In the Age of Google, What Does Anyone Need Memorization Skills For?


Over the years I’ve noticed that students return to school from summer holidays not remembering the things they were taught the previous school session. Many factors have been attributed to this, but the one obvi­ous, and never-stated prob­lem, is that stu­dents don’t remem­ber what they are taught. In spite of all the “teach­ing to the test” that par­ents and teach­ers com­plain about, stu­dents still don’t remem­ber the very things they were taught as answers to test questions.

The rea­son they don’t remem­ber is that they are not taught how to mem­o­rize. Why is that? First, there is a cul­tural dis­dain for mem­o­riza­tion skills. Who needs mem­ory skills today? Not only do we have books where we can look some­thing up, but now we can always just “Google it.” But Google can’t learn a for­eign lan­guage for you. What about stu­dents try­ing to pass high-stakes exams? Google isn’t made avail­able. And can Google make busi­ness­peo­ple more knowl­edge­able and competent?

Being able to find infor­ma­tion is not the same as know­ing it. Access to the Inter­net is not always avail­able or prac­ti­cal. Stu­dents become men­tally lazy when they can look stuff up instead of mem­o­riz­ing. Mem­ory needs exer­cise or it atro­phies like a mus­cle. Memory-contest com­peti­tors train for months to become men­tal ath­letes, but when they stop train­ing, their mem­ory capa­bil­ity shriv­els back to a more ordi­nary level.

Worse yet is a teacher prej­u­dice against mem­o­riza­tion. That is so “old school;” the hip thing in teach­ing is to focus on crit­i­cal and cre­ative thinking―those higher lev­els of think­ing so esteemed in Bloom’s Hier­ar­chy of Learn­ing. But mem­ory is cru­cial for pow­er­ful think­ing. I agree that the ulti­mate goal should be to teach peo­ple how to think, solve prob­lems, and cre­ate. Cen­tral to these capa­bil­i­ties, how­ever, is the abil­ity to remem­ber things. A per­son can’t think in a vac­uum. Crit­i­cal think­ing requires knowl­edge and acquired think­ing and problem-solving skills. These things require a pow­er­ful memory.

Think about all the time and money we spend try­ing to learn, whether it’s in school, on the job, or any­where else. What good is it try­ing to learn some­thing if you don’t remem­ber it? The only ben­e­fit I can think of is that such tem­po­rary learn­ing makes it eas­ier to learn some­thing a sec­ond time.

The more one knows (remem­bers), the more intel­lec­tual com­pe­ten­cies one has to draw upon for think­ing, prob­lem solv­ing, and even cre­ativ­ity. Soci­ety does not need a work­force of trained seals, but it does need peo­ple with knowl­edge and skills that they can apply appro­pri­ately to dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany exec­u­tives are com­plain­ing that, since man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy is so com­pli­cated, they have to rely on for­eign work­ers who have bet­ter edu­ca­tional back­grounds than do most U.S. stu­dent. The same prob­lem exists for recruiters to grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion pro­grams at U.S. col­leges of engineering.

Think back to your own school days. How many teach­ers explic­itly taught you how to remem­ber effec­tively and effi­ciently? Your teach­ers may have used a cou­ple of acros­tics and lim­er­icks, or warned you not to cram, but chances are that was the extent of your for­mal edu­ca­tion in how to learn. The empha­sis in school is always on what to learn. Who teaches how to learn?

The prob­lem is that learn­ing is hard for so many peo­ple. They have not learned much about how to learn from par­ents or teach­ers, or on their own. When learn­ing is hard it’s not fun, so stu­dents avoid learn­ing until it is absolutely nec­es­sary. These stu­dents miss out on all the fun and rewards of life­long learning.

Of the many things that influ­ence learn­ing effec­tive­ness, let me sum­ma­rize a few:

Degree of inter­est and enjoy­ment. Too often, peo­ple have lim­ited inter­ests, which limit what they learn. It pays to develop inter­est in many things. The drive to learn is killed by telling your­self that some­thing is unin­ter­est­ing or bor­ing. School chil­dren and young adults do this routinely.

Pay­ing atten­tion and think­ing about what you are try­ing to learn. Think­ing involves relat­ing new infor­ma­tion to exist­ing knowl­edge by ask­ing and attempt­ing to answer ques­tions. This is a part of the next item in this list.

Active engage­ment. This relates to the idea of learn­ing by doing, either men­tally or phys­i­cally. Strive to iden­tify mean­ing and gain insight. Get­ting involved with and apply­ing what you are try­ing to learn is much more effec­tive than pas­sively watch­ing a video or lis­ten­ing to a lec­ture with­out tak­ing notes or oth­er­wise engag­ing with the mate­r­ial. This point applies to lazy read­ing, too.

Striv­ing for con­tin­u­ous improve­ment of learn­ing skills and knowl­edge expan­sion. Learning-to-learn skills are cumu­la­tive and, I think, super-additive. With­out con­tin­ual striv­ing to become a bet­ter learner, you will reach an “O.K.” plateau that keeps you from expand­ing your learn­ing and mem­ory capa­bil­i­ties. You will never know the sat­is­fac­tion and joy you have missed.

Know­ing mem­o­riza­tion prin­ci­ples and tricks. There are lots of tech­niques to help you absorb new infor­ma­tion, many of which are not that hard to learn.

Con­fronting chal­leng­ing learn­ing mate­r­ial. When you make a con­scious deci­sion to learn hard mate­r­ial, you can move out of your O.K. plateau and begin expand­ing your learn­ing and mem­ory capa­bil­i­ties. Delib­er­ate prac­tice must be dif­fi­cult in order to gain max­i­mum ben­e­fit. It’s like the physical-exercise mantra: “no pain, no gain.”
Knowl­edge is power, and is acces­si­ble to every­one who knows how to get it — which includes mas­ter­ing basic mem­o­riza­tion skills. [Klemm W. R.]

Bill Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. is a Sci­en­tist, author, speaker, and a pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity.