Does memorisation get in the way of learning? – Part 4

Previously I started to look at the main points in Ben Orlin’s article expressing concern that ‘memorisation might get in the way of learning:

  • Some things are worth memorising, but others are not.
  • Knowledge matters – “even a head full of memorized facts is better than an empty one.”
  • Raw rehearsal is a memorisation technique, but not a very effective one.
  • Mnemonics are a better memorisation technique, but they still promote the memorisation of meaningless facts.
  • ‘Repeated use’ is a better route to memorisation, and one that he advocates.
  • ‘Building on already known facts’ is a second route to memorisation that he strongly advocates.

I started by arguing that memorisation is learning.  Remember the quote from Kirschner et al.’s paper: “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”

Given then that some teachers express concerns about memorisation that are valid, I next looked at the first two points that Orlin makes, and attempted to explore them further.  I summarised by introducing a new category of knowledge, ‘inflexible knowledge,’ and echoing Willingham’s statement that it is the necessary first step on the path to what we usually think of as ‘understanding.’

Yesterday I looked at Orlin’s next two points, criticisms of what he calls raw rehearsal and mnemonics.  I concluded that what he called raw rehearsal was failing as a technique because it was not also employed with the longer-term strategy of distributed learning, which builds the storage strength of memories, while noting that mnemonics do not preclude meaningful understanding.

Today, I intend to finish by looking at Orlin’s proposed alternatives, ‘repeated use’ and ‘building on already known facts,’ while digging a little deeper into the role that mnemonics can play.

Repeated Use

Here’s how Orlin defines ‘repeated use:’

“Like raw rehearsal, it relies on repetition to chisel a fact into memory, but unlike that method, it comes naturally (without “deliberate effort”). In 10th-grade English, I wrote a paper on Robert Frost’s apocalyptic poem “Once by the Pacific.” I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase. Months later, standing on a rocky, storm-swept beach, I found that I could recite the poem by heart. I never set out to memorize it. I just…did.”

 StormDoes repeated use aid long-term memory?

I’m a great fan of Michel Thomas, and his method for language instruction; I think we have a lot to learn from him.  At the start of his CD courses he says:

“You are about to experience a new approach to language learning that will give you a practical and functional use of the language in approximately 10-12 hours learning time.  All this is achieved without memorising, without learning by rote, without drill, without taking notes.”

Parts of this seem to parallel Orlin’s sentiments, and much as Orlin describes, you never feel like you’re having to make much ‘deliberate effort’ with Thomas, you just… learn it!  His advocates describe learning languages with Michel Thomas as effortless.

It’s true that Thomas never asks you to repeat something after him, or repeat something a dozen times, or write things down etc.  Thomas arguably employs what Orlin might call ‘repeated use.’  The vast bulk of his courses involve him asking the learner how to say something in the foreign language.  Each sentence is unique, though they involve the same words already learnt in new combinations, or the use of a learnt rule for generating those words.  Through this constant, repeated use, the words and the rules eventually stick with you over time.

Let’s unpick what really happens beneath the surface.

Contrary to Orlin’s recommendation, Thomas makes exceptionally heavy use of mnemonics.  It is these mnemonic devices that allow someone to respond to his questions before the words and rules have become fully embedded in long-term memory.

I found this strange in Orlin’s text: “I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase.”  This to me sounds an awful lot like the same method he used for recalling his ninth-grade English speech, what he previously referred to as ‘raw rehearsal.’  The only apparent distinction I can ascertain is that in one instance his overt objective was memorisation, and he didn’t enjoy the process, while in the other it wasn’t, and he did.  Although Orlin doesn’t make it clear, I would suspect that the real distinction here is that he practised this over a long period of time, rather than a single 90 minute chunk; in other words he distributed his practice.  Distributed practice is exactly how Thomas structures his curriculum, which is part of what enables this seemingly effortless memorisation to take place.

There is one essential component missing from Orlin’s understanding of what happened when he wrote his English paper; it was not repeated use that built the storage strength of his memory of this poem, it was repeated recall.


Repeated recall builds storage strength

Put simply, the testing effect, also known as the retrieval effect, tells us that each time we recall a memory its storage strength grows.  It is storage strength that enables us to hold on to recall over time.  The stronger the storage strength of a memory, the more slowly our recall ability for that memory degrades.  It was by building the storage strength for Frost’s poem that Orlin was able to recall it months later.  This is an extremely, extremely important distinction.  If simple ‘use’ were all that was required to build strong memories, then there’d be no harm in the ‘cheat sheet’ Orlin kicks off his post by suggesting pupils should be allowed.  What Orlin has missed, is that he likely spent a great deal of time thinking about that poem while not reading it, in other words, recalling lines from the poem that he read recently, in order to think through their meaning.  It will have been this act of recall that led to his memory being strengthened.

