Is memorization necessary, evil, both, or neither?

Ben Orlin has written a fine article for the Atlantic called “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning: A teacher’s quest to discourage his students from mindlessly reciting information,” along with an accompanying blog post called “Is memorization necessary, evil, or both?”, whence comes (of course) my slightly expanded title to this post. Both pieces are anti-memorization, although a lot of that depends on the meaning of the word. And much of the analysis concerns notecards, or “cheat sheets,” as the author and most of his commenters annoyingly call them.

For the most part I tell students that little or no memorization is needed in my math courses. If they understand the material, there is no need to memorize. But if I’m looking for quick recall, as I occasionally am, then many students are more comfortable with memorization than with the need for rapidly thinking through the scaffolding of their understanding. Sometimes it’s best to memorize that the sine of 30° is one half, even though of course that’s no substitute for understanding what “sine” means and for being able to reconstruct why the value is one half. The most common complaints about memorization are that it can serve as a substitute for understanding — which of course is unsatisfactory and undesirable — and that it doesn’t last. If it isn’t retained by the student, what good is it?

This whole argument makes me wonder why I still do remember a few things that I did in fact memorize many years ago. For instance, a fact that I learned about the dative case in Latin grammar in 1960 is still stuck in my head after 53 years: “Verbs meaning favor, help, please, trust, believe, persuade, command, obey, serve, resist, threaten, pardon, and spare take the dative.” I certainly don’t use that every day, but somehow I still remember it. Slightly more recently (very slightly!), I still remember the first line of the Aeneid and the first line of the Iliad and the Law of Cosines, each of which I memorized in 1963. In the first two of those cases the dactylic hexameter meter helps, of course. And in the third case I do use it every day…well, no, let’s say every year, but still….

Anyway, I won’t rehash Orlin’s arguments. Read either or both of his pieces. And then you can decide on the answer: is memorization necessary, evil, both, or neither? Perhaps it’s all of the above. No, wait…how can that be?

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning