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One of the hallmarks of our modern approach to education is the avoidance of memorization in favor of critical thinking. This aversion to internalizing facts stemmed from the realization that a lot of what kids were learning had no context in their minds; they could recite all the elements on the periodic table, but they had no idea what the words they were saying meant or their relationship to one another. Similarly, rote recitation of poetry was accompanied by a complete lack of understanding of the themes in the poem itself. Students could provide the answers when cued correctly, but out of context, they were lost. Kids knew the words but not the intention.

However, one extreme—an education based entirely on parroting with no critical thinking—has been replaced with the other—brilliant analysis with nothing to analyze. Now kids can tell you the significance of various episodes in history, but they have no idea when they occurred, or even who was involved (seriously).

Memorization is not a waste of time, and teaching as if that were true is a serious mistake. Unfortunately, many school curriculums do just that, going so far as to provide the equations on math tests. The reasoning goes that what matters is a student’s ability to use the equation. They can always look it up.

Unfortunately, this is simply not true.

Real-world problems are not well-defined

It is important to remember that none of the applied knowledge you encounter in the real world will be in the context of a test. You won’t even know if you are looking at a problem that can be solved mathematically or by referencing something from history…unless you have internalized the patterns from those subjects.

That is how you gain the ability to identify what sort of problem you are looking at: by memorizing the patterns of that field so you can recognize them when you see them.

Weirdly, two of the testiest tests out there, the SAT and the ACT, despite all the criticism they have faced for failing to prioritize what students really need to know to succeed, are actually very good at simulating this aspect of real-world problems. Problems within sections are mixed, and other than the circumstances of the question, there is no indication of what kind of problem you are dealing with. You might have to do a trig question right after a quadratic problem. Unless you have internalized (aka memorized) the patterns, you will have trouble switching gears because you won’t be able to tell what sort of math will work in that problem.

In order to do well, you must invest time and energy into being able to recognize the type of problem you are looking at. That requires memorization.

I can always tell the difference between a straight-A student and one who actually gets math; the former is really good at doing problem sets when they come in blocks and the student is informed what they will need to do to solve them, while the latter can creatively come up with new solutions by recognizing patterns in the problem that connect with other patterns they have seen before. They don’t need to be told what to do or even what variety of problem they are looking at.

Which brings us to the next point: memorization allows you to be more creative.

Memorization leads to creativity

This may sound like the complete opposite of what you think when you hear ‘memorization,’ but when you can hold multiple perspectives in mind and compare models with each other, deconstructing and combining them on the fly, you are much better and faster at coming up with new ideas.

This is especially true in math and science, where different approaches to solving simple problems can be combined to solve complex problems. There is often more than one way to solve a math or science problem, and the ability to try variations on them and combine them is much easier when you have them all in your head and don’t have to look them up.

One of the most powerful intellectual abilities we have is our unconscious processing. So many leaps of creativity have come about as the result of thinking going on “behind the scenes.” But this sort of work cannot happen if the unconscious has nothing to work with until the conscious mind (so much more plodding) pulls open a books and looks up a fact.

Thomas Edison used to purposefully doze when trying to solve problems to get his conscious mind to shut off so the unconscious could do the creative work that would lead to a breakthrough.

Memorization leads to confidence and functional intelligence

The last, but definitely not trivial, benefit of memorization is that it develops confidence. I have worked with many bright students who are really good at math, but because they don’t have most of their equations memorized, they proceed slowly and with a lot of trepidation. They look to me for confirmation of all their “guesses.”

This makes them move much more slowly through the test than a student who actually knows the material and holds it clearly in his or her mind. Confidence is obviously important on a standardized test when timing is an issue, but it is also important in the real world. Presenting your thoughts with reservation, or not at all, just because you don’t trust your memory in the moment until you can look it up, will have a strong negative impact on your professional performance.

And of course, you just come across as smarter and more impressive when you can quote some fact with certainty without having to run and grab a book first. We make fun of street interviews in which the person being interviewed, representative of the average American, does not know who the first president of the United States was. Their humorous failure is the result of their decision to forgo memorizing a fact. That’s all. But we see it as a reflection of intelligence, and really, functional intelligence in our world requires some facts of how the world works be committed to memory.

If you’re still not convinced of the value of going back to memorize gaps in your multiplication tables or grammar rules, consider how you would feel if you went in for surgery, and your doctor pulled up an anatomy reference to have handy. You probably would ask for another doctor. Expertise is characterized by internalized knowledge which can then be adapted to whatever situation the expert faces. Knowledge that hasn’t been internalized cannot be creatively applied nearly as easily.

How to Apply:

  1. Think about facts that you refer to a lot but don’t actually have memorized. Make a list of 5-10 and take the time to actually commit them to memory. The next time you need one of them, resist the urge to look it up. That habit is what prevented you from memorizing it in the first place. You’d be surprised how long you can go without actually committing something to memory if you never force yourself to recall it.
  2. The old standby of flashcards is actually the best way to memorize facts. Write the fact/equation/vocab word/date on one side of a card and the label or name on the other side. Then, see how well you can recall the other side. If it’s really easy, set that card aside for a while. If it’s hard, review it until you can remember, and then do it again for several days. Once you can remember it easily, put it away for a longer period of time.
  3. Use spaced repetition. Despite the fact it feels easier to remember information that you are reviewing constantly, it actually doesn’t stick as well in the long term. The best way to memorize something is to let it fade a little before attempting to recall it again. Don’t let it fade completely though; then you’re actually relearning, not recalling.