Education about science is widely recognized as being quite deficient in the modern USA. I have previously described some defects for science education aimed at levels from youngsters in grade school (see early article in the Education category on “What is Wrong with Science Education for Children?”), to graduate students in science (see earlier article in the Education category on “What is Missing in Today’s Education of Student Scientists?”), and to adults in the general public (see essay in the Education category on “Most of Today’s Public Education About Science is Worthless!”). A very general educational problem in colleges and universities is how to teach a big chunk of knowledge to students who perceive no reason to study that subject beyond the requirement that a course be passed. A recent article by Dawn C. Meredith and Edward F. Redish in the July, 2013 issue of Physics Today , along with subsequent comments submitted by other college teachers , deals with this problem for science education in Physics, and are highly recommended to science educators.
When college and university students take a required science course they quickly become hopelessly stuck in a learning rut where memorization constitutes their only skill for learning, and is used wrongly as a substitute for understanding. I have seen this many times in my own classroom experiences as a faculty teacher; modern university students often excel at memorizing to such an enormous extent that they literally are majoring in this activity. Both students and their teachers at all levels too frequently rely on memorization to learn and to teach! Students end up deep in negative territory, by developing no understanding and a poor ability to use the memorized knowledge (e.g., to solve problems, discuss concepts, ask questions, etc.); the hole gets even deeper when they later try to learn more advanced knowledge.
Learning, Knowledge, Memorization, Understanding: What Exactly do These Key Educational Terms Mean?
Learning is internalizing knowledge into the brain, and occurs via schooling, observing, imitation, inspection, and experience. Learning can occur at any time in the human lifespan; it can be regarded as pleasant or unpleasant by students, and sometimes is defective (e.g., 2 x 3 = 5) or incomplete (e.g., 2 x 3 = 3 x 2).
Knowledge is factual details about some subject (e.g., describing the parts of a flower), definitions of concepts and relationships, and, skills in some operation (e.g., speaking a new language, making a good weld, cooking a cheese omelet, etc.). Knowledge might involve memorization, but more often it arises naturally from trial and error experiences, observation, reading and thinking, and, figuring something out (i.e., problem solving).
Memorization is one type of learning. It is a mental activity for adding material to the brain’s memory bank. Memory commonly is produced by repetition, and can be subdivided into long-term or short-term storage. Recall from the memory bank is rapid and typically requires little thought, calculation, debate, or understanding. Memorization enables a quick response to frequently arising mechanical types of questions (e.g., What is 2 times 4? What is the French word for “today”? How many centimeters are in one inch? How many strikes produce an out in baseball?). Memorization provides all of us with many easy practical benefits for daily life, and also is very useful on the job.
Understanding follows from knowledge, and features the ability to interrelate different aspects of some subject, to use logic to extrapolate for new situations (i.e., it can produce a hypothetical explanation, either valid or invalid, for something not directly known), and, to derive generalizations and make predictions. Understanding relies on learning how to think. The ultimate widest understanding is termed “wisdom”.
How do Memorization and Understanding Differ?
These 4 terms might be seen more clearly if we examine how people learn to speak a new (second) language. Young children learn this mostly by imitating adult speakers and talking to their teacher. For adults, the first task is to acquire some basic vocabulary; this initial learning most often is done by memorization (i.e., using flash cards, or a computer program). Next, knowledge about basic rules for sentence structure and grammar are acquired; some of this learning is done by memorizing, but much also comes from imitation (e.g., listening to a recording of native speakers conversing). Then, one puts that knowledge together and tries to speak and converse in the new language; the instructor teaches by providing correct examples and by identifying, correcting, and explaining mistakes. Most speaking and listening skills are developed progressively by gaining experience with conversing in the classroom or talking with other speakers; this corresponds to increasing one’s understanding! Understanding will be increased further by learning to read and write the same new language. Upon finishing, one is said to have “learned” and to “know” the new language, and to “understand” how to use it; thus, memorization is seen here as a good tool for initial learning, but is not used so much at later times for acquiring increased understanding.
Knowledge and understanding are quite interactive. In general, some basic knowledge exists before understanding begins and develops. Knowledge frequently involves facts and definitions, but understanding involves concepts and reaches conclusions. Memorization alone is not sufficient, because understanding also needs to be acquired. Many students and teachers mistakenly feel that memorized knowledge can substitute for understanding, but this is almost never true. If someone learns how to ice-skate and then memorizes all the official rules for ice hockey, that person still would not be able to play this sporting game very well because their understanding is much too limited. They could gain the needed understanding by acquiring more experience with watching and playing in actual competition; that understanding will not directly involve any memorization, and can be acquired from individual efforts, other players, and a coach-teacher.
