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Understanding vs Memorization and forgetting


Gil
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I don't know where it came from other than, perhaps, people's own experiences.  For myself, and I'm thinking of math mostly here, if I understand something and have fully internalized that understanding, I am more likely to be able to reconstruct it when I encounter it again even if I haven't thought about it in the interim.  When something is merely memorized without being integrated into a conceptual framework, it doesn't have that staying power unless I continue to review it for a really long time.

Of course, there are a lot of things to be learned that aren't really conceptual at all.  Exactly when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, for example, or that King Phillip Cried Out For Green Sprouts.  In fact, I would argue that the bulk of what a lot of folks remember from their school days is *not* conceptual because many people either can't or prefer not to deal with abstraction.

It is a good question though.  I'll have to poke around to see if I can find any studies that have addressed this phenomenon.  I would guess the answer might be no because it would require a period of training followed by no review for a significant amount of time (years) and most researchers don't like to wait that long.

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Every time I bring this up with my PhD in education friend, she points out to me that it's NORMAL for kids to need repetition anyway. Even when you're teaching with understanding, with visualization, it's still normal to need repetition. I think you have to put comments on the board in context, because we have such a wide range of abilities and experiences. Like if somebody says they taught to say math to understanding and then the kid needed no drill, well put that in context. I taught my dd to understanding, and she needed drill anyway and STILL didn't learn. She had visual memory problems that we later got VT for, which helped. My ds has a higher IQ, and when I teach to understanding with him and he visualizes it, he needs exceptionally little drill. So you have so many more factors there. It wasn't just how you taught it but how the child received it, what their brains were ready to do with it, where it got filed, etc.

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3 hours ago, EKS said:

I don't know where it came from other than, perhaps, people's own experiences.  For myself, and I'm thinking of math mostly here, if I understand something and have fully internalized that understanding, I am more likely to be able to reconstruct it when I encounter it again even if I haven't thought about it in the interim.  When something is merely memorized without being integrated into a conceptual framework, it doesn't have that staying power unless I continue to review it for a really long time.

Of course, there are a lot of things to be learned that aren't really conceptual at all.  Exactly when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, for example, or that King Phillip Cried Out For Green Sprouts.  In fact, I would argue that the bulk of what a lot of folks remember from their school days is *not* conceptual because many people either can't or prefer not to deal with abstraction.

It is a good question though.  I'll have to poke around to see if I can find any studies that have addressed this phenomenon.  I would guess the answer might be no because it would require a period of training followed by no review for a significant amount of time (years) and most researchers don't like to wait that long.

 

There is an interesting study, though it doesn't quite fit the bill:  Study had middle-aged persons take a high school level algebra test.  All study participants had received As in their high school algebra classes taken years ago.  None were in STEM fields of occupation.  The students who had gone on to take more math classes in high school/college far outscored those who had not, despite everyone having originally earned an A.  The reasoning is that those who carried on to higher maths were forced to more deeply integrate their understanding of algebra into their minds, than those who did not.  Again, it's not *quite* the study we need to answer OP's question, but it helps.  

To OP, I would say common sense is what tells us that understanding creates deeper and stronger mental pathways than memorization.  

I know multiple people who know their multiplication table down cold (I do not, despite holding a STEM degree), but who cannot calculate 10% or 20% of a bill.  They all were part of elementary classes that held fact drill competitions and they all enjoyed winning those competitions.  Math?  Forget it, they would all describe themselves as hating math.

Some things must be memorized, without much hope for making rhyme or reason of them.  Which months have 31 days comes to mind.  Yet, things that appear to be pure memoization, for those who truly understand, aren't.  Take spelling bees.  There's a reason kids ask for the word origin.  They understand spelling in a way most of us never will.   

But let's complicate matters.  Chess, the ultimate strategy game, research shows is actually a game of who has the biggest memory.  Master chess players can have over 60,000 board layouts memorized, and this catalogue is mentally consulted throughout play so that masters can anticipate moves 10 or more ahead of the game play.  

A good resource for this topic is "Why don't students like school?" by Willingham.  Don't let the title dissuade you, it is not a fluffy book but actually a very well-written examination of education from a cognitive scientist's perspective.   

