Memorization VERSUS Understanding?!?

Published on Thursday, May 27, 2010 in , , , , , ,

Memorization vs Understanding GraphFor sometime now, I've been wanting to write a post on one of my major pet peeves: The old argument about memorization vs. understanding.

Let's start with the critics of memorization. Lisa VanDamme's article The Real Math Magic: Understanding vs Memorizing, while focused on mathematics, is typical of the arguments of understanding as opposed to memorization.

First, too many take “memorization” to mean simply rote memorization – just repeating things over and over again until your memory retains them. If this is what is truly being argued against, then I'll give the opposition their due.

However, between techniques like mnemonics, spiral learning, spaced repetition, and more, the techniques are much richer than simply repeating things to memorize them.

We've established that the techniques are richer than most people believe, but what about the benefits of memorizing? It's a little political, but Michael Knox Beran's article In Defense of Memorization does discuss the benefits of the classic form of scholastic memorization. Why Memorization Helps Kids to Learn, by Dr. Rick Bavaria, sums up the benefits of memorization more succinctly and directly.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing for the elimination of understanding. One of my favorite sites, as regular readers know, is BetterExplained.com, where clarity of understanding is their goal. Indeed, their post A Gentle Introduction To Learning Calculus not only clearly explains the basis of calculus, but makes a good argument that calculus should be taught earlier, not later.

Dan Meyer, while arguing that math class needs a makeover, actually discusses exactly how to overcome the impediments to understanding that most students have:

When you boil the arguments down, it comes down to the fact that memorization and understanding should work together in learning. In talking about how to get users to RTFM, the Passionate Users Blog makes an interesting point: the more you can get someone to understand something, the required memory work decreases.

Note also, that the graph at the above article runs from “High” to “Low”, not “Everything” to “Nothing”. In other words, there will always be a need for some memorization, regardless of your level of understanding. For example, since mental models are rarely perfect, there will usually be a need to memorize the exceptions to the rules.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the classic memorization vs. understanding argument?

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2 Response to Memorization VERSUS Understanding?!?

2:57 AM

Great article, and thanks for the mention. I think one key is deciding what to memorize.

One analogy I like to use: you want to memorize the map, not specific directions. That is, if you know the general lay of the land (monuments, highways, etc.) then you can understand/figure out the specifics of how to get from A to B.

As an example, see the highway system in the US (http://bigthink.com/ideas/21124). The East/West roads are in tens (10/20/30) and I can then "guess" that I could drive from Seattle to Boston on I-90. The North/South roads go 5/15/..95, so I could drive from Seattle to LA on I-5, or Boston to Miami on I-95. The key is memorizing a few critical facts and being able to plug them into a mental model you understand, instead of "memorizing" every variation of that model.

Again, great article!

11:21 PM

I have been thinking about this subject a lot over the last year in which I have been learning memory techniques with as much of my time as possible.

Starting the training I knew that many of the salesmen (instructors) wanted me to buy a course and that their products would be plentiful. (and one of the reasons I like grey matters so much, is that here most everything is linked to for free.) And those salesmen probably wouldn't be teaching much more than what I got from the Bruno Furst course for $5. But I needed to see Memory systems in action. I started with the belief that mnemonics were/was a parlor trick, and by itself I still believe that.

Reading thru the Defense of mem. article, I did see some value in memorization of any kind artificial like mnemonics, or repetitious with focus. Particularly for the discipline in an older student's development, and phonetic in the early years. I feel that the discipline is the greatest benefit, I have been in modern classrooms and I am very frightened of the way the average public school classroom operates. Teachers are often more like zookeepers than anything I remember from my schooldays- not that I was a wiz. (In their defense there are both good and bad zookeepers.)

But the con side still remains, I can memorize visually with unrelated pictures, or phonetically dealing with sounds of poetry, or with the sound of the letters. Memorization=/=Learning, however it can make learning easier when used correctly.

In example: when I memorize a poem with the words
"Sir, eye bear a rhino excel-link" instead of
"Sir I bare a rhyme excelling." to memorize 31 digits of pi, it does not aid my math abilities. What it does do is keep me focused and allow me to avoid looking up pi to the "x" digit. http://www.fun-with-words.com/mnem_numbers.html

Mnemonics can also be a downfall, like a monkey who refuses to let go of a piece of fruit in a poacher's trap. Several months ago I demonstrated I could learn the names of 35 people and remember a random playing card each of them held. I had all the face cards in play, and knew I was only missing one jack, I could recall the clubs, hearts, and spades and the people who held them but could not for the life of me figure out what the remaining suit was because I was so focused on my mnemonic that I couldn't relate to the cards as cards. (fortunately things all worked out in the end.)

But for memorizing that Every good boy does fine, or to Never Eat Soggy Worms, Mnemoics work great. Some say that mnemonics can even help prevent future memory loss. If that is true, that would be yet another benefit.