Help for students, part 2: Memorizing vs. understanding

Sally and Bert are two students who fell prey to unknown unknowns on their final exam. They both sent me emails complaining that the exam was unreasonably difficult- that they were required to supply more information than a student could reasonably be expected to memorize.

Sally said:

“I found the exam very difficult obviously and would like to see the format change as the amount of content that needs to be memorized is something I feel uncapable [sic] of. If it were a multiple choice exam, I believe the outcome would have been different.”

The exam did require more knowledge than a student might reasonably be expected to memorize, and that was because the students were expected to understand the course material rather than just memorize it. Memorization is a very inefficient way to attempt to store information. Understanding is much better. It’s the difference between learning the lyrics to your favourite song by trying to remember the words in random order, or learning them as they fit into lines and verses and tell a story.  One is next to impossible, and the other you can do after listening to the song a few times.

That’s not to say there is no memorizing involved, but ideally the situation would look something like Plan A in the diagram below. The diagram is a sketch of what part of your knowledge would depend on memorizing, and what part would depend on understanding as you progress through the course. Initially, there is quite a lot of memorizing required as you encounter new terms for the first time, but at the same time your understanding is increasing. Eventually, you are able to add new knowledge by building on your understanding, and less memorizing is required.

Memorizing versus understanding

If a substantial amount of learning gets left to the last minute, then to be as prepared as in Plan A, learning must happen a lot faster. In that case, we’re looking at Plan B where memorizing and understanding are condensed into a small amount of time. Unfortunately, your brain can only learn so much before it needs a break, so what actually happens is C. There is insufficient time to prepare, and that time is taken up mostly by memorizing because you don’t yet have enough of the individual puzzle pieces to start to build the big picture.

Categories: For students, Learning strategies | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Help for students, part 2: Memorizing vs. understanding

  1. Pingback: Help for students, part 3: Reasons for miscalculating course expectations | Petragogy

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