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3 hours ago, Monica_in_Switzerland said:

But let's complicate matters.  Chess, the ultimate strategy game, research shows is actually a game of who has the biggest memory.  Master chess players can have over 60,000 board layouts memorized, and this catalogue is mentally consulted throughout play so that masters can anticipate moves 10 or more ahead of the game play.   

 

I've always known about the role of memory in chess, but wow...that's a LOT of layouts!

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21 hours ago, Gil said:

Where does idea "that if you "understand"  rather than just "memorize" something, you won't forget it" come from? Was there some report or something published in the Education or Psychology sphere that gave rise to this notion?

I think common sense and experience show it is true.  Memorize a list of factoids and you may or may not remember them long-term. (Cram for an exam and maintain recall long-enough for the test does not ensure long-term recall. ? Students who need that base for the next sequential class start to struggle vs. those who mastered and understood the material.)

Basic theory of critical thinking affirms the perspective. The more complex stages of learning all incorporate the lower levels.  The lowest level of learning is simple knowledge. Understanding incorporates knowledge. Evaluating, synthesizing, creating all incorporate knowledge, understanding, etc. As students move through the complexity of stages, their mastery of learning increases. For example, knowledge is not enough to teach concepts to others. Knowledge base is limited to simple factual recall where the student can answer questions but lacks the ability to analyze and capably communicate others their understanding by answering questions/creating new examples and teach with alternative wording, etc. If a student can teach others and analyze the concepts while teaching what they have been taught, they are far more likely to retain that information long-term compared to the student who crammed facts. Factual recall does not necessitate any real understanding.

Pulling from the chess example above, memorizing board layouts without understanding the interactions of moves would not be much help in winning a game.

 

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In a similar vein, this list is all over the place, though I've seen other wordings - FB posts, classroom posters, etc.

People remember:

  • 10 percent of what they READ
  • 20 percent of what they HEAR
  • 30 percent of what they SEE
  • 50 percent of what they SEE and HEAR
  • 70 percent of what they SAY and WRITE
  • 90 percent of what they DO.
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12 hours ago, Petrichor said:

In a similar vein, this list is all over the place, though I've seen other wordings - FB posts, classroom posters, etc.

People remember:

  • 10 percent of what they READ
  • 20 percent of what they HEAR
  • 30 percent of what they SEE
  • 50 percent of what they SEE and HEAR
  • 70 percent of what they SAY and WRITE
  • 90 percent of what they DO.

I would argue that reading, seeing, and hearing doesn't necessarily result in either memorization or understanding.  And that saying and writing, depending on how it's done, can aid either understanding or memorization.  Doing doesn't really relate to this discussion because it is not abstract unless you're applying abstract principles, but in that case the doing is merely a result of another process.

Edited by EKS
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Also, the way neurons code memories is not binary. Neuronal firing in hippocampal cells sum (called mini excitatory potentials and you can gave mini inhibitory potentials...typically called endplate potentials). You get stronger connections when you continually sum these potentials into neuronal firing. The more firing, the stronger the connection. Makes sense, and in this situation, the more drills you do the better. However, our brain works in concert with other parts so the more parts brought in and firing/coding for a type or learning, the more permanent and flexible that recall will be. This allows you to "pull" from different encoded schemas to recreate understanding if necessary. It is why people a who like and understand analogies are often more intelligent. They can synthesize information and make connections across content to deepen that coding for that particular concept. The more you use something flexibly, the more firing for different scenarios take place and that concept gets woven and connected across multiple memories. 

 

Edited by nixpix5
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I think that with some things, understanding what you're doing relieves you from having to memorize anything.  I'll give 2 examples.  When I was taking algebra, we were taught the FOIL method for multiplying polynomials.  We dutifully memorized and applied it.  My older's math curriculum focused on understanding the distributive property, and the elementary curriculum that we used had spent a lot of time on the idea of breaking numbers down in different ways to simplify mental math.  At no point did we memorize FOIL, because it was immediately obvious to kiddo that we needed to multiply everything times everything else.  The same is true of many simple equations, such as in physics where you learn distance = rate x time.  If you understand math and can manipulate the equation, you only need to learn one.  If you don't understand how to do that, you have to memorize 3 - one for d, one for r, and one for t - so that you can solve for whichever is needed in the problem.  

