Memorization: education, brain research, and suggestions for improved classrooms
Sandra Warren. MSEd
- With the marked shift in education from rote to teaching for high level learning, are educators neglecting to help students memorize?
- Does this affect student potential for higher levels of learning?
- What does brain research tell us about memorization?
- What specific memorization strategies work best?
- As educators how might we improve our classrooms?
Educational Psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s contributions to education, to the process of teaching and learning, are significant with his most recognized contribution being his model of learning called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This model has been taught around the world primarily presented to university students in textbooks as they prepare to become teachers.
The model has solidly stood since its conception in 1956 with relatively few changes. A revision in the 1990’s, spearheaded by one of the original members of the team that helped Bloom construct the model, changed the model’s terminology from nouns to verbs. This update was seen as keeping with the current trend to view learning as activity or action that can be measured. We now see verbs tied to learning wherever we look: our classroom plans, student and teacher textbooks, state standards, and more; so it is fitting that we tailor our learning models in this fashion.
So now instead of knowledge we have remembering as the base of Bloom’s hierarchy. We then have understanding, analyzing, and applying instead of comprehension, analysis, and application. At the top of the hierarchy we have evaluation and creating instead of synthesis and evaluation. (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001 pp 67-68).
Whether one follows the old model or the revised model, it is clear that the foundation of the model is about memorizing facts. When Bloom first unveiled his model how did he image the world would view it? Would others understand it significance? Would they view it he did?
Shift From Rote to Higher Level Learning
Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 unveiling of his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (bring to other site?) likely began the major shift in American education from a strong emphasis on rote memorization to teaching for higher-level learning. The shift is education is significant as it benefits our students by helping them to be active thinkers instead of passive vessels; however we must not let this shift in education diminish the importance of teaching our students to memorize essential facts. We must continue to seek a holistic approach to teaching and learning, providing student with instructional strategies at all levels of learning.
Much evidence abounds indicating educators are snubbing memorization calling it ‘bottom of the barrel’ or low-level learning. Memorization, which is often, termed rote, especially when being described as low-level learning, is spoken in hushed tones, swept over quickly in the educational text books, deemed antiquated, a waste of time, or obsolete.
“We really need to educate our parents so that they will understand what we value. We must have them realize that we’re really expecting more of their children. We’ve raised the level from the lowest of Bloom’s Taxonomy, rote recall, to the higher level of application,” declares 11-year veteran teacher and Educational Consultant for the SC Department of Education. It is important to note here that ‘rote’ was never used by Bloom in his knowledge/recall learning objectives.
Certainly we must direct our students toward applying knowledge is meaningful ways, however, are we to ‘raise the level’ like a limbo stick and have students jump right into application. What is it, exactly, that they are they going to apply? How can students build a structure of higher learning without the bricks and mortar known as facts?
Strategies to help students memorize this fact base are minimal in text books; the same text books which are jammed packed with scaffolding ideas and instructional strategies to help students reach higher learning levels. One University text Pathways to Understanding, for example, provides numerous classroom practices to help students problem solve, organize, assess, analyze, synthesize, and create. The text does not elaborate on memorization strategies. As educators should we not provide instructional strategies to help students in all areas of learning?
Teaching the Child Holistically
The memorization nose snubbing we see and hear about was never Bloom’s intent. Bloom’s goal was to help educators teach students holistically by looking toward a plethora of possible educational goals or objectives. He classified these learning objectives into three domains; the cognitive, the affective and the psychomotor. In the cognitive domain he wanted educators to understand the various objectives or goals that could be applied to cognitive processes in learning. Bloom’s taxonomy is hierarchical; meaning that each objective, or level, builds upon the other. Success at the higher levels is dependent on first having success at the lower levels. (Orlich, et al. 2004).
