Memorization Still Matters

Benefits of quick access to working memory and 25 memorization techniques

By: Rick Wormeli


In a world in which we can always look things up, memorization still matters. Depending on the situation, engagement, meaning, progress, expediency, and safety are increased significantly if participants have the following information at their mental fingertips ready for immediate use:

  • The alphabet's sequence
  • Blue paint mixed with yellow paint becomes green paint
  • The outcome of the Tinker v. Des Moines (Students do not, "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.")
  • Definitions of a subject's working lexicon – Qualitative is different from quantitative, DNA different from RNA, pitch is different from key, and the domain of a function is different from its range
  • Weight and measure conversions
  • Rate = Distance/Time
  • Musical notes, symbols, and dynamic instructions
  • A better action verb is stronger than an insufficient verb with multiple adverbs 
  • Formal and informal versions of the same language
  • Knowledge of which chemicals are so toxic they should be handled with gloves and under a ventilation hood
  • Multiplication tables
  • Proper stretching and weight-lifting techniques
  • The five protections under the First Amendment
  • Lab and construction site safety procedures
  • Knowledge of the three branches of government
  • Control-Alt-<button> commands when coding
  • Log-in names and passwords
  • Basic geography, locations of states and countries
  • Proper CPR procedures
  • "Righty-tighty, lefty-loose-y"
  • Great poetry (column-writer's license here – It lifts and connects us all when we memorize swaths of great poetry and literature and share them with others)

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a piece for this magazine about the power of memorization. The conversation continues, and in some ways, has become more urgent. We've grown even more reliant on the Internet for everyday, let alone subject-specific, information, storing little in our own brains, giving up some of our human sovereignty over thoughtfulness, somehow integrating the Internet as a natural extension of what it means to be human.

Problem: Only half of low income children have access to the Internet after school hours (Rachel Monhan, "What Happens When Kids Don't Have Internet at Home?" The Atlantic, 2014). It's seven out of ten students in Detroit public schools (Jessica Rosenworcel, "Limited Internet Access a Challenge for Detroit Kids," Detroit Free Press, 2015) and five million families nationwide (Clare McLaughlin, "The Homework Gap: The 'Cruelest Part of the Digital Divide'," NEAToday, 2016). What happens when we've made them rely on the Internet for their working memory data resource, but beyond the school day, it's not there?

Even for those with consistent access at home, has our reliance on the Internet to provide the answer we didn't take the time to memorize hindered students nonetheless for not cultivating in them a working memory fortitude with the focus and skills to retain chunks of information purposefully for later application or simply because they enjoy a topic, and to access both while in situations without Internet access?

In his 2013 Atlantic article, "When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning," California high school teacher, Ben Orlin, wrote that he still remembers 48 prepositions from his sixth grade class where his teachers asked students to use, "mnemonics and other artificial tricks" to remember content. Later, he cites the power of repetition to help people remember things:

In 10th-grade English, I wrote a paper on Robert Frost's apocalyptic poem 'Once by the Pacific.' I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase. Months later, standing on a rocky, storm-swept beach, I found that I could recite the poem by heart. I never set out to memorize it. I just ... did.

I get goosebumps thinking of what a moment that must have been. His deep study of that poem led to an otherwise unachievable moment by the sea he values to this day. It invokes Pasteur's, "Chance favors the prepared mind," observation heartily. Absent that deep study of the poem, it would have been one more walk on the beach among many, never crystallizing into a moment of moving insight. What opportunities for resonance and connection are lost because we didn't have the knowledge base inside of us to perceive the now?

Of course, Ben said he read the poem dozens of times and dissected every phrase. This was a huge effort in meaning-making, and this is what led to such exceptional recall years later on the beach. Connections can't be made, though, unless they are attached to something already in mind. Students don't know what is salient and worth elevating, or what warrants time and energy to look up in outside resources, unless they have at least some basic set of data already in mind, gathered initially by rote or not. As Ben says later in the article, "It's a mistake to downplay factual knowledge, as if students could learn to reason critically without any information to reason about."

