As someone who has spent nearly his entire life in the public school system, I think that by now, I’ve become an expert at getting good grades – memorizing only the information I need to know before an assessment and promptly forgetting them after I take said assessment. The question, as always though, is if the ends justify the means. If you carefully read my strategy for succeeding in school, you would have notice that I said memorizing, not learning. There is a difference between the two, and this distinction is one of the problems that I believe plagues our education system in America. Memorizing something results in you knowing something; learning something results in your understanding something, and these two couldn’t be more different.
Memorizing something is committing it to memory, such as flipping through flashcards with vocabulary words on the front and their definitions on the back and hoping that you’ll be able to remember them during your test the next period. On the other hand, learning something is understanding it, such as being able to utilize that very vocabulary word that you studied for the period before in a conversation with a friend.
I’ll admit, the difference between these two that I keep on mentioning might not be totally apparent or may not appear to be a big deal. And yet, this very difference is what allows some to get so much more out of their education than others. The differences between the two are numerous: memorizing believes that there is only one right answer, while understanding sees multiple answers to one question; memorizing something only allows us to solve answers when the components or numbers are the same every time, while understanding something allows to get the right answer even if they have changed; but most importantly, memorizing something makes it difficult to see the value of knowledge outside of the classroom, while understanding something allows one to apply the ideas that one has learned in the real world.
Understanding enables us to make connections between something that we’ve learned in the classroom and actually put it to use once we leave the door. This is what I believe to be the true purpose of education – a purpose that many are not aware of. Granted, memorization in itself isn’t inherently bad; knowing something is much better than knowing nothing. But the thing is, what ultimately differentiates learning from mere memorization is meaning. Learning is so much more useful – linking together various facts that you might know and giving a fact significance, while memorizing a fact tells you that the fact is true and nothing else. Change a detail about the fact, and it won’t mean much, if anything to you.
There is a psychological component to learning vs. memorizing as I’ve learned recently in my psychology class (in fact, I am about to show you how I’ve been able to learn the material and apply it in a situation outside of the classroom rather than just memorize a bunch of facts). Recall, which is a measure of memory in which someone must actually retrieve information learned previously, is so much harder and taxing than recognition, which is a measure of memory in which someone only needs to identify previously learned items (the fact that I remember the definitions demonstrates that I’ve memorized them, now let’s see if I can demonstrate that I’ve been able to actually learn them).
This is why multiple choice tests are generally more difficult than essays, as it’s so much harder to pull out an answer out of your head while making sure that your writing is legible (okay maybe that’s just me) than just recognizing the right answer out of a few choices. And thus, that’s why I’ve taken objection to our education system’s emphasis on standardized testing and the emphasis that it places on memorization rather than learning. Because it’s hard to see the point of your education sometimes when you’re not going to need to know how many stars there were on the American place in 1899 after you finish the end of course test.
Granted, you don’t have to understand everything. It may be implausible, if not impossible to do so. But it’s definitely something to think about when you’re studying for your next test. Because learning things helps us better appreciate our education and get more out of it. Because learning things is what we need to do for to prepare for our future career. Because learning things teaches us.