Why is Memorization Now so very Popular with Science Students and their Teachers?
Unfortunately, memorization by students is emphasized, encouraged, and even worshipped by many teachers giving courses in science. It also is enormously popular with university science students, who see memorization as being the only practical way to “learn” all the very numerous facts, figures, and concepts presented by textbooks and lectures; these intelligent students can see no other way to acquire all this large volume of materials that must be learned by the time of the next examination. Clearly, these students only are building their short-term memory and do not realize the importance of either long-term memory or understanding.
The cardinal role of memorization in current science education is strengthened further in the minds of students because their teachers write examination questions that only are about facts and almost never necessitate making judgments, interpretations, reasoning, problem solving, and dealing with derived conclusions. This mindless practice often is justified by teachers, using such explanations as, “It takes much too long to score written essay questions!”, “When we have a class size of 150 students, we are forced to use computerized scoring of multiple choice questions for our exams!”, and, “We have to use strictly factual questions from our textbook since many students unfortunately are not able to think, reason, write, or speak because of gross deficiencies in their previous education.”
In my opinion, all such reasons only are excuses for laziness by science teachers and their employers. The misuse of memorization by students and instructors as being equivalent to understanding results in incomplete and inadequate education. I know all of this is true because I myself have seen it, and have been forced to do it as a teacher. In my classes I actually have seen modern science students not only memorize an entire big textbook, but also memorize all the diagrams and photographs. When this task is finished, they then sincerely do believe that they “know everything”! That assertion is contradicted by the fact that most cannot deal with new situations, derive relationships, provide examples for concepts, solve problems, conduct a discussion, or even answer simple questions involving a little thinking. As soon as a course is completed, all of their memorizations disappear rapidly. Subsequent more advanced courses then must commence by first presenting review sessions on previous classroom subjects before they can start dealing with new topics. The end result, which I consider to be very sad, is that these students are missing understanding and have been only very superficially educated.
What is the Significance of Memorization for Science Education?
Most divisions and subdivisions of science feature numerous special terms, meaning that learning science is mostly equivalent to learning a new foreign language. Thus, almost all science textbooks for any age level now provide a glossary and an extensive index section. For learning science, memorization can give a basic vocabulary, a set of rules about relationships, definitions of some essential concepts, and some selected examples. However, understanding demands much more extensive mental activity, and is usually accomplished by evaluating many more examples, some exceptions to general rules, problem solving, analyzing fundamental data, discussing alternative interpretations, and, evaluating predictions and extrapolations. Science teachers provide guidance to expand students’ knowledge and to develop their understanding. Without adding understanding, their ability to use knowledge remains very limited, and these students really have not learned much at all.
As one short example of memorization used validly in a biology science class for grade/grammar school, students might first memorize the main kinds of different forms of life. That corresponds to memorizing a basic vocabulary. For adding understanding to this initial knowledge, students can be shown videos of some living examples to learn a little about their habitat and distinctive attributes. Quizzes will test memorization of essential terms and facts, but examinations only will test understanding by evaluating the ability of students to think and reason; exam questions will ask for correct placement of several previously undiscussed examples, identification of key differences between several selected life forms, and, explanation about why a dolphin is considered to be a mammal rather than a fish, etc. A corresponding approach should be used for college and university science courses, but with a larger amount of material and more extensive scope.
Memorization is good for education about science when it is used appropriately, but it can never be accepted as a substitute for understanding. It should not be used as the only means for evaluating learning by students. It is my hope that teachers, education specialists, school administrators, and other educators (e.g., parents!) will discuss this current problem and the possibilities for improving this aspect of science education. I know that many teachers reading this piece will have their own viewpoints, concerns, and stories to add to those I have given here. Trying to improve this problem in modern science education will require extensive efforts for discussions, planning, and actions. Beyond pointing out the nature of this problem in science education, I can do no more here; it is up to all the teachers and educators working at the front line with students and administrators to actually initiate the needed changes. I will be delighted if others will start the ball rolling (and, it must roll uphill!).
Questions, arguments, criticisms, and suggestions for Dr.M all will be welcomed via the Comments section below. Please be sure to identify which level of education you are working with.
 Meredith, D.C., and Redish, E.F., 2013. Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors. Physics Today (July), 66:38-43. (To purchase or rent this article on the internet, see:
 Letters to the Readers’ Forum, 2014. Notes on teaching physics to biologists. Physics Today (April), 67:12-13. (Click any of 4 individual titles on the internet at:
GO BACK TO HOME PAGE OR SCROLL UP TO MENU
UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE