Memorization: A Shift from Oral to Literate Cultures

Memorization has long been a tool for retaining new knowledge.  Oral cultures of the past depended heavily on memorization to pass what was meaningful on to the next generation (Olick & Robbins, 1998).  Current learning theories such as cognitive information processing, meaningful learning, situated cognition and constructivism all focus on the human capacity of memory to enact learning (Driscoll, 2005).  To learn, the learner senses new information, stores the information briefly in the sensory memory, shifts what is deemed important into working memory and integrates the information in long-term memory.  So why is memorization as a learning activity frowned on by some?  In response, I propose that the focus of memorization as practiced in oral cultures has shifted in the transition to literate cultures, resulting in some forms of memorization becoming ineffective for learning.

In his book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong (2002) describes his perception of memorization in oral cultures.  He indicates that memorization in these cultures was approximate and flexible.  Ong implicates the lack of a permanent record to test the ‘perfection’ of memory as we have in written form for literate cultures.  Memorizers followed certain formulae and rules to help the memorization and presentation process but the presenter could use them in idiosyncratic ways.  These presenters could even tailor their presentations to a specific audience.  This indicates a memorization of ideas rather than words.  The ideas would be presented according to the overarching formulae.  Ong relates how oral bards from Yugoslavia ask to wait a day or more after first hearing a memorable story before relating it.  This allowed the bard time to think about the story to develop a good understanding.  Clearly, the intent was not verbatim or rote memorization.

The term, rote learning, was popularized by David Ausubel (as described in Driscoll ( 2005)) who contrasted it with meaningful learning.  Ausubel suggested that rote-learning usually involved verbatim memorization of information.  Since there was no expectation to understand the information and connect it to prior knowledge, learners never assimilate the information into long-term memory and they forget it.  It may be from this view that memorization has received a bad reputation and, consequently, equated with rote learning.  It was not the intent, however, to denigrate memorization entirely but to clarify that memorization without understanding is a poor form of learning.  Studies on memorization have verified this.

Dahlin and Watkins (2000) in comparing views of Chinese and German secondary school students found that individuals from the Chinese culture place much heavier emphasis on memorization as a form of learning. This focus may be a product of the individual culture’s  method of codifying their language (Logan, 2004). When analyzing the intent in memorization, Dahlin and Watkins found the Chinese students had a strong dual intent to both memorize and understand.  These students in repeating readings would look for what they did not understand rather than ensure that what they are reading matched with what they already understood.  These researchers conclude that understanding not only helped the memorization process, it also ensured long-term memory.  In a similar study, Mugler and Landbeck (2000) found that distance learners in the South Pacific, without direct prompting, described two kinds of memorization.  The first included understanding and was beneficial to learning and the other that disregarded understanding and had no long-term learning effects.  These studies show that memorization with understanding as described by Ausubel as meaningful learning, is still an effective method of learning.

In closing his analysis on memorization in oral cultures, Ong (2002) relates that oral memorization “has a highly semantic component” such as gestures, beats, dances, or other body movements.  Ong writes, “Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not adventitious or contrived in oral communication, but is natural and even inevitable”(p. 67).  Studies provide examples that encourage understanding through the memorization process.  Tonya Perry (2005) used drama to help her students analyze and remember various aspects of a novel study.  In teaching spelling, Shane Templeton (2002)  found that creating a context of understanding in spelling by categorizing words significantly helps the required memorization of words.  Similarly, Stephanie and Marvin Smith (2006) found that deemphasizing rote memorization of multiplication facts and focusing on an understanding of the process of multiplication led to a greater retention of the facts.  In analyzing several sections of a test, Cori Fata-Hartley (2011) found that students in an introductory cell biology course understood material significantly better on sections where they had learned the material through active learning activities compared to sections learned by rote memorization after lectured instruction.  What happens around the memorization process clearly influences the effectiveness of memorization because of increased understanding.

Without a doubt, memorization with understanding, as practiced in oral cultures, is an effective practice to promote learning.  This begs the question regarding the origin of rote or word-for-word memorization.  Ong (2002) relates that the best examples of verbatim memorization in oral cultures took place in rituals and religious activity.  Select people from the community performed this service and community members likely admired them for their abilities.  The advent of text in a transition to literate culture made verbatim memorization a possibility for a greater number of people since testing of perfection could now take place by comparison to the written record.  If this was the case, then verbatim memorization of text may have been highly valued and become entrenched as a valuable part of learning.  Thamus eloquently expressed the fear of this to Theuth in Plato’s Phaedrus (as quoted in Postman (1993, pp. 3-4)).  Theuth recommends his invention of writing, saying, “I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom”.  Thamus replies, “Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources”.  I think what Thamus and those who use rote memorization in learning failed to recognize is Theuth’s promotion of writing as a ‘receipt’ for memory and not memory itself.


Dahlin, B., & Watkins, D. (2000). The role of repetition in the processes of memorising and understanding: a comparison of the views of German and Chinese secondary school students in Hong Kong. The British journal of educational psychology, 70 ( Pt 1), 65–84. Retrieved from

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (3rd ed.). Toronto, Ont: Pearson Education.

Fata-Hartley, C. (2011). Resisting Rote: The Importance of Active Learning for All Course Learning Objectives. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(3), 36–39. Retrieved from

Logan, R. K. (2004). The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Mugler, F., & Landbeck, R. (2000). Learning, memorisation and understanding among distance learners in the South Pacific. Learning and Instruction, 10(2), 179–202. doi:10.1016/S0959-4752(99)00026-2

Olick, J., & Robbins, J. (1998). Social memory studies: From“ collective memory” to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices. Annual Review of sociology, 24(1998), 105–140. Retrieved from

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the Word. New York, NY: Routledge.

Perry, T. (2005). Taking Time: Beyond Memorization: Using Drama to Promote Thinking. The English Journal, 95(1), 120–123. Retrieved from

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Smith, S. Z., & Smith, M. E. (2006). Assessing Elementary Understanding of Multiplication Concepts. School Science and Mathematics, 106(3), 140–149. doi:10.1111/j.1949-8594.2006.tb18171.x

Templeton, S. (2002). Effective spelling instruction in the middle grades: It’s a lot more than memorization. Voices from the Middle, 9(3), 8–14. Retrieved from

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