What’s the difference between remembering and memorising?

Memorisation is an active process.  Remembering is passive.  At least this is my inexpert claim; I would like to hear other people’s thoughts, based on what they’ve read.

Ah distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December…


In this line from Poe’s ‘The Raven’ it would make no sense for the narrator to be remarking ‘Ah distinctly I memorise…’  Not least that it would rupture the astounding internal rhyme and carefully measured meter of this masterpiece, with which I’m clearly a little bit in love, but it’s just not the right verb.  Memorisation implies an action or series of actions which we control, in an attempt to build the strength of a new memory.  While remembering is also an action, it feels rather more passive – do we have much choice over what we remember, and when?  Sometimes it almost feels as though it is something that is being done to us, rather than something we are doing – in this sense the French have perhaps captured the process better in saying Je me souviens, which directly translates loosely as ‘I remind myself,’ but either way certainly implies something being done to the person remembering.

Why do I bother to make this fairly obvious distinction?  Well, have you ever said to a pupil ‘Make sure you remember…’ or ‘This is important, so be sure to remember it,’ or something along those lines?  I’m pretty sure I have, and when doing so, cry a little bit inside.  In making such a statement, I am acutely aware that I am abdicating my responsibility to ensure that they remember – that’s not their job, it’s mine.


Memory is the residue of thought

Daniel Willingham suggests that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’  We remember what we think about; we forget what we don’t.  Michel Thomas and Siegfried Engelmann are using this idea in developing curricula that ‘interleave.’  In other words, they guarantee that we will remember what they teach us; they ensure that we frequently revisit all of the content.  Compare this with a maths curriculum where ‘angles’ are studied for a week, once per year, or an English curriculum where a book is studied in Year 7, and then never mentioned again, or a history curriculum, where a period of history is studied in Year 8… and then never mentioned again, or a foreign language curriculum where ‘the weather’ is studied for a few weeks, but then the vocabulary never needed again for the rest of the year.

Sequencing, distributed learning and interleaving can be used by the educator to build enduring memories, but is that memorisation?  To my mind, memorisation feels like something we actively undertake ourselves, and in a relatively short period of time, such as an actor learning their lines.  It’s a process that involves repetition; one dictionary definition I’ve seen suggests that it involves being able to remember something verbatim.

We can memorise things that then stay with us for the rest of our lives, or memorise things that stay with us only until the exam.  My working hypothesis is that, once memorised, the longevity of those memories is dependent upon how long we continue to spend thinking about them.  The classic problem with ‘cramming’ for exams is that, as the cliché goes, we forget it all the next day.  According to the hypothesis, this would be because we never again use what we memorised.  If, alternatively, we memorised the content months before the exam, and then frequently brought them back into working memory over the next several months, would those memories now stay with us for much longer, or more easily be recovered if needed in the distant future?

Why is this important?  As hinted at previously, memorisation has rather gone out of fashion.  The idea of asking pupils to sit down and memorise something, verbatim, seems to be considered oppressive.  There was not a word of it in ITT, or in our standard textbook.  It feels like it’s characterised with that image of cramming for an exam: doomed to be forgotten a day or two later, meaningless, pointless.

I’m not convinced of this, and so I wonder, if we allowed some lesson time to focus on raw, unadulterated memorisation, and then ensured we continually revisited what had been memorised in later lessons, would we make learning easier, and build a stronger, more enduring body of knowledge in the minds of school pupils?

My experience of trying this to some, limited extent, suggests it might.

Communicating neurons

Will giving focussed time to memorisation make learning easier?

So why do I abdicate the responsibility for ensuring pupils remember, if I’m so painfully aware that I’m doing it?  Time, and logistics, mostly.  I do what I can, but it doesn’t feel close to what is theoretically possible, and that bothers me.  In the hurricane of daily school life, I mostly use what pre-made resources I can find for helping students practice what we study, and I’ve seen few that are geared around memorisation.

