Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at the value of having student memorize certain types of material. It is by Marilla Svinicki, University of Texas at Austin and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 27, Number 5, September 2018. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327 ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company.
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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning
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Why Should I Memorize This Stuff When I Have Google and a Calculator?
What prompted this column? In 2016, Benjamin Riley wrote about the value of memorizing versus doing a Google search. I found that particularly interesting to chew on. How good is memorizing things as a means for studying and learning? So I’m going to provoke you with a discussion of what you could say to the student speaking in my headline. Sometimes memorizing is useful, and sometimes not. Sometimes looking things up is useful, and sometimes not. Here are the thoughts that I had in response.
In Favor of Memorizing (“Is Mastering Technical Jargon in a Survey Course Worth a Student’s Time?”)
You could say “Once you learn the jargon, you save precious time accessing and using it to communicate to (and having your ideas accepted by) others in the field, including your instructors.” Riley says that most memorization (done correctly) saves time. He relates this to the efficiency of working memory, the place information is held in preparation for thinking. Working memory has limited capacity. If you try to get too much in it, other stuff has to get kicked out. But once jargon has been mastered, it takes up less space in working memory, thus making room for more complex types of thinking.
In terms of its value to learning, memorization of vocabulary would more likely be associated with the need for instant (or at least rapid) access to information, especially information that will be used frequently and is central to assessing what’s needed to understand a situation. One frequent complaint is the heavy use of technical language (i.e., “jargon”) in introductory courses. Having technical language fluency provides fast access to concepts with a lot of information in the background. New students struggle with the language because the jargon and its rich background have not become a part of their long-term, permanent memory yet. When jargon is used in lectures, students have to stop processing new information and use precious working memory resources to access and use what the jargon represents. Some jargon is worth memorizing in some situations, and some is not. Of course, beginning students need help in deciding which is which. Fortunately, time spent in a course, or better yet a sequence of major courses, usually provides sufficient practice in the jargon to make its use automatic and not a drain on working memory.
Here are some possible ways of facilitating rapid acquisition of the jargon in your course.
• A course-specific glossary that contains and explains new vocabulary can help the students keep up. You could even create an online class “wiki space” that students can add to as they come across unfamiliar words. They can be encouraged to add what they find to the glossary.
• Develop mnemonics that are shortcuts to the jargon in the field. For example, medical practice is a prime user of mnemonics. The mnemonic FAST to represent symptoms of a stroke is even suggested to the public to guide their reactions to a possible stroke (F—facial drooping, A—arm weakness, S—slurring of speech, and T—time is critical). Encouraging students to create their own mnemonics for important sets of information will also improve their ability to identify key points more rapidly and use them more creatively.
• During initial weeks of the course, display, highlight, and repeat the meaning when you use jargon. Eventually you won’t have to. It may encourage them to do a little overview of those terms and whether or not they know them.
Cautions against Memorizing (“Will Memorizing All This Stuff Really Help Me?”)
Memorizing for the sake of memorizing is not worth it. Why should students memorize the order of the planets, for example? If the information is not something they would use often or need rapid access to, they can depend on their electronic long-term memory (i.e., Google). There is no point in using up precious mental memory resources when you can get what you need quickly enough electronically.
Even memorized information can decay if not used. There is a caveat here. If the information is memorized but not used, the memories may deteriorate. Students can become dependent on offline supports, which can circumvent the work of creating and storing their own knowledge.
There’s more that can happen when searching for external resources than just finding what you’re looking for. Some of my best ideas have come by noting an interesting title or abstract or figure, which encourages me to look further. It’s the magic of serendipity, an accidental running across a new idea related to what you’re trying to find. James Rhem, the esteemed executive editor of NTLF, reminded me of the joys of scanning the library shelves looking for one thing and finding five other titles related to my topic. Search engines that recommend “related articles” are starting to bring that joy and enrichment back into a literature search. Serendipity has its own danger of getting lost in the search and forgetting the initial question that triggered the search. Non-memorizers should at least write down their initial question and periodically check it to avoid losing their way in the internet information jungle. It’s very easy to be seduced by those five titles and lose yourself in their exploration. But maybe that’s not so bad after all.
So what do you recommend students do? I don’t have a ready-made answer to this question. The value of memorization is situational, as are most things in learning. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. Let the context be your guide. Perhaps what I really want to say is “memorization of details has a short shelf life. Better to go for a deeper understanding of the materials, because those memories will last longer.” (Unless the test is tomorrow.)
Riley, B. 2016. The value of knowing how students learn. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(7), 35–39.
Marilla Svinicki, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin One University Station D5800 Austin, TX 78712
Telephone: (512) 471-0557 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org