Interestingly, Ben says at one point that memorization by repetition, "…bypass[es] real conceptual learning. Memorizing a list of prepositions isn't half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language." Ben is right, of course, except for one word, bypass. Instead of a bypass, let's consider memorized content as a stepping stone towards conceptual learning.

Before we can debate a topic, we have to have the particulars of the topic at our mental fingertips. If we want to make connections among different elements of curriculum in our working memory, it's easier if those elements are already stored to some degree. If we want to work expediently without losing momentum to stop and look up information, that information must be ready to access in a timely manner. As my students in past years have studied Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, they have also memorized every word of it. In the midst of discussion, then, someone makes a claim, and every student's analytical mind quickly compares the claim to each of the sections of text and makes an informed response. They also compare the Address to other speeches, literature, and government policies. As a result, content has more meaning, students are more engaged, and learning lasts longer.

Let's be clear, though: We should never settle for students merely parroting back to us what they've memorized as demonstration of mastery. In Poor Richard's Almanac (1750), Ben Franklin writes, "Tim was so learned, that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant, that he bought a cow to ride on." A memorized Periodic Table of Elements is useless unless we understand the reasons for clustering the elements in families as they are, and we can use that knowledge in scientific applications. It's safe to declare that memorized material significantly aids students' understanding and application of new information learned. In short, the more students know, the more they can learn. Memorizing information expedites this process.

North Yorkshire England, psychologist and teacher, Marc Smith, writes in his November 2012 blog,

Memorising facts can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving. Constant recitation of times tables might not help children understand mathematical concepts but it may allow them to draw on what they have memorised in order to succeed in more complex mental arithmetic. Memorisation, therefore, produces a more efficient memory, taking it beyond its limitations of capacity and duration … There exists a considerable body of evidence to suggest that a memory rife with facts learns better than one without.
— "Why memorising facts can be a keystone to learning," https://www.theguardian.com/
teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/nov/21/memorising-facts-keystone-learning-psychology, downloaded December 28, 2017

Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, Daniel T. Willingham, writes,

…[M]any of the cognitive skills we want our students to develop—especially reading with understanding and successfully analyzing problems—are intimately intertwined with knowledge of content. When students learn facts they are not just acquiring grist for the mill—they are enabling the mill to operate more effectively. Background knowledge is absolutely integral to effectively deploying important cognitive processes.
— Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/knowledge-classroom, referring to his longer article, "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise," in the Winter 2002 issue of American Educator.

Willingham cautions, though, that we shouldn't simply have students memorize random facts for their own sake: "Mindless drilling is not an effective vehicle for building students' store of knowledge." The facts, definitions, dates, formulas, etc. that we ask students to memorize should be part of a larger unit of study, connected in some way to other bits of knowledge. So, when asking students to memorize parts of a plant, for example, it is because they are using that knowledge to understand the plant's role in a particular ecosystem, or how a plant's vascular system differs from an animal's vascular system. When students learn the definition of a new word, they use it thoughtfully in the context of our unit of study, but also in other arenas: They discover that interest can be compounded, but so can errors, illnesses, and sentences. The facts we ask them to memorize are not inert, they are applied or referenced meaningfully in some way.

Imagine not knowing the definitions of the subject terms or even some of the action words used to describe what you are supposed to be learning. The teacher might declare, for example:

Transfer RNA (tRNA), [is a] small molecule in cells that carries amino acids to organelles called ribosomes, where they are linked into proteins. In addition to tRNA there are two other major types of RNA: messenger RNA (mRNA) and ribosomal RNA (rRNA) … Ribosomal molecules of mRNA determine the order of tRNA molecules that are bound to nucleotide triplets (codons). The order of tRNA molecules ultimately determines the amino acid sequence of a protein because molecules of tRNA catalyze the formation of peptide bonds between the amino acids, linking them together to form proteins.
— From www.britannica.com/science/
transfer-RNA, downloaded December 28, 2017

For those of us with no background in biology, we're lost and slightly panicked. We will not join the class conversation, ask questions, or engage with content at a deeper level for fear others will discover and confirm our ignorance. If, however, we fully understood the terms amino acids, proteins, nucleotide, codons, catalyze, and peptide bonds, we have a healthy self-confidence. We make compelling connections, construct meaning, and engage. We won't fully grasp the big picture by simply memorizing key word definitions, of course, but we can't even perceive the first brushstrokes of the larger mural without having initial reference points.