‘Remembering’, I think, also needs to be split into two further subcategories: ‘recognition’ and ‘recall’.  When we recognise something we might say ‘Ah yes, I remember that.’  However, while we might recognise something when provided a stimulus, we may lack the capacity to draw it into working memory at will.  For me, two good examples would be the proof that root 2 is irrational, and the quadratic formula.  The former I vaguely remember, and will certainly recognise it if shown it again, however I cannot bring it back to the forefront of my mind right now (I feel that I should be able to, as a maths teacher, and so am making a point to memorise it sometime soon.)  The latter on the other hand, I need every day for school, and so can recall effortlessly.  In the case of the root 2 proof, I might almost go so far as to say ‘I’ve forgotten it.’  Have I though, when I can recognise it, or recall vague parts of it?  Is to forget something, to fail to be able to recall it, or to fail to even recognise it; where lies the boundary?

Wherever it lies, there is a distinction between recognition and recall.  We need to keep this in mind as what we ultimately want our pupils to have is recall, not mere recognition.


Should an ideal education system aim for total recall?

I wanted to make this point now, and set out a definition for memorisation, because it will tie into my next post: “Should we force pupils to memorise poems?”

Should we?

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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9 Responses to What’s the difference between remembering and memorising?

  1. Sam Yeager says:

    “Should an ideal education system aim for total recall?”

    Recall is not enough as being able to recall the quadratic formula does not help a student if they do not know how to use it.

  2. David Thomas says:

    My English teacher made us learn “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” when I was in Year 8. Her public rationale was that one day we’ll need it to woo a lover. I’ve never used it for that purpose, but I have remembered it to this day.

    What were the benefits of that? I suppose teaching me to learn something by heart was useful, and has proven useful since. Forcing memorisation meant that I analysed that poem in more depth than any other poem I’ve read, even when I did English Lit A Level – I can talk at length about every line in it. The focus on recitation also gave me a greater feel for the rhythm of the poem, which I doubt I would’ve got without remembering it. Plus I can smugly carry on in my head whenever someone quotes the opening line.

    I definitely benefited in some way from that process, but it was pretty laborious. Most of the positive effects didn’t come from the memorising as such, but from being forced to spend a lot of time on that poem. It would’ve been much quicker to make me write an analysis, but that analysis would’ve been less well-informed than the analysis gotten by making me memorise as well.

    I suppose whether it’s worth it depends on the opportunity cost of that time, and trying to work out all the benefits of memorisation. With my reciting romantic poetry both the costs and benefits have the potential to be high!

    • krisboulton says:

      Sounds like you’ve hit upon many of the benefits I’ve experienced. One significant difference for me is that it doesn’t take me long to memorise a poem now. ‘Shall I compare thee’ was the first, and maybe that took an hour or so, but now I’m able to memorise a poem of similar length, e.g. Yeates’ – The Second Coming, in about 20 minutes. Very different for a child of course; I currently have one Y8 whose been working on Ozymandias for a couple of weeks in his spare time. More on that in the next post though!

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  4. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, Kris – I found it interesting. It made me think about memory/remembering. This isn’t in an educational context but I’ve kept a diary since 1972 (yes, I know….) and, for some reason, a few years ago I decided to start rereading my entries from 30 years before, so as I write about 26 July 2013 I also look back to what happened on 26 July 1983. (I went to a wedding. For some bizarre reason I didn’t mention exactly who was getting married. I had to work it out from other clues!)

    The reason I mention this is when I reread what happened to me 30 years ago, it’s fascinating to discover what I remember and what I’d forgotten. It just isn’t logical. Things which were clearly important to me at the time/invested in emotion often have gone completely. Other things which are patently trivial I remember quite precisely. Often I think I remember what happened/what I thought/how I felt, and then when I reread the diary entry I find my memory is quite unreliable.

    I don’t know what to make of this, and am not sure how it fits with your premise of remembering being in some way ‘passive’, but I do find it interesting….

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks for this Jill; what an interesting read! Makes me wish I’d stuck at keeping a diary. I’ve heard some people claim that emotional connections help us remember things better, which makes it particularly interesting that here you’re saying that more mundane trivia come to mind, when things that were so important to you are left forgotten.

      Willingham’s thing, amongst others, is that ‘memory is the residue of thought’ – we remember that which we think about. The more we think about it, the better we remember it. I wonder whether that’s enough to explain it? Is it simply the case that you spent a long time mulling over those trivial things, while events, as important as they may have been in the moment, were abandoned shortl after they happened?

      I suppose the mis-remembering of things is a well documented phenominon, particularly relevant to police investigations. Fortunately it doesn’t usually seem to be something that affects us in education! Unless I’ve missed something…

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