Moving Beyond Memorization

How Can We Properly Evaluate the Education We Receive?

Graphic Graeme Shorten Adams

As students, chances are most of us have had exams with questions that require us to remember bits of information, seemingly testing little more than our ability to memorize things on demand.

We go into the exam hoping that the questions are on the material we were able to memorize, instead of the stuff we didn’t have time to review. And once it’s over, we joke about how we’ll forget all the stuff we memorized in a week anyways.

We tell ourselves that it’s a necessary part of pursuing a degree, that if we want to graduate, we’ll have to deal with it.

This attitude highlights two different perspectives of students around us: for some, coming to university is about the job opportunities a degree can generate, and so the resulting diploma becomes a means to a better job or income in the future. For others, the education received is the primary goal.

Far from being an insignificant difference in viewpoint, one’s own perspective on this influences the ways in which we think about not only what, but how we are taught in the classroom.

Being too focused on the degree at the end of the road can keep us from being adequately critical of the instruction we receive along the way, because it places too great an emphasis on grades and leaves little room to question whether we’re getting the skills we’ll need in the post-schooling world.

We should be questioning the skills we’re being taught—for the amount of time and money we put into our education, we deserve to know that we’re getting what we’re paying for. Is memorizing countless facts on demand what we’re here to learn?

Memorization is of questionable importance when compared to other abilities, and arguably doesn’t deserve the emphasis that it still receives in our education.

People naturally memorize and recall information as needed, like the cashier that can recall dozens of product codes without needing to take a class or be tested on it. When there’s a recurring need for a particular piece of information, it gets committed to memory.

In university, it’s just as important to pay attention to what we’re taught as it is to be critical of how we’re taught and tested. A focus on the education we receive empowers us to have certain expectations and standards on the sort of learning and growth that we’ll take away from these years.

If this is the case, then what kind of questions can we ask about the ways in which we are taught? How do we know we’re building useful skills?

All Teaching is Not Created Equal

First, we must consider the different cognitive skills we can pick up through education.

In 1956, a committee of educators, chaired by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, produced a classification of educational objectives.

Bloom’s taxonomy categorized learning skills in three separate categories: cognitive, affective and psychomotor—in other words, knowledge, attitude and skills, respectively. The majority of teaching and learning in university deals with cognitive skills, so it makes sense to focus on those for now.

There are six skills in the cognitive category, arranged in a hierarchy from lowest to highest: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating (or synthesizing).
Remembering deals with little more than the ability to store the data relevant to one’s field of study in one’s mind and recall it at a later date. It’s the rote memorization that comprises so much of our testing and evaluation.

Understanding is quite self-explanatory, and is exemplified by the ability to explain an idea or concept in one’s own words.

Applying refers to using the concepts we understand and the information we can bring to mind in order to solve novel problems (an important distinction, as previously encountered problems do not necessarily require knowledge and application, and can instead be solved through memory alone).

Analysis involves the ability to break down information into coherent fragments, distinguish facts from the inferences we make, and discover the relationships between these components.
Evaluation is about making judgments based on a set of criteria, like when you critique the validity of or provide support for an idea, or justify a viewpoint or decision.

Creating is the ability to combine information and ideas in new and previously unencountered ways, allowing for innovation and alternatives to known ways of thinking or doing things.

Professors should optimally consider these six different levels of learning when they write their exam questions, and depending on how a question is formulated, it can test a student’s ability on any of the levels.

Just as professors can use this tool, students can use the concepts provided by the taxonomy to judge the sort of cognitive skills emphasized by the education they are receiving (an exercise which, if you’re following along, would require the application of an understanding to evaluate something).

Today, much of the information we might be required to memorize can be accessed within minutes using the potent computers most of us carry in our pockets. It’s difficult to conceive of a future situation where we’ll need to apply information we learn without being able to search through a book or the Internet for help.

An education applicable to what we can expect to confront after university should therefore presumably place greater emphasis on knowing how to search for and find reliable information and piece it together intelligently, rather than on the ability to memorize.

When we are tested largely on memorization and understanding, we are being taught to function as consumers of knowledge rather than learning the skills necessary to evaluate and create knowledge.

The point of this article isn’t to imply that you’re getting a raw deal and you should be up in arms because you’re only being taught to memorize, because that isn’t the case.

A thoughtful look at your classes should reveal that while some professors do focus more on memorization, others make the effort to engage higher-level processes so their students may come away with different ways to think and approach new information.

What is important is to spend some time thinking about these differences. Think about what you take away from these different types of teaching and how that compares to what you expect from your education. It’s important not to shy away from engaging with professors and peers over your thoughts on what your classroom experience should be like.

For some, this semester will mark the end of your first year, while for others it signifies the end of your degree. Wherever you are in your education, it will benefit you in the long term to be critical of how you are taught, and to assess whether that aligns with what you expect to take away from being at university. Having a set of ideas with which to evaluate the instruction we receive is a first step in doing so.