Another example is from the class that I teach.  Early in the semester we learn the 4 types of macromolecules, which include carbohydrates and lipids.  We then learn various characteristics of these molecules, including whether they are hydrophobic (don't mix with water) or hydrophilic (water-loving, often dissolve in water).  Students complain about having to memorize so much information, but I remind them that if they understand and think, they already know that carbs such as sugar dissolve in water, and lipids, like oil, do not.  They can understand what they're doing, or they can memorize a big table.  

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7 hours ago, Petrichor said:

In a similar vein, this list is all over the place, though I've seen other wordings - FB posts, classroom posters, etc.

People remember:

  • 10 percent of what they READ
  • 20 percent of what they HEAR
  • 30 percent of what they SEE
  • 50 percent of what they SEE and HEAR
  • 70 percent of what they SAY and WRITE
  • 90 percent of what they DO.

This list seems way, way off to me.  I remember things I have read more than seen, and far, far more than things I have heard.  For example, if I either listened to a podcast or read the exact same words in article form, and then was telling someone about it a day later, I could give a few general ideas mentioned in the podcast, but I could actually quote with near accuracy interesting points and explain the reasoning from the article.  Is this really that unusual?

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Corresponds to my own experience. Seen this in my own life and in hundreds of students. 

For example, you can forget the quadratic formula easily if you only memorized it, but if you understood where it cones from, you can quickly re- derive it, so always have it available. 

Students who try to memorize in my physics class are soon overwhelmed by the material,  whereas students who understand realize that they really only need to know a few basic principles from which everything else follows.

 

 

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I completely agree that memorization can only carry you so far if there is no understanding. Understanding is the solid base on which knowledge is built. But surely memorization, with understanding, will take you farther than understanding alone, don't you think? I mean, if you understand multiplication, and you don't know all of your facts, yes, you can figure it out when you need it, but it's going to slow you down during math problems rather than if you have rapid recall, right? Memorization frees working memory, which is helpful when tackling hard problems. Of course, the time required to memorize certain things might not be worth it, but that is a separate issue.

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I think that sometimes when people talk about memorizing, they just mean stuffing it into their brains long enough to pass a test, which doesn't do a lot of good.  If you have understading, you've moved beyond that and really KNOW it.  For it to actually be useful, you usually need to both know and understand, to the point where it is automatic.  I can't find who said it, but this quote comes to mind:  Mankind's progress is measured by the number of things he can do withhout thinking.  

 
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It really depends and I think you need both. I can still recite the quadratic formula but would have to think a bit to derive it. I was amazed how most of my math knowledge was still there to be accessed when I started homeschooling. I understand things that I read all the time, but without the drill to memorize it, I can't retell it to someone else. This might be a function of age.

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As per cognitive  science, all learning  are modified brain cells. What we generally call understanding is considered as deep and wide neural network resulting in deep (long tern) memory. What we call as rote learning results on a shallow network.

Note that as per working memory model, both types of memory as useful in solving problems and learning. 

deep memory is necessary  for critical problem solving (working memory model).

Shallow memory is also useful for developing  automaticity and reducing cognitive load which as per researchers helps new learning(cognitive load theory). Think of it as knowing the times tables by heart frees the learners limited working memory resources to help  create new knowledge of factorization or simplifying fractions.

References: Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology)

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_memory

 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load

https://t.co/FfIVMcoNd0?amp=1

https://t.co/FuX5iwxEe0?amp=1

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On 9/15/2018 at 11:32 PM, Monica_in_Switzerland said:

But let's complicate matters.  Chess, the ultimate strategy game, research shows is actually a game of who has the biggest memory.  Master chess players can have over 60,000 board layouts memorized, and this catalogue is mentally consulted throughout play so that masters can anticipate moves 10 or more ahead of the game play.  

A common misconception. Chess masters do not memorize chess positions  in the sense of memorize phone numbers.  the do have a deep memory of strategic concepts which  is very unlike say a computer would store a layout. When they play the know automatically  which general strategic  or shape of board to recall and evaluate.

Check out this book on Goodreads: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19252045-the-cambridge-handbook-of-expertise-and-expert-performance

Also interesting to note that their ability to memorize phone numbers or other things like grocery list is average like everybody else .

http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~tymerski/ece101/Expert_mind_scientificamerican0806-64.pdf

 

Edited by damaru
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