According to Orlin’s understanding of ‘repeated use,’ then, a pupil who repeatedly put Sin π/2 into her calculator and used the result that it equals 1, would eventually be able to recall that fact by heart.  The pupil who repeatedly referred to a sheet to use the quadratic formula would eventually be able to recall that formula by heart.  This is wrong.


Fine at first, but won’t promote long-term memory if always used

There is very little guarantee that they would, in fact they likely won’t.  They won’t, because they are never being asked to recall those facts.  It is recall that builds storage strength, not use.

Deliberate practice, distributed practice, interleaved practice; these are all clever ways of ensuring the need to repeatedly recall keys facts over time.  There are other methods as well, and drills are one of them.  Whether any of these are interpreted as intellectually engaging by pupils will ultimately be down to the delivery, the very nature of the problem a person is being asked to solve and under what conditions, rather than the technique itself.


Building on already known facts

Here’s the example given by Orlin to suggest why this is a better route to memorisation than a mnemonic device:

“Suppose we’re learning that Maryland fought with the Union during the Civil War. We could invent a mnemonic, like “Maryland starts with ‘marry,’ and a marriage is a union”–cheesy, but fine. Or we could build on other facts. For example, Maryland borders D.C., so if it had seceded, the American capital would have been surrounded by foreign territory. For exactly that reason, Lincoln worked hard to keep Maryland on the side of the North.”

Looks good.  Except, it’s not accurate.  First, any teacher should always be linking new ideas to things pupils already know; any well designed curriculum should necessarily do this too.  Could it be that some teachers aren’t doing this, because they don’t need to do so in order to help pupils pass exams?  Absolutely, and probably.  I’ve certainly done it before with Year 11 groups.  Is it lamentable?  Absolutely.  Do we need to do better?  Certainly.  Are mnemonics like this the problem?  No.  The problem here is huge – it is systemic.  It relates to how our assessments are designed, how our curricula are structured (or not) and how schools are structured individually to provide a continuous learning experience from beginning to end (or not).  It is not the fault of mnemonics that this is happening, and eliminating them will not resolve the issue, it will only lead to even less knowledge and understanding than we have at the moment!

Next, the suggested process does nothing to ensure long-term recall.  It can be an aid to recall, but it is no guarantee.  Most importantly though, and herein lies the danger, that conceptual understanding is much more complex than that simple little mnemonic.  The mnemonic is actually much easier to recall due to its simplicity, and so here Orlin misses yet another trick: use the mnemonic to recall the fact, which can then serve as a cue to recall the conceptual understanding!

 Construction worker laying bricks wall of building

Building on already known facts is any how new concept should be introduced, but it does nothing to ensure long-term recall

Orlin sets up yet another ‘either/or’ dichotomy here: either you can use the mnemonic, or you can teach properly and pupils will remember that way.  He completely fails to spot, first, that the mnemonic may be easier to recall, and second that this can be used as a way in to remember the very understanding he hopes to promote.  Later, perhaps that disposable crutch will be discarded, leaving only the deeper understanding we all wish to promote.  To start with though, once again, casting aside a useful tool like mnemonics may just lead a seemingly cogent teacher explanation, followed by bafflement as to why no-one remembers anything, as they confuse the many parts of the explanation.

“Maryland starts with ‘marry’, and a marriage is a union, so Maryland must have been a part of the union.  Why was that again?  Oh yes, because…”


Therefore Lincoln worked to keep Maryland as part of the Union, for fear of being surrounded by enemy territory

It seems that what Orlin is concerned about here is pupils learning only that Maryland was a part of the union, and nothing more.  I have no idea what US standardised tests look like, but if they are never assessing any deeper understanding than that, it is the assessment that is to blame, not the techniques and strategies of memorisation that can serve us so well.

Do mnemonics preclude meaningful understanding?  No.  Not teaching any of the connections between known facts precludes meaningful understanding.  Also, failing to be able to recall any of those facts will likely preclude meaningful understanding.  Being able to recall important factual knowledge will never preclude meaningful understanding.


Orlin’s fears are ignited by a very real concern: that pupils leave 13 years of education with no real understanding of the subjects they studied.

This concern is nothing new, nor is his assertion that memorisation techniques are to blame.  Rather, this is the same old debate that’s been had for a century now.  What is new is our understanding of how memory works, and it is this that puts paid to the notion that ‘memorisation’ is at fault.

