Memorisation versus Understanding

Ranjit Podder

5 November, 2020 12:00 AM printer

There is a debate in education whether students should try to understand what they read and are taught or they should memorise. Although it would be difficult to find one who did not memorise anything in their lives, many educationists today speak against memorisation. One of my colleagues has uploaded a post in the facebook recently which initiated a huge discussion for and against memorisation. Some assert that memorisation without understanding is bad! Is memorisation really bad or un-useful? With the advent of Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s (1896 - 1934) Constructivism, many educationists and teachers took the constructivist position. The constructivists claim that meaning is made and re-made through social interactions. This social interactions includes debates, pair and group discussions in the classrooms. It is also said that learning has to happen in context and meaning is always contextual; no words or sentences have their proper meaning without context. Although memorisation process of learning has been in practice for a long time for many learners, constructivism is believed to be a better substitute for memorisation. Instead of saying which process of learning is good or bad, this write-up discusses what role the two ways of learning processes play in the life of an individual.

Students who understands little or do not understand at all from reading and teachers’ delivery is not developing their intellectual faculty although one of the major purposes of education is developing intellectual ability of learners through practice. Only memorising and passing the examinations does not add so much value to the learners. Students have to work for making meaning of what they have studied or heard. They have to critically analyse whatever data or pieces of information they come across. It is currently accepted that meaning is not and should not be given to students, it should be co-constructed through dialogues. Based on logical negotiations or discussions, one may have to change their base and structure of knowledge because when we share our thoughts with others and they share their thinking on the same issue, we come to a conclusion based on the logical discussion. Reconstructed and co-constructed knowledge is that which we make together. In this constructivist form of teaching, teachers make the meaning through dialogues with students; that is, teachers learn together with students. That is why it is acknowledged that teaching is a two way process – learning in the process of teaching. If knowledge is created in this way, everyone has ownership of the knowledge and usually learners can use the knowledge when requires in practical life. Unless knowledge is made and re-made together, students remain as the bearers of knowledge, they cannot use them in time of need. On the other hand, if an individual reconstructs knowledge based on the past knowledge without consulting with others, their meaning may not be acceptable in society. Therefore, the current strategy of teaching and learning aims at making and remaking meanings together. Not only by social science teachers, this approach to teaching and learning has been accepted by many science teachers as well. Constructivism is a suggested theory of teaching and learning in the secondary curriculum in Bangladesh.

Then where is the place of memorisation in education? Although we undervalue memorisation, we have to compulsorily memorise some stuffs such as times table, songs, hymns, religious verses, mathematical digits and formulae, process of chain reactions in Chemistry, poems, important quotations, dates and years significant in the history, etc. Some educationists claim that memorisation helps quick understanding. Moreover, it is proved that memorisation in the lower classes yields better results during higher education. The pre-primary and primary school students have to memorise the digits, alphabet, names of days and months, flowers, birds, and so on. There is an allegation that memorisation kills creativity, understanding, and enjoyment of students. This may be true for higher education where students have to produce something of their own; where students have to create alongside reproduction of knowledge. Memorisation in higher education is prohibited; memorising and reproducing someone else’s ideas is a serious offence all over the world. It is so serious that, a university student may be rusticated for ever for involvement in plagiarism. Plagiarism is using others’ ideas or intellectual property as someone’s own.

Although memorisation is looked down upon, memorisation with understanding plays an influential role in one’s life. Some people have photographic memory which means that those types of people can remember anything what they have read or heard once. Should we blame them for this extraordinary quality? On the other hand, some people have to read or hear several times to store something in the memory. Therefore, the dispute between the supporters of memorisation and understanding should come to an end since both have their merits and demerits of their own. Let us practise the culture of understanding with added importance in the educational institutions and memorise those items which we have to use for ready reference. The basic ideas and concepts or formulae can be memorised because achievement of wider knowledge and skills in those particular subjects depends on the mastery of the basic things. However, memorising answers from guidebooks or notebooks; and memorising the paragraphs and essays can never be allowed. These items must be taught and learnt contextually.


The writer is Associate Professor at Govt. Teachers’ Training College, Dhaka. He can be reached at: [email protected]