The Good and Bad of Memorization

Truth be told I’ve always been terrible at memorizing things. From 1st grade through 8th, spelling tests were one of my biggest fears. Spelling l never came naturally to me so every test meant memorizing the order of each letter. One time (this is where I openly admit to cheating once in first grade) I was so stressed about spelling tests (which I always failed) that I came up with the brilliant plan on writing one of the words on a piece of paper and hiding that in my desk. The word was “okay” and in the stress of the test and cheating I read the paper upside down and wrote out “yako”. I was young enough that the fact the letters were upside down didn’t phase me.

When I got to 7th grade life science, 9th grade bio, and 12th grade AP bio we learned about the parts of the cell. By learned I mean we memorized the names of the cell parts and their given explanations of function and every year I realized I remembered almost none of the cell part functions from my previous classes. What had I really learned from memorizing the definitions? Nothing.

By the end of middle school I came to dislike history because I was terrible at remembering names and dates, which is all it felt like we were tested on. I’d get one date out of order on the test and all the following ones would be wrong by default. Some people are good at memorizing, I wasn’t.

I hated memorizing, but I came to love facts. In my senior year of high school the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. I have no shame in admitting I am still a huge fan. Before I ever saw the movie I knew the names of all the actors, characters, and locations (I had read the books previously). I could have easily written pages of all the details I had unintentionally memorized from the movies and books and I realized that maybe I wasn’t so bad at memorizing. Maybe trying to memorize without personal relevance was my problem?

In college, I changed my mind about history. For once I could pick subjects that interested me. I learned that the key to understanding history was not the date a battle took place or even the battle itself, but rather everything that lead up to that happening and everything that came from it. We no longer were tested on our ability to recall, but out understanding of the situation. And I realized that, without even meaning to, I would remember dates and names on the test because I cared enough to remember.

Memorizing is not a bad thing, but if all you get out of memorizing is a point on a test and a definition you forget by the next week what is the value of that? If I want my students to memorize the terms like, reactant, precipitate, element, compound,…, know the equations for force and velocity, memorize conversion units, and so forth there should be a good reason. That reason should not be because of a question on the test, it should be because knowing that word  or fact is crucial to the overall understanding of the concept. And to get them to really know a word or fact you need to make it relevant to them, you need to make it engaging, and you need to make it meaningful.

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