Why opposing “memorization” and “comprehension” is absurd and counterproductive

[This page is a complement to the Why you should (probably) learn to use the art of memory page]

I’ll avoid directly quoting anyone, but one can easily find some extremely smart and well-meaning people, including many competent teachers and famous scientists, expressing something along those lines: “Memorization is useless and backward. What matters is understanding.” Sometimes one will instead speak of the importance of critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity or intuition. Those are very worthwhile skills to develop, but why is it so fashionable to devalue the importance of memorization?

One reason is this false idea that memorization necessarily has to be an extremely boring and slow and inefficient and unreliable process that can only be done through countless and mindless repetitions. Another is a misunderstanding of what is needed for someone to develop a deeper understanding of something. I think it is also a classic case of what is called a false dilemma, a common logical fallacy.

It is indeed possible to focus blindly on the memorization of facts while neglecting to understand the bigger picture. How could one possibly avoid this problem? Let me propose this revolutionary solution: Keep learning facts whenever it is necessary or useful or interesting, just make sure that’s not the only thing you’re doing!

Whenever it is possible and whenever time permits, I too encourage you to try to understand what can be understood. That’s great. Except that, as I will explain, understanding isn’t an edifice that can be constructed out of thin air. In the vast majority of cases, it is absurd to want to oppose understanding with memorization. The two processes are in fact interrelated. One reinforces the other. To the extent that it is possible to separate them, memorization is largely a necessary precondition for deeper understanding.

Understanding is a complex cognitive process that can hardly arise from nothing. Nothing is preventing you from, for example, exploring various Wikipedia articles on modern physics, but you probably won’t understand much of it if you don’t already have a good general knowledge of the subject. In order to understand a complex subject, you usually can’t jump directly to the “deep understanding” step. You need to have at least some basic knowledge already in your head.

Most of what you “understand” can ultimately be broken down into a series of simpler elements that, consciously or unconsciously, you have memorized. Memorization helps understanding, and vice versa. You can’t really “understand” an area if you don’t already have at least some elements in your head that you can link together. On the other hand, once you’re in a position to grasp the nature of those different logical links, a good part of the memorization work will be greatly facilitated. You can then, if you wish, choose to keep the flashcards and memorization techniques mainly for facts and data that have no obvious logic and cannot be retained otherwise.

If you know a thing or two about memory techniques and you don’t rely solely on mindless repetitions, you’ll find that you can memorize the math equations or the list of facts much faster than you can develop a deep understanding of it all. Simply memorizing without going any further isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly better than nothing. And once you have those facts in your mind, understanding them will become much easier.

Is it better to simply memorize a math equation or to understand it? What about history or biology? Well, it is indeed better to develop a deeper understanding of those things. And that understanding will in turn facilitate long-term retention. But good luck getting there without involving your memory! Whether you want it or not, you will never truly understand something without also “memorizing” its main components. There’s no way around it. You can deny this and wait for the memorization to happen unconsciously, as an indirect consequence of spending a lot of time thinking about a subject. Or you can embrace the process and use whatever combination of strategies that will work best.

* For some much more articulate and interesting thoughts on the usefulness of memorization in an educational context, check out the excellent “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham.

Just one comment someone wrote beneath this New York Times article about memory techniques:

One of the reasons young people have so much trouble reading is because they don’t remember things they’ve learned in the past, the vocabulary, the concepts, the facts that would help them make sense of what they read. One of the reasons people have trouble learning anything is that we learn new things by relating them to what we already know. If we don’t know much…

Teachers have given up having students memorize anything, including what they just “learned” before they walk out the classroom door and forget it all. Learning and remembering are two sides of the same coin, as any cognitive scientist would tell you. Without good memory, we can hardly think. You have to know stuff in order to ask the right questions, to know what to google, to know what resources are the most appropriate for your project or curiosity, to even understand what someone is writing or saying in a syntax more complex than that of a third grader.


[Lousy metaphor alert!] This is the CN Tower in Toronto. Suppose you had to build it again from scratch. Can you imagine trying to directly build the observation deck on top without building anything underneath first? That’s like trying to develop some high-level forms of “deep understanding” and “critical thinking skills” on a topic without a solid foundation first. That necessary foundation will be based at least partly on the accumulation of relevant knowledge.