When I was still an undergraduate (Joshua writing here), I remember having to prepare various cheat sheets that professors would allow us to bring in the exam halls. I recall, still with a tinge of horror, how I’d try to cram as much as possible into the allotment (some professors allowed only one sheet, some allowed us to bring in a couple of sheets). In the end, the ones for maths looked like this:

It goes without saying that secondary school and junior college education is very different from university level work, and almost all subjects require a fair bit of memory work. In university, the emphasis weighs a lot more heavily towards critical thinking and application of concepts, rather than a mere test of memory. You have to therefore ask yourself: why is there so much more focus on memorising facts, mathematical identities, dates, and lists for secondary school subjects? Shouldn’t we be teaching our students how to think, rather than teaching them how to memorise?

I think this is quite an important issue to think about, especially as we now live in a rapidly changing world, where a good ability to memorise facts does not necessarily translate into the ability to think and apply our knowledge to changing scenarios. If you agree that education prepares one to become a useful solver of society’s problems in the future, wouldn’t an over-emphasis on memory be counterproductive in our schools?

Do you still recall the quadratic formula? Hmm, probably not? Well, it looks like this:

When you were in school you definitely came across this formula, but it’s unlikely that you ever needed to know how to derive it, nor how to use it in real life apart from solving a few equations in your exam.

When students encounter it in school, they are told to simply memorise it, without any further explanation of what it means, or where it came from. It’s merely seen as a tool to help students correctly solve certain problems, and most teachers and students leave it at that.

When students are told to memorise certain facts without putting them into their proper context, they are encouraged to take a reproducing approach to their studies. Students with such a tendency will rely a lot of rote-learning in completing their homework and that will be their approach in the exams. Strategically oriented students may just pick up their books at the last minute to cram everything into their heads, but will forget everything once the exam is over.

There are for sure many things worth memorising, but isolated facts and figures are certainly not. There are many facets of this issue to consider, such as why memorisation is critical to deeper learning, how to find space in our curriculum and pedagogy to focus on critical thinking, finding the best way to ensure memory leads to understanding and not just for its own sake.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments? I will try to explore my thoughts on this issue over the next few days.

But there's no doubt that memorisation can be a beautiful thing-watch this video: