Memorization: Redwood’s measurement of academic achievement

Anna Royal

Oftentimes, my classes consist of long, tedious lectures. My eyes constantly dart from the board to my paper as I scribble down notes as fast as my hands will allow. In these lectures, teachers throw a stream of terms, equations or events at students in a fast-paced manner without stopping to encourage critical thinking among their students. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual experience at Redwood. According to a February 2022 Bark survey, 74 percent of students agree that teaching and testing at Redwood are mostly based on memorization versus an actual understanding of the subject. 

With these faulty measurements of knowledge, schools and teachers lose sight of the purpose of lessons: for students to think critically about subjects beyond face value memorization. Educators must put an end to testing how well students can memorize information and instead focus on helping students build connections and an understanding of the subject.

Fortunately, more and more teachers across the U.S. have come to realize, especially during COVID-19 lockdowns, how unnecessary it is for students to memorize concepts that are readily available on the internet. In an Atlantic article, Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher from Oakland, Calif., wrote about his experience with implementing memorization in his classroom. After asking his class what the “sine of π/2” was, his students responded with the correct answer in unison. 

“They didn’t really know what ‘sine’ even meant. They’d simply memorized that fact. To them, math wasn’t a process of logical discovery and thoughtful exploration. It was a call-and-response game,” Orlin wrote. “…Some things are worth memorizing–addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays. The sine of π/2 is not among them.”

As Orlin implies, teachers often fail to address the importance of the information in their curriculum and its connection to a broader picture. 

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) has explored the issue of memorization in schools as well. Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, believes the emphasis placed on memorization has “obstructed learning.” According to SCOPE, Darling-Hammond argues that “students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school. But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education.” To resolve the issue of memorization in schools, Darling-Hammond believes in “deeper learning”.

“Deeper learning” utilizes strategies and resources, such as projects and internships, to effectively teach students core subjects through critical thinking. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) studied 22 high schools in California and New York that implemented “deeper learning” as their curriculum. AIR found that “Students – regardless of their prior levels of academic achievement – attained higher scores than their peers on standardized tests in such subjects as English Language Arts, reading, mathematics and science and were more likely to graduate from high school on time.” Many of these “deep learning” style schools assign group research projects on relevant topics where students can showcase their ideas in creative ways such as through student-made documentaries. Rather than traditional methods of teaching, it would be beneficial for Redwood to partake in “deeper learning” projects to ensure students obtain a richer understanding of the subject.

Memorized presentations and speeches are ineffective methods of teaching and evaluating. Although most teachers expect students to be able to speak somewhat freely without following a memorized word-for-word script, the idea that all kids can deliver presentations without a memory “crutch,” such as a script or a notecard, is unrealistic. According to the Mayo Clinic, public speaking is a commonly held fear. This anxiety causes many students to resort to memorization when they are not given a notecard in order to prevent freezing or forgetting during speaking. Ergo, students memorize and regurgitate scripts and information without much critical thinking to ensure a satisfactory grade. These memorized public speaking exercises detract from the overall learning experience since students often focus on memorizing their lines to A-grade perfection rather than spending that time researching and learning about the topic more in-depth. 

Public speaking must be taught regardless since it is an inevitable part of life. However, speeches and presentations with notes, as well as discussions and Socratic seminars lean away from the idea of memorization while also teaching students to be comfortable speaking in front of others. 

However, some argue memorization in school is important for students to build their hippocampus and prevent brain disorders like dementia. While memorization may contribute slightly to a stronger hippocampus, there is no credible, widespread evidence to prove these claims. Research suggests that regular exercise, maintaining good mental and physical health and keeping our brains active through activities such as reading or learning new hobbies are the only ways to better our brain’s strength and lower the risk of dementia, according to Stanford Health Care.

To remedy our flawed educational system, Redwood must acknowledge the prevalent issue of classes employing memorization as an alternative to teaching. Then, we must abandon our traditional methods of “teaching” and testing and encourage critical thinking and genuine comprehension in our classrooms.