Don’t memorize, change your neural pathways!

Some days ago, I stated on this blog that I had a Ph.D. in mathematics (true fact) and that I didn’t know my own phone number nor did I know multiplication tables (also true). My wife knows it is true. She still claim she has superior brain power because not only does she know our phone number, but she even knows our postal code, and she knows many other things. There is not question that my wife is one of the smartest lady in Montreal. Hey! There is a reason why I fell in love with her!

Still, I claim not to be a brain-damaged moron despite these apparent short-comings. You see, I do not memorize on purpose because I think that my time is better used by solving problems and learning new tricks.

From Downes’, I got the following bit of wisdom telling I’m not alone in thinking that memorizing facts is not key to learning…

My own research – reserach that can be extended through the many resources on this site – has already convinced me that neural structures are, as they say, plastic. For me what this means is that learning based on the fostering of habits is more important than learning based on transmission of facts, that, indeed, the facts aren’t that important at all, not nearly as important modelling effective practice, paying attention to environment, immersive, experiential based education.

So, please, do me a favor: if you teach, do not ask your students to memorize. Ask them to change their neural pathways, their thinking patterns… let their PDAs and the Web be a fact storage unit, don’t waste their brains.

Update: A colleague who has a training in history and who holds a Ph.D. says he could never remember dates, and only memorized one: December 25th 800. So, I can say that I’m not alone to think that memorization is only a minor part of learning.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Don’t memorize, change your neural pathways!”

  1. My thesis is full of highlighted dates like 1702? or 3? I even wasted a whole page the oother day because mybecause I thought two pieces of evidence were in the same year and they weren’t.

  2. That’s why I went into computer science. How did you handle closed-book, closed-notes tests? How do you avoid memorizing theorems and formulas for these?

  3. > How do you avoid memorizing theorems and formulas for these?

    Where I studied mathematics the most, at UofT, you didn’t have much in terms of “state the XYZ theorem”. I can’t remember much, yes I’m that old, but I’m pretty sure most questions on exams were the problem-solving type. Beside, knowing the theorems well was a non-issue if you did the (very hard) homeworks: there is no way you didn’t internalized most of the important theorems if you sweated for hours over how you are supposed to use them to solve a given problem. Over time, you came to understand that knowing the statement of theorem was actually knowing very little. You had to really gain an intuition for the theorem… and once you have the intuition, the rest is easy.

    In fact, a training in math., CS, Physics or Chemistry should be pretty much identical. Assuming you attend a good school. A school that has you memorize theorems and formulas to pass courses is a bad one.

  4. I agree that there is little value in student memorizing facts and theorems without learning how to apply them. I also got through my physics undergrad largely on intuition. I was too lazy to work out hundreds of problems, so I focused on the basic principles and relied on my understanding and intuition to solve whatever problems came up. I did OK, but I wouldn’t advise this as a study technique to anyone. Had I done the hundreds of problems, I would have done much better and would be eligible for SSHRC grants!

    Even relying on intuition, however, I need to know something. I needed to know the basic formulas. You do need to be able to remember things to be able to apply them. To give a simplistic example, memorizing your phone number without knowing how to use a phone is fairly useless. However, knowing how to use a phone without knowing any phone numbers is equally useless!

    I promise I won’t let my students get away with rote memorization. They will need to remember things, but they will need to know how to apply their knowledge.

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