Memorizing versus Understanding

By Yana Weinstein

This post continues a series of posts on the value of memory. I wrote a few months ago about how memory is used in everything we do, and we recently published a post-humus guest blog by Ralph A. Raimi in defense of rote memory. Today I continue this theme by discussing an article from the 1990s (1) that argues for the importance of both memorization (i.e., rote learning) and understanding. I came across this article while putting the finishing touches on the book Megan and I are writing, illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli and to be published by David Fulton (Routledge). Look out for it this summer! 

The article I found, titled "The Intention to Both Memorise and Understand: Another Approach to Learning?", first describes an earlier literature that drew a distinction between two approaches to learning. According to this older literature (2), students approach learning in one of two ways: either in a kind of utilitarian, surface manner, wanting only to memorize as much as possible, in order to pass exams; or in a deeper, more meaningful manner, wanting to understand the material and relate it to their personal lives. A quotation from the explanation of this "deep" learning approach really resonated with me:

Using a deep approach a student has the intention to understand. Information may be remembered, but this is viewed as an almost unintentional by-product. (p. 343)

Reading this, I had a bit of an "aha" moment. It made me realize what teachers are talking about when they say they want their students to learn through understanding, rather than memory. When I hear that, I am often surprised because I hear it as a denial of the importance of memory as a process, whereas I don't believe there is any other way to demonstrate learning other than by encoding and retrieving from memory! But it's not that people don't believe memory is important or necessary - it's more that they believe understanding will naturally lead to memories being formed, without any effort to specifically commit things to memory, and practice retrieving them. As I was writing this post, I shared the quotation with Dr. Jen Coane, who also studies memory. Her response was "But really remembering (and knowing) is hard work". This leads us to the main thrust of the paper: the author proposes a hybrid approach, where development of understanding takes place alongside or in conjunction with intentional encoding and strengthening of information in memory.

Evidence for this approach is cited mainly from education systems in Asian education systems, including Hong Kong, China, and Japan. The author makes the very important point that these systems are often mis-characterized in the West as being heavily based on passive, rote memorization. But based on studies that included careful observation of the teaching techniques used in these education systems, the author concludes that they actually rely on a hybrid understanding/memorization approach. This approach can go in two directions. One version is to develop understanding, followed by memorization. In this approach, students develop a deep understanding of the material (through what we might call elaboration), and then students practice that information so that they can remember it accurately (through what we might call retrieval practice). However, it is important to note that we encourage students to use retrieval practice in a meaningful, elaborative way rather than "just" for memorization

An alternative version of the hybrid approach is that students memorize some information first, and then over time come to understand it more and more deeply. Although this example is not used in the paper, I immediately thought of multiplication tables. There is a big debate in teaching regarding whether children should or should not memorize their multiplication tables. Briefly, those who argue against it hold that this is meaningless memorization and does not lead to understanding (3), whereas those who argue for it maintain that it decreases working memory load so students can later concentrate on more advanced math without having to perform additional mental operations to multiply numbers (4). For example, if you want to teach a child how to "solve for x" and the equation you give them is 12x = 144, they could concentrate on solving the equation (i.e., rearranging it to x = 144 / 12 ), rather than laboriously doing the arithmetic. By the time children are able to solve these equations, they understand more about how numbers work. In this case, it can be said that memorization came before understanding.

I liked this article because it comes from an adjacent field to mine (Education, not Cognitive Psychology), but taps into some of the same ideas that we attempt to study. In a similar vein, I recently co-authored a piece comparing the teaching strategies used by Applied Behavior Analysts with those recommended by cognitive psychologists (5); we found many of the same conclusions, but different terminology leading to a complete lack of cross-talk between the fields. It is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable to read literature from such fields, because terms that we so carefully define in one field are used somewhat different in another. However, I think it is a worthwhile exercise, and I would encourage other researchers and teachers reading this post to do so.


(1) Kember, D. (1996). The intention to both memorise and understand: Another approach to learning? Higher Education31, 341-354.

(2) Biggs, J. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research. 

(3) Smith, S. Z., & Smith, M. E. (2006). Assessing elementary understanding of multiplication concepts. School Science and mathematics, 106, 140-149.

(4) Lee, K., Ng, E. L., & Ng, S. F. (2009). The contributions of working memory and executive functioning to problem representation and solution generation in algebraic word problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 373-387.

(5) Markovits, R. A., & Weinstein, Y. (2018). Can cognitive processes help explain the success of instructional techniques recommended by behavior analysts? npj Science of Learning3, 2.