.

      As far as the times tables go, unfortunately for your argument, I personally think that they are pieces of information that it benefits a person to know. I would expand your point beyond them, though, to what do students need to know today. I would argue that while they need to know how to memorize, it is not the primary skill that they need. They need to know how to organize and understand all of the information that is flooding into them. That is a critical skill for today. If you say that memorization used to be of primary importance, but that it isn’t anymore, that could be a strong argument!

      I hope that helps!

  10. oh and thank you if u provide me with any info i might need!! ­čÖé

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