Just as we find in effective SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) for English Language Learners, students engage and learn English and subject content much faster and more solidly when there is meaning. So, we encourage them to work with content in their own language from time to time to get them to that meaning-making level, then we substitute English wording for their native language's wording, then use the new wording contextually and frequently, and they get it, and just as importantly, they retain it.

The rest of this column describes the more successful memorization techniques I've taught students over the years as well as some suggested by others. Note that some of them come from theater world—a perfect place to learn techniques for memorizing! Some are weird, but they work, so don't be too quick to dismiss them. Note that doing just one of these rarely works; it's four or five together that lead to the best memorization. It's worth momentarily suspending the content curriculum just to teach these techniques, as they can help with many subjects down the road, not just here in your classroom. In the end, using these techniques actually moves your students farther than would have been achieved without them.

25 Suggested Memorization Techniques:

  1. Teach the concept to someone else. Ask students to do this to classmates, students in other grade levels, or adults in their lives. By interacting with their "students," they actually memorize the information themselves.
  2. Practice reciting lines or information while standing in front of your family or friends. This simulates the pressure we'll feel when reciting the lines for performance or test, and we need to condition our minds to be able to do this prior to the actual assessment.
  3. Start at the end and work back to the front. With a long body of text or information to learn, start by memorizing the last few words of the last line, then add the word or few words in front of that last segment, and continue all the way to the end of the phrase you already memorized. Then memorize the word or few words in front of that second to the last segment, and go all the way to the end, and so on. If we start by memorizing the first words of a passage, then add the next words in sequence and continuing through until the end, it seems overwhelming, but it doesn't feel that way when working backwards like this. By the time we work our way back to memorizing the text's very first words, the rest of the passage has been repeated many times, and we know it well.
  4. Memorize in phrases and bridges, not individual words. Memorizing in short chunks as well as the relationships between those chunks really helps. For example, memorize one segment of a line, then the next segment, and finally, the last word of the first segment and the first word of the second segment, so the tongue flows from one into the other naturally.
  5. Practice reciting the information while looking at your eyes in front of a mirror. Looking at just our eyes in the mirror is a little unnerving and doing so as you recall the information helps solidify the memory; we really have to focus.
  6. After memorizing for a while, go do something else. Let some time pass. Then, recite your lines or concepts again. In her book, How to Teach So Students Remember (2005, ASCD), Marilee Sprenger reminds us that when first memorizing, the reciting/practice sessions should be frequent and with short time periods between each one. As we move farther from the original learning, however, we need to space them out. We're not telling students to memorize while working on other things. Overt memorization takes focus, not scattered, switch-tasking attention to many things simultaneously.
  7. At every waiting time in your life, practice the lines or information. This keeps the information on our mental radar scope and memorized under a wide variety of conditions, which creates a memorization dexterity that's important to recalling the lines when we most need them for a performance or test. The more contexts in which we recite the information, the more versatile we are with that information.
  8. Practice reciting the lines or concepts in the same place you'll be asked to remember them. The familiarity will make it easier to recall the lines. Students who learn math formulas while staring at your Calvin and Hobbes cartoon collection on the wall will remember those formulas when they see those cartoons again. Context has great impact on memorization.
  9. Use different voices to recite the lines. This is weird, yes, but try saying the lines with different accents or impersonated voices. Again, we're creating some additional variables, but each one provides more access points and makes the lines more vivid in our minds.
  10. Make sure your mind is awake. This seems simple, but it really works. If we're sluggish, memorization is hard, and even worse, recall fizzles. Remind students that adequate sleep helps memory formation. All-night cramming actually diminishes later recall of important facts.
  11. Eat a good breakfast with complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fluids. Orange juice and a Pop-Tart don't cut it.
  12. Hydrate. Drink a lot of water, even when you're not thirsty. Without regular hydration, we become sluggish and slow-thinking.
  13. Move a lot and exercise. This gets oxygen and nutrients to the cognitive/memorization centers of the brain. Seriously, an hour of swimming, basketball, or working out is one of the best ways to boost memorization.
  14. Read something interesting or intellectual that you understand before memorizing and before recalling the memorized information. It stimulates neurons to "fire" completely, puts the mind into a reflective, connecting mode, which is great for recall.