Like seemingly most people entering this debate with little or no theoretical underpinning, Orlin has looked only at what’s happening on the surface, determined that the classroom processes of memorisation are to blame, and then established a false dichotomy between ‘recall’ and ‘understanding.’

There is no hint in his article that Orlin has read about the interplay between working memory and long-term memory, or the importance of automaticity and fluency in freeing working memory to process more and more information, thus increasing intelligence.  For this reason, he falsely assumes that fundamental factual knowledge (e.g. that Sin π/2 = 1) is not needed.  It is.

At the very least, it doesn’t hurt, and can only support deeper understanding.  That deeper understanding also needs to be promoted, however.  In nearly every subject, our assessments and our teaching need to draw links between all of the knowledge we wish our pupils to amass.  This will not be possible if our pupils are unable to recall any of that knowledge, or if their working memories are overloaded as they try to re-derive every piece of knowledge from first principles.

Building memory takes time, and hard work, but that’s what we’re here for.  If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.

Memorisation never gets in the way of learning.  Memorisation is learning.

It starts by knowing that Sin π/2 = 1, or that ‘acheter’ means ‘to buy’, or that Maryland was a part of the Union.  It progresses by knowing how Sin varies, where it originates from, and how it relates to Cosine, or by knowing that most (all?) French words ending in –er are verbs, and knowing what the other verb endings are, and how to conjugate them, or by knowing why Lincoln worked so hard to keep Maryland as a part of the Union, and how he succeeded in doing that, and how that served as a small piece in an enormous puzzle that helps explain why the Union won the US civil war.

Does memorisation get in the way of learning?  Memorisation is learning.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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6 Responses to Does memorisation get in the way of learning? – Part 4

  1. Sarah Roberts says:

    Kris, does this mean that the things that I knew but have forgotten were never truly learned? Or can we split things into e.g. short term learning, medium term learning, long term learning? And ultimately to get kids through their GCSEs should we aim for the medium term learning because we can’t expect them/they don’t need to be able to recall all their GCSE stuff 10years later? Then if they go to study some of their subjects further they will hopefully start to recall the basic stuff more often so it becomes long term learning. I agree with nearly everything you’re saying but I’m fundamentally unsure about Kirchner et al’s premise that learning is a change in long term memory…

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Not quite. Our ability to recall something is a function of ‘retrieval strength’. Would could have ‘learnt’ something, in the sense of developing its storage strength, however, retrieval strength will still inexorably dwindle with time. It’s the things that are almost impossible to recall, regardless of the cues you’re given, or even more so, the things you nearly remember ever hearing before (once told to you again) that you never really learnt. Those are the items that have little or no associated storage strength.

      I haven’t really blogged about this two-dimensional view of memory yet (storage and retrieval strength). I probably should do sometime soon…

      For schooling in general, we should be seeking to build storage strength. For exams, it is imperative that retrieval strength is high at that moment, to ensure success.

      If retrieval strength is high, but storage isn’t, that’s what cramming looks like – you probably never really understood anything, and you’ll forget it all pretty quickly. If, over the previous X number of years, great efforts were made to slowly build storage strength as well, then not only will maintaining high retrieval strength for exams be much easier, but the knowledge will be better retained immediately post exams, and certainly going into A levels.

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  3. Hey boss, super series and very welcome addition to the discussion. Things I would like to hear more about in future posts:

    1. The importance (or not) of the connections between bits of knowledge, and how this fits with your ‘pedagogy of memory’. Ie: how does Skemp fit into the picture?
    2. The role of the unconscious – that which has been learned and has an influence on thought/action, but is no longer available for immediate or explicit recall. Eg: I can now do X with fluency, but would struggle to articulate how I do it. [X = drive car / estimate etc.]
    3. The place of motivation and emotion in this framework. Ie: if a person did some deliberate practice when they were more motivated or were emotionally engaged, how would this influence the outcome (if at all)?

    Looking forward to some good Stories in 2014 🙂

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks Peps.

      I think the questions you’ve raised are probably worthy of full posts in response, as you suggest. In brief:

      1 – Super important. Still working on this; crazy complex.
      2 – I’m not sure I have much to contribute here in a meaningful way. I’ve my own armchair suppositions and hypotheses, but haven’t read anything about it, and at the moment could only speculate wildly.
      3 – Probably very important, and probably does change the outcome. Also very complicated though, and not something I think I know or have thought about enough to comment on necessarily… maybe I will. I’m always interested in the role that ‘problems’ can play in the learning process, but there’s something ethereal about them that seems to frustrate simple analysis, leading to all kinds of problems once people start trying to discuss them.

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