Memorize this?

“What is the purpose of memorizing information when I can easily retrieve that material using a textbook or search engine, such as Google?” I have come across many students asking this question and I am not entirely sure how to answer it, since I sometimes find myself constructing similar inquiries. I suppose it boils down to having the ability to differentiate the content that needs to be memorized versus the content that one can go on in life without memorizing. However, how can we, as learners and educators, make this decision? What content is worth memorizing? This formal commentary focuses on the viewpoints of Ong (1982) in “Chapter 3: Some Psychodynamics of Orality,” specifically around the notions of text and memorization in education.

In “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World,” Ong (1982) analyzes the differences between oral and literature cultures. When educators are familiar with these differences, it can help them better understand their students and the methods that will best help them learn, especially those that are illiterate. For example, students that have not developed basic literacy skills have a difficult time recalling and memorizing information. This makes written cues a better method to help these students learn, in comparison to rote memorization (Ong, 1982). However, textual representations alone do not aid in an illiterate students’ learning, since the content any reader is viewing on a “page are not real words but coded symbols” (Ong, 1982, p.74). Ong’s viewpoints of words being coded symbols apply greatly to ELL (English Language Learners), since letters would look like symbols when they have no meaning attached to them. Thus, utilizing cues that have a combination of words and pictures help these students, as it allows them to “construct meaning about both fiction and nonfiction text” (Manning, 2004, p.91). Viewing the pictures first allows illiterate students to access their prior knowledge and apply it to the text, eventually attaching meaning to those “coded symbols” (Manning, 2004). I have personally tried this with ELL students and it has worked out very well since these students require both text and visuals to help them understand and recognize words. However, there are cases where memorizing content is helpful to the learner.

For the students that are familiar with the English language, memorizing information can prove to be useful. Since there is a vast amount of information students are exposed to, one must first decide how to digest that content. Ong (1982) suggests to “think memorable thoughts” (p.34), where memorable thoughts refer to information that is worth memorizing, as it helps in recalling information. Thus, students who ask questions around the purpose of “memorizing everything” make a valid point, since not everything needs to be memorized, as it makes it more difficult to recall (Ong, 1982). Educators must decipher the content worth memorizing versus the content that can be found through the use of sources, such as search engines. For example, in a mathematics classroom, educators must decide whether or not memorizing multiplication facts fall under “memorable thoughts.” Robert E & Knowles (2010) argue that students who have their multiplication facts memorized are able to develop a better understanding of the entire concept of multiplication problems, in comparison to those students who use calculators. As educators, we should guide students and provide them with the skills to understand and filter content (Robert E & Knowles, 2010). This allows them to recall “memorable thoughts,” such as multiplication facts, and activates their critical thinking and higher-order thinking skills (Robert E & Knowles, 2010).

It is important to note that memorizing information does not mean that it will stay stored in the brain forever. As Ong (1982) mentions, when information is memorized but not used, it slowly becomes forgotten. Many students can attest to this given their experiences. For example, when students have learned a new word or concept, they may have a difficult time recalling that information if they have not made connections or used that information. This is why it is important for educators to ensure that when they are trying to ask students to retain information, it is information they need to know rather than information they can look up on sources like the Internet (Robert E & Knowles, 2010). Living in the digital age, we have access to an enormous amount of information at our finger tips. Once they have learned the skills to locate information, students can easily use search engines to find the answers to factual questions. Search engines such as Google, can be described as a form of transactive memory, where individuals share information, decreasing the onus to memorize it (Sparrow, Liu and Wegner, 2011). However, memorizing information can be useful to learning as it helps students utilize that information and think about it critically, in comparison to them reading it on the Internet, where they may not be able to understand the significance of the material (Robert E & Knowles, 2010).

To answer the ongoing question that many students ask, “Why must we memorize the content? Why can’t we use the Internet or other sources to locate it?” the answer would simply be: it depends. It depends on what the content is. Is it something they need to know in order to build on their current knowledge? Or is the content simply dates and times that one can locate using a search engine? Who is learning this content? Is it an English language learner? Educators should focus on the larger picture and be able to make that decision.

Mahoney Robert E, & Knowles, C. C. (2010). Do students need to memorize facts in the digital age? Learning & Leading with Technology, 37(5), 6-7.

Maryann Manning. (2004). Visual cues. Teaching Pre K – 8,34(6), 91.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333(6043), 776-778. doi:10.1126/science.1207745

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