Memorization is often discussed in opposition to critical thinking, as though a person did one or the other – not both. The epitome of the reviled form of memorization is the rote recitation of facts and content. Many faculty – I’m one – believe that students can’t think critically without having solid command of some facts to think about.
We are often dismayed when our students seem unable to retain even very basic information: the kind we think could be learned by rote memorization. Even more troubling, our students wail, “Look at my flash cards! I studied for hours!” How could they work so hard and achieve so little?
Learning how to learn
Research has already demonstrated a variety of memory techniques to augment rote memorization. A new study, reported in Science Daily, shows that even the simple process of repeatedly reviewing material can be made more effective by one simple change: breaking it up with other activities, according to Dr. Carolee Winstein.
“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said. “In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply.”
While the study focused on learning complicated movements, these findings are in synch with other research. When rote study is combined with questioning, categorization, explanation and other study methods, students learn at a deeper level. Until now, I had presumed that these other methods were simply more effective study skills. Now I see the possibility that the act of changing among a variety of study practices can, itself, be a practice.
Engaging the brain
Variety in practice requires you to choose what you’re doing and remember how to do it – and engages different and higher level parts of the brain. It may also enhance those critical thinking skills that we’re all eager to see in students. When we approach the material from a variety of angles, we’re likely to make more connections and perceive it more deeply.
- DO memorize facts you need to know
- Memorize in short chunks of time
- Practice and test your knowledge in a variety of ways
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