When Bloom created his taxonomy he did not present one objective as more important than the other. Sometimes his taxonomy is presented as a wheel or rose indicating balance and equilibrium. (Insert Bloom;s Taxonomy rose) All are to be viewed as reasonable education goals and objectives. Certainly the objectives as they move up the hierarchy require increasingly complex thought processes, but each has its place in our classrooms. Regarding the objective ‘remembering’ or ‘knowledge’ we could use lesson-plan terms such as list, describe, recite, recall, and define. No matter what terminology or activity we choose for demonstrating student success, we must understand that the process requires memorization.
Memorization is a necessary component to learning at higher levels.
According to Teaching Strategies, A Guide to Effective Instruction, on page 84: “Effective schooling studies provide evidence that attention to lower-level skills helps students learn higher-order skills more effectively (Rosenshine and Stevens 1986)”.
We must, however, ponder before stuffing knowledge-level objectives in a lesson/curriculum. As educators we must evaluate or predict if the information will later be used by the student to reach higher level learning objectives. Memorizing bit and facts simply for the sake of memorizing is useless and I offer no support to this practice. I do, however, give my full support to purposeful memorization with the intent to build a solid knowledge base from which students can then manipulate in order to construct higher-level meaning.
Memorization is the mental process by which we store, retrieve and recall information. Memory is divided into three components; short term, long term and working. Short-term memory is used to hold the fleeting thoughts or plans while one is in process of another thought or activity. Working memory is the brain’s ability to connect and loop pathways so that we that we can, for example, work on two memory activities simultaneously such as a visual and an auditory activity.
Long-term memory is the area this paper is concerned with. While short-term memory encodes information acoustically, long-term memory encodes it semantically (Baddeley 1966). This means that short-term memory is held briefly in the dorsolateral prefrotal cortex of the brains, whereby long-term memory is encoded creating perminat changes in the brain’s pathways.
The most important part of the brain regarding long-term tmemory is the hippocampus as it helps to shift the information from short-term to long-term memory. This is important news for educators because the hypo-campus need sufficient rest in order to work effectively, thus our students memorize best when they are rested.
Research on Memorization Strategies
Facts, which make up the framework of knowledge, can be taught though no other means than memorization. Educators that recognize that memorization is an important component to learning will often provide for their students strategies such as mnemonic devises, games, songs. And other creative scaffolds. Before an educator chooses a memorization strategy to present to her students it is best to get an overview of the research.
Researchers tell us that there are a variety of memorization strategies, some that work better than others. Most strategies are ‘self-selected’ meaning that the learner comes up with them on his or her own. According to a 2006 study using MRI to study brain activity, the best memorization strategies are two-fold. They include a combination of “A visual inspection strategy in which participants carefully studied the visual appearance of objects and a verbal elaboration – or word-based strategy – in which individuals constructed sentences about the objects to remember them” (Kirchhoff 2006, July 19).
This correlates with several other studies that show that memory increases when we are able to link the new information with information we already have stored in our brains (Carnegie Mellon University, 2006, July 19). The correlation I see is that in Kerchief’s study participants constructed their own sentences about the objects to remember them. The sentences resembled brief stories that included people, places and things the participants were already familiar with. Thus, this supports the Carnegie Mellon study, as well as the bulk of the research, that memorization is facilitated when we can create a link from the new information to previously stored information.
The two-fold visual/word-based component is very important. Numerous studies support that a multi-sensory approach works best for all phases of learning including memorization.
What strategies can we present to our student in the classrooms to increase their memorization skills? One of the best middle-school strategies that I have seen is called the interactive notebook (see samples before bibliography). My son used this strategy in his 8th grade science class. Students use a standard notebook. They write classroom notes on the right-hand pages only. The corresponding left-hand pages are used for students to illustrate, highlight, color, number, doodle, and write poetry, raps, rhymes, songs, games, phrases, stories, acronyms, mnemonics, Venn diagrams, brain maps, sequential maps and other advanced organizers. I believe this process, when guided by the teacher, improves memorization as well as other levels of learning. Unfortunately, I could locate no research or studies on the interactive notebook. However, studies on individual components or strategies used in the interactive notebook are readily available.
