How to Learn Understand and Commit Information to Long-Term Memory

January 29, 2014 


Learning, understanding, and memorizing are related but different tasks.

High school teacher Ben Orlin, in an article he wrote for The Atlantic, discusses a distinction between learning and memorizing.

Many students say they perform better when they study at the last minute because they can memorize the information just long enough to recite it on the test. However, when students understand material, they can recognize why it is the way it is, which helps them commit the information to long-term memory.

Orlin says, “Some things are worth memorizing—addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays,” but, “To learn [other concepts] in isolation is like learning the sentence ‘Hamlet kills Claudius’ without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is.” He believes it is more important to dig deeper into more abstract concepts to encourage students’ understanding of material, avoiding the classic “call-and-response” method of teaching.

Orlin suggests a method called “repeated use” as a means of learning information, instead of just memorizing. “Like raw rehearsal, it relies on repetition to chisel a fact into memory, but unlike that method, it comes naturally (without “deliberate effort”),” he writes. Orlin remembers dissecting a poem so much in the 10th grade that he memorized the words, which he can still recite to this day.

The second memorization tip Orlin suggests is “building on already-known facts.” Using existing knowledge to reach a conclusion creates connections between concepts. “When you learn a fact, it’s bound to others in a web of logic,” Orlin adds.

Orlin says creating a teaching environment that evaluates students based on learning over memorization will not happen easily. Students will need more time to take tests and teachers will need more time to grade them.

“Memorization’s defenders are right: It’s a mistake to downplay factual knowledge, as if students could learn to reason critically without any information to reason about,” Orlin writes. “But memorization’s opponents are right, too: Memorized knowledge isn’t half as useful as knowledge that’s actually understood.”

Photo credit: Miroslav Vajdić on Flickr.


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