  15. Use memory devices (mnemonics). Many of us know the popular mnemonic for the order of operations in math (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction): "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally," The Great Lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior can be remembered with the word, HOMES.
  16. Chain. This mnemonic device is good for lists or groups of unrelated items that have to be remembered. In a chain, we create a story or picture that incorporates every item in the list or group. For example, if we had to memorize horse, candle, dictionary, cryptology, violin, and thunderstorm, we'd imagine riding a horse through a midnight thunderstorm that threatened to extinguish the candle flickering in the lantern we carried in one hand above the horse's head. If it goes out, we won't be able to find our way to the cryptologist's home to give him the secret code dictionary that he needs to save the country. The suspenseful moment becomes a movie with soundtrack violins playing more and more urgently as the storm rages around us. If the sequence of the items to be memorized is important, then each item should occur in the story or picture in the order that reflects that sequence.
  17. Write everything you have to remember on one side of a regular piece of paper, then transfer all of it, encapsulating as necessary, to both sides of a 3 X 5 notecard. Then transfer the material from both sides of the card onto one side of another 3 X 5 notecard only. By the time you're finished encapsulating, abbreviating, and recording, you know the material.
  18. Express the information to be memorized through a different medium. Draw a picture, do a dance, or play music on an instrument that represents the information. Re-expressing the information in another domain such as art, dance, or music helps our minds recall the information later.
  19. Ask someone to call the cues for you. We all know that feeling when you think you've studied something well then ask someone else to test you by calling out questions, and suddenly your mind turns to cement. You knew this information just ten minutes ago, you lament, why are you going blank now? Truly, you take your memorization to a whole new level when someone gives you the word or idea ahead of what you need to recite, and you are able to come up with the right word or idea at the right moment.
  20. Make an outline of the lines or concepts, and memorize just that. This is kind of a mnemonic, of course, but it's more of a virtual metaphor for packaging the information. Pat Wolfe (Brain Matters, ASCD, 2010) says that students tend to be able to remember five or less unrelated items at a time. This means we should do lectures in terms of five or less major points, speak in terms of five or less steps in the math algorithm, and ask them to memorize five or less aspects of a particular historical era. The great thing, however, is that students can actually memorize more, if it's compartmentalized. For example, they can memorize five large categories, but then memorize the contents of those categories (again five or less items per category) independently. If each category had five items, they will have memorized 25 different items. Helping students to set up outlines of subsets of information within larger sets of information is helpful for memorization.
  21. Use props. The mind likes prompting. If we memorize a section of text about the way Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth while placing a cloth tape measure used for measuring waist lines around the classroom globe, we remember the material better. If we can use the props in our performance or test, they will trigger our memories of the information. If we can't use the props at our desk or on stage, we can still line them up in the back of the room where we can see them and get the trigger that way, too. Even if we can't bring them into the room or on stage at all, we can memorize the material with each prop individually at home, then simply memorize the list of props in our mind. As we recall each prop, we recall the information associated with each one.
  22. Put the information in the form of a song. Songs are simply better remembered by most of us. Their patterns and familiar tunes serve to help us recall information. If your students are stuck for ideas on how to do this, ask them to rewrite the lyrics of a well-known song to include the information they have to memorize.
  23. Conduct conversations with others in which each time one of you speaks, you have to use one of the words/concepts/lines you're trying to memorize in a meaningful way. This helps you manipulate the words and concepts thoughtfully, which moves the information into long-term memory. Using the word or concept must be meaningful, however. "Tuberculosis is a word on our vocabulary list," wouldn't work.
  24. Frequent, challenging retrieval. Professor Jeffrey D. Karpicke describes a study in his 2016 Science Brief in which two different groups of students were asked to study science text, but one used retrieval practice and the other used concept maps. The retrieval practice group read the text, wrote down all they could remember from it, then they re-read it, and did the recall writing activity again. The other group created concept maps of the content as they read. In the final assessments, the retrieval practice groups outperformed the concept map creators. ("Practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning." Psychological Science Agenda, June 2016, http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory.aspx)