Looking through my child’s notebook, talking with him as well as his teacher, I could see that my son was not only finding successful and efficient ways to memorize but was also learning to organize the information to aid in comprehension as well as higher learning levels. This is important because good teaching practices include teaching/learning content and process simultaneously (Orch. 2004).
The interactive notebook also helps students to learn “how to learn” so that they can become independent learners. The interactive notebook combines the visual/word-based strategies as described above with students encouraged to find a personal way or view of the material in order to link or connect it with what they already know. Since individuals have unique learning styles some tend to memorize with a slant on visual strategies, while others may memorize better with auditory or word based strategies, where by others would fare better creating diagrams. All students benefit, however, from a multi-sensory approach.
Diagrams and models, including outlining key concepts of a unit, are one of the many ways learners can help organize and integrate information and link it to previously stored information. Teachers could begin by providing examples of diagrams and models and then encourage students to create them on their own as this independent work would help students transfer the information more efficiently into long-term memory (Higbee, K.L. 1993).
Analogies are another useful organizational tool, which can help student memorize as well as understand ideas, theories and concepts. For example, I recently explained the renewal process of the ocean floor in an 8th grade science class describing it as a conveyor belt. The students could imagine this and set the process to memory as well as understood it. Students could be directed to create their own analogies, for example, of cell organelles compared to the infrastructure of a city. They could use both word and illustrations (again the visual/verbal strategy) to increase memorization.
Mnemonic devices are also an excellent tool for helping students memorize. For example, when I begin a lesson on the metric system I first write on the white board in big letters; King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk! Within 1 minute the entire class has memorized the order of the metric units of measurement. When we have a list of words, or terms, or the phases of mitosis, I ask students to create their own mnemonic devices to share with the class. Again, we are using a visual or verbal strategy to create a link to aid memorization.
Two years ago I taught elementary math with much frustration as students had difficulty remembering basic multiplication facts such as 8×8, or 7×6. Over and over they would forget. I created a visual/verbal strategy. I created illustrated rhymes for each number set. I had the students clap and sing the rhymes because I am aware of the benefits of music, as it activates several areas of the brain making it more efficient. As an added kinesthetic activity I created trace and color workbooks depicting the illustrated rhymes. This multi-sensory strategy has worked so well that the school where I teach has adopted it as a supplement to their elementary math program.
There are endless opportunities to help students learn at all levels. We must guide them toward memorization strategies that work. We must be sure to use a multi-strategy approach which both reaches all learner styles as well as help individuals form links more quickly and more effectively.
We don’t need to fear the lowest rung of Bloom’s taxonomy, because we understand that a fact base will assist student onto higher-level learning. We should embrace the memorization of relevant information because the more stored memory we have on a topic the easier it is to integrate and link related information. As well the stronger the knowledge base, the more agility we will have shaping and molding and looping information into the higher realms of learning.
As educators we must continue to grow and learn; seeking and studying the current research, observing best practices in schools and classrooms. We must continue on a path of improved teaching and improved student learning, always with the whole child in mind.
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives: Complete edition, New York : Longman.
Carnegie Mellon University (2006, July 19). Carnegie Mellon Study Offers New Clues About Memory.
Caine, R. M, Caine, G., McClintic, C. & Klimek, K. (2005). 12 Brain/mind learning
principles in action: The field book for making connections, teaching and the
human brain. California: Corwin Press.
Higbee, K.L. (1993). Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It. (2nd Ed.) New York: Paragon House.
Kirchhoff, B.A.& Buckner R.L., Functional-Anatomic Correlations of Individual Differences in Memory, Neuron 51, 263-274, July 20, 2006.
Ludewig, B. (2009). Reading strategies: Scaffolding students learning with texts.
Retrieved March 7, 2009 from http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-
Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (1999). Pathways to understanding: Patterns and practices in the learning-focused classroom. (2nd ed) Guildford, VT: Pathways Publishing.
Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works:
Science Daily. Retrieved March 8, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/07/060719092800.htm
Check out a recently published New York Times Bestseller: Moonwalking With Einstien by Joshua Foer for an enlightening view on memorization.