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Why Memorizing Stuff Can Be Good for You
You can only think critically about a topic if you have information about it stored in long-term memory.
Memorizing facts is generally seen as less important than developing skills like critical thinking. In fact, though, having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.
Educators—and the general public—often scoff at memorization, usually coupling the word with the dismissive adjective rote. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña summarized the prevailing view when she declared that facts are learned “maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life.”
This scorn for factual knowledge has been widespread for decades, but it’s grown even more entrenched in the internet era. “I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it?” another prominent school district leader said in an interview. “Because we have so much information today. How do you help kids navigate that? That’s critical thinking and problem solving.”
Many teachers don’t even try to get students to remember information they can Google. They’ve been trained to believe it’s best to go straight for “higher-order skills” like analyzing and synthesizing—rather than wasting time on supposedly “lower-order” ones like knowing and understanding information. Instruction in reading comprehension “skills,” such as “making inferences,” has pushed information-rich subjects like social studies and science out of the curriculum in many schools, on the theory that readers can apply those skills to any text.
But scientists who study the process of learning have found something quite different: the more factual knowledge people have about a topic, the better they can think about it critically and analytically. A groundbreaking study published in 1946 showed that the reason expert chess players choose better moves than weaker players is not that they’re better at analytical thinking in general. Rather, they can draw on their vast knowledge of typical chess positions—which they’ve acquired through memorization. Similarly, a study published in 1988 demonstrated that supposedly “poor” readers outperform “good” readers in comprehending a passage when the “poor” readers have greater knowledge of the topic.
More recently, evidence of the link between memorization and critical thinking comes from a company called Cerego. It provides an online platform for content developed by its clients—which include companies that want to train employees as well as educational institutions—and then tries to ensure they retain it.
That’s different from most testing, which encourages cramming and measures only accuracy of recall. The problem, says Cerego’s vice-president of science, Iain Harlow, is that when people see information only once, they forget 70 to 80% of it within two weeks. They’re much more likely to remember information if they repeatedly try to recall it after it’s been partially forgotten.
After providing users with information, Cerego gives them reminders to take brief quizzes—ranging from one to four minutes—spaced out over time in a way that is designed to maximize retention. Using algorithms based on principles of cognitive science, Cerego also identifies a zone of “desirable difficulty” for each concept and each learner, creating the kind of challenge that leads to deeper processing. That kind of quizzing is known to be far more effective in boosting retention than just rereading or highlighting a text.
As you might expect, learners who use the platform are better able to recall the information they’ve been exposed to. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a study of 98 students taking an economics course showed that those who used Cerego diligently had scores on multiple-choice questions that were ten percentage points higher than those who used it less. But here’s what may surprise those who dismiss memorization: those students also had higher scores on questions calling for analysis. In fact, their advantage on those questions was even higher than on the factual recall ones: sixteen points.
Why? The students who used Cerego more were more likely to say they could follow the lectures, and their scores on class quizzes were consistently higher. It seems, says Harlow, that “the knowledge you’ve retained helps you interpret the next slide.”
Another way of putting this has to do with “working memory,” which is somewhat like short-term memory. The important point about working memory is that it can only hold a limited number of items for a limited period of time. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is virtually unlimited. The more items you can simply withdraw from long-term memory—because you’ve memorized them—the fewer items take up precious space in working memory, leaving more space there for absorbing and analyzing new information. Just as chess players who have memorized chessboard patterns have more space in working memory to strategize their moves, students who have memorized facts about economics have more capacity to think critically about how to apply them.
But those who frown on memorization have another objection: it’s boring. Here too, Cerego has some evidence to the contrary. Researchers used Cerego as part of a pilot program to help Syrian refugee children living in Turkey overcome mental health problems and language barriers. The children, who ranged in age from nine to fourteen, used Cerego to learn Turkish. Not only did the kids using Cerego learn the language better than a control group, 78% also said they enjoyed using Cerego—even though it didn’t have the kid-friendly features that other interventions in the pilot boasted. Minecraft, by contrast—one of the most popular video games ever made—was rated enjoyable by only 65%.
Harlow speculates that the kids were more engaged in Cerego because “the end value was clear to them. They could see the benefit of being able to communicate more.” But that does raise a caveat. Like any educational intervention, Cerego’s success depends in large part on whether learners are motivated. And learners who need the intervention the most may lack the motivation to use it. For example, in the University of Hawaii study, Cerego benefited students equally regardless of their previous GPAs, and it narrowed the gap between students with high and low GPAs overall—but those with lower GPAs were somewhat less likely to use Cerego diligently.
There are other reasons to view Cerego’s results with caution. The company isn’t claiming—like some other online interventions—to enhance memory or critical thinking generally. Its data only shows benefits relating to the specific content users have studied. And the benefits can depend on the quality of the content clients provide. If the material is unclear or assumes more background knowledge than students possess, it may be hard for them to understand the information in the first place. And that’s when memorization could be truly rote—that is, learners may simply memorize information they don’t understand.
Nor is there evidence that Cerego—or any online intervention—can substitute for good teaching. Amid growing concerns about students spending too much time staring at screens, along with data showing that reading from screens rather than paper has a negative effect on comprehension, it’s worth bearing in mind that a platform like Cerego is only one possible component of a high-quality educational experience.
But what Cerego’s data does suggest is that—as cognitive scientists have long known—memorization isn’t antithetical to critical and analytical thinking, it’s what lays the foundation for it. And it isn’t necessarily boring either. In fact, there are lots of non-high-tech ways to make what’s called “retrieval practice” fun.
Still, it may be a while before people embrace the idea of memorization. Harlow says Cerego has encountered so much “prejudice” against the concept that they’ve had to be careful about using even the word “memory.” So okay, let’s use “retention.” Whatever you call it, its value has been seriously overlooked, and many learners have suffered as a result.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.