Do Students Need to Learn Facts in the Age of Google?

Yes. Next question.

Okay, like all things, this is more nuanced. When this question is posed, the intended point is often that students should be engaged in higher-order learning rather than spending all of their time memorizing disconnected facts. I generally agree with this sentiment, but in order to engage in higher-order learning, students need a solid grasp of the relevant facts and how they are related. In some ways this is obvious, but other reasons behind this may surprise you.

(Note: For the context of this post, I’m using the term facts to broadly mean standalone pieces of information. You may interpret this to include concepts, definitions, ideas, relationships, basic processes, etc.)

Knowns and Unknowns

Ideally, the facts necessary to solve a problem are known knowns. You know those facts and you are aware of them. In practice, we forget much of what we have learned in the past, so perhaps you remember the existence and relevance of a fact, even if you’ve forgotten the details. That constitutes a known unknown, something you are aware you do not know. Though not ideal, you can at least look this up to jog your memory. Known unknowns can also be facts you are aware of but never mastered. Again, it isn’t too difficult to look these up. The real problem is unknown unknowns. There may be facts that would help solve a problem, but if you don’t know they exist, you’ll never find them. You can’t find the answer on Google if you don’t know the question to ask.

Not Enough Time

Even if the unknowns are mostly known, it may not be practical to look them all up. When learning a foreign language, if you understand the basic grammar and sentence structure, it is straightforward to look up an unknown word. But if you must look up 40% of the words you hear (or want to say), you can’t do that quickly enough to maintain a conversation. With a foreign language, rote memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules is critical to speaking and listening. This may be an extreme example, but in any field there will be facts or basic relationships that are used so frequently that the time required to look them up would prevent you from doing any higher-order thinking or application.

Cognitive Capacity

Consider a scenario. A student visits your office hours for help on a challenging homework problem. You carefully walk them through it, step-by-step, until you reach the solution, at which point the student stares at you blankly. For argument’s sake, let’s say you explained the solution very clearly and logically, but they still didn’t get it. What happened?            

This is an example of the expert-novice problem. It can be quite difficult for you as an expert to explain something to a novice in a manner they will understand. Several of the underlying causes of this situation are due to your much larger factual knowledge compared to the student’s. One possibility is that you used certain facts or relationships in your reasoning, but because they are so familiar to you, you didn’t even realize you were using them and failed to mention them to the student. In other words, they were unknown knowns to you but unknown unknowns to the student.

There are other potential factors at play. When you solve a problem, you must hold all of the relevant pieces (elements) of information in your working memory simultaneously. Working memory has limited capacity, holding relatively few elements. Imagine I list the following letters and ask you to repeat them back from memory: b, e, m, n, r, s, u. If this exceeds your working memory capacity, you won’t be successful. Now consider the letters n, u, m, b, e, r, s. Those are the same letters, but in this order they have meaning to you because they spell a word you already know. This uses much less of your working memory capacity because it now counts as one element, the word “numbers”, instead of seven unrelated elements. This is known as chunking. If you have relevant background knowledge (i.e., you know a lot of facts), you may be able to chunk the information by grouping elements into larger units. While a novice and expert may have the same working memory capacity, knowing more facts (especially context) allows the expert to hold more information in working memory through the use of chunking.

Lastly, when you as an expert work to solve a problem, many of the relevant facts and relationships exist in your long-term memory and are easy for you to retrieve (bring to mind) as necessary. Here is the wild part. Anything stored in your long-term memory can be accessed by your working memory without counting against your working memory capacity. So in our scenario with the confused student, maybe you would only need to use 50% of your working memory capacity, for the problem-specific details, because all the other relevant knowledge is in your long-term memory. If the student has none of that knowledge in their long-term memory, perhaps the necessary elements would require 150% of their working memory capacity. In other words, when a student is working through a problem, even if they are able to look up all the relevant facts, it may still simply be too many elements to maintain in their working memory. If some of those facts exist in their long-term memory though, the task may be within their cognitive ability. (Note: I had come across the concept of chunking several times before, but I only recently learned this fact about long-term memories not counting against working memory capacity, courtesy of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham’s excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School?)

What Does this Mean for Teaching and Assessment?

In short, for students to engage in higher-order learning and reasoning, they do indeed require a foundation of factual knowledge. This does not mean that students should spend lots of time memorizing facts in isolation from one another. A fact or concept is only useful if you understand the context. How is it related to other information you know? When and why is this fact relevant?

So should you directly assess students on recall of facts? I’d say generally no, with the exception of very critical, fundamental facts that warrant strong emphasis. So how do you indirectly assess factual knowledge? You can assess higher-order reasoning that can’t be accomplished without the use of those basic facts. This assessment should not be just summative (e.g., on exams). Rather, this approach should be incorporated in various class activities, such as think-pair-share, labs, problem sets, low-stakes quizzes, etc. This will incentivize the learning of these facts while still allowing students to see and make use of the necessary context and connections.

Conclusion

Is it okay if students need to occasionally look something up? Absolutely, but the more they need to look up, the more difficulties they will face. Google is great, especially for jogging our memory about known unknowns. However, it’s difficult to look up unknown unknowns, and it simply isn’t practical to look up everything. Assuming we are able to look up all relevant facts, our limited working memory capacity can still prevent us from successful higher-order reasoning. Even with seemingly unlimited information accessible on the phones in their hands, students still need to learn facts.

References

Willingham, D. T. (2021). Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2nd edition). Jossey-Bass.

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