    This isn't to say that concept maps don't help; they do, but basic, repeated retrieval practice of content shouldn't be missed.
  25. Interleaved practice. Cognitive scientist Dr. Pooja K. Argarwal reminds us that interleaved practice is also critical. In interleaved practice, we don't do large blocks of the same thing in a row. Instead, we use one set of concepts and skills, then do another set, and yet another set, then return to the first set, mixing up the practice a bit. Argarwal writes,

"Practice problems are interleaved if the problems are arranged so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by the same strategy. For example, if one problem is solved by finding the area of a circle, the next problem requires a different strategy, such as solving an inequality …. When practice problems are arranged so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by the same strategy, students are forced to choose a strategy on the basis of the problem itself."

This experience forces students to engage at a deeper level, achieving a more robust practice session with the material than could be achieved by practicing the same skills or concepts in long blocks.

Education journalist Marianne Stenger describes a study looking at interleaved practice:

In a study led by Bjork and Williams College psychologist Nate Kornell, students were asked to learn the painting styles of 12 different artists by looking at six samples of each artist's work. Some participants were shown each artist's paintings in a row, while others viewed them in mixed order. When tested later, the students who had seen the paintings in mixed order were better at matching them with the correct artist than those who had studied each artist's paintings in one group.

She confirms Argarwal's insight indicating the complexity of the retrieval and practice being key to student long-term retention:

[Citing Professor of psychology and director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, Dr. Robert Bjork] … [W]hen we mix up our study materials, we start to notice both the similarities and differences among the things we're learning, and this can give us a better and deeper understanding of the material. Another possible reason interleaving is effective is that it makes learning more difficult … learning is simply more effective when it's challenging.
— "Interleaved Practice: 4 Ways to Learn Better By Mixing It Up," September 9th, 2016,
https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/learning-strategies/interleaved-practice-4-ways-to-learn-better-by-mixing-it-up/

To really hit a homerun with your students as they learn these memorization techniques, use them yourself and walk into class on the first day of teaching the techniques with a famous poem, intricate scientific process, or a section of the textbook fully memorized. Dazzle your class with what you recall. Seriously, show off; this is a time to "Wow" the students. To really nail it, secretly ask one of your students to do this as well and ask him or her to recite what he or she knows. It's particularly effective if you choose a non-A+ student to do the demonstration.

Students are often astounded by what their minds can accomplish if they only put some effort into the task. These techniques will serve them well in later grade levels. I still remember esoteric names of human anatomy, differences in the art of different historical eras, Newton's Laws, conjugations of Spanish verbs, and some passages from the Federalist Papers as well as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and others from my high school days over 40 years ago because teachers asked me to memorize them back then. Yes, some of the material I memorized I don't remember immediately today, but when stimulated by reading about the topic or working with similar ideas, my mind floods with connections and insight I don't think I would experience unless I had spent focused time memorizing.

Once memorized, content becomes the launching pad for multiple applications and long-lasting learning. Un-memorized material must constantly be re-learned every time it's used. Why not increase students' dexterity and teach them how to memorize content, not just apply it wisely? We may never have to memorize something as long as a full opera, but it sure would be great if students could hold their own in debates, avoid wasting time looking up easily memorizable facts, navigate without the use of an ISP, and make astute connections quickly. Given the right context and information, it could even save lives.


Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), is available in March 2018.
rwormeli@cox.net
@rickwormeli2
www.rickwormeli.com


Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.


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