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Sidneyeve Matrix




Why memorize when you can Googleize?

posted: September 21, 2010 by

In the age of Google, do we still have to memorize things? Seems like a strange question, but many educators are experiencing significant pushback from students who resist memorizing information that can be found online in an instant. What’s the point? ask students, who complain about what they see as “an incredible waste of time,” when facing rote memorization or similar seemingly repetitious assignments.

A few years back, Don Tapscott (author of Wikinomics, Growing Up Digital, Grown Up Digital) made headlines with his pronouncement that for the “net generation…memorizing facts and figures is a waste of time.” Most faculty in med school, law school, engineering, history, music, and well, just about every department and program across every higher ed campus would likely disagree with Tapscott’s blanket statement. But his observations are (as always) insightful and provocative, and surely most educators would agree that ideally, creative, applied, problem-based pedagogies are preferable to rote memorization. And as Tapscott points out, today professors and students alike are letting the internet do some of the cognitive heavy lifting when it comes to fact-checking. But memorization still has a time and place in school and out, in the age of Google and even for those with the smartest of smartphones.

Speed-dial Memory

For example, last week The New York Times profiled a typical case that illustrates the importance of memorization for those (perhaps infrequent) times when even the most highly wired among us are unexpectedly unplugged, gadgetless and disconnected from the information superhighway and off the grid of our friend networks. When “Travis Erickson, 21, discovered that his cellphone had been either stolen or lost in the sand he also discovered that he was stranded.” Why? Because he didn’t know his girlfriend’s cell phone number. “I never had to know it,” Mr. Erickson told The New York Times, “because it was always in my pocket on my phone.” The journalist suggests that as “cellphone address books and other technological advances do our remembering for us” there may be a negative “impact on our ability to memorize” information. Not knowing his girlfriend’s phone number certainly had a negative effect for Mr. Erickson. She broke up with him.

The Times offered Travis Erikson’s story as one thread in the fabric of our information culture, where high-speed connectivity spreads far and wide, and more consumers opting for feature-rich, web-ready smartphones and dataplans. Today, access to basic information, fast facts, phone numbers, simple calculations, and real-time updates, are all readily on screen, at hand. Why memorize, when you can speed-dial or Google-it? Why memorize, when there’s Wikipedia and YouTube, crowdsourced sites rich with up-to-date information and history? Why remember when a quick status update nets your information courtesy of trusted sources on Facebook or Twitter?

External Memory

Clearly this perspective is more likely to be heard from the connected class, millennials, digital natives, urbanites, and lifehackers among us. Armed with multifunctional handheld consumer electronics in pockets and purses, we’re outsourcing our digits and data to Google, Facebook, Apple, and RIM. The result is increased productivity and pace in a culture characterized by instantaneity and information overload–but the flipside is decreased cognitive workouts.

Between mobile technologies, cloud computing, and Google-cached culture, it seems we are forgetting how to remember, and opting out of everyday memory work—with many none too worried about it. But back on campus, many are concerned with the cost of digitizing memory and resistance to rote memorization activities in the classroom.

Memorization and Analytic Thinking

When students ask, What’s the point? We might wonder, is there a negative impact on intelligence when we trust Google and Android have our back? In response, scientists are quick to weigh in on the importance of working memory workouts to keep the brain healthy.

And educators point out that memorizing basic building blocks of data is the foundation for constructing advanced knowledge and sharp analytic ability. “Having a foundation of knowledge is necessary for more complex thinking,” observes educator Chris Fritz. “If a student does not know and cannot discuss very basic concepts,” writes one insightful educator on Yahoo! Answers, “then that student will never be able to get to higher level critical thinking.”

Digital Tools and Memory Work

To combine the best of both worlds then, mixing digital and traditional learning styles, technoprofs and digital natives could consider using flashcard apps on their iPhones/iPads, their Androids/BlackBerrys, or any laptop a digital tool to help students memorize facts and figures while on-the-go.

As well, infographics may make memorizing information easier for students who respond well to visual learning methods. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then infographics are an ideal, data-dense, mobile-friendly learning tool.

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8 Responses to “Why memorize when you can Googleize?”

  1. Jason Green, Pulaski Technical College Says:

    Larry Sanger wrote an extensive piece on this in the March/April Educause Review “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age”:

    The article that really made me start to rethink this issue was “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test” (Hirsch and Pondiscio):

    As in anything there must be a happy medium somewhere. Of course ,what makes it so complicated is that that happy medium is context dependent. Things that I expect my plumber to know off the top of her head, I don’t expect my doctor to know, and vice versa.

  2. Dr. Delaney Kirk, University of South Florida Says:

    I get this question sometimes from my business students. For example, they don’t understand why they need to learn the laws and theories of management when they can just look these up when needed.

    I tell them yes, you can do that. Let’s say you graduate and get that first job in management.

    Employee: Can I take leave under FMLA to take care of my sick sister-in-law?

    You as the new Manager: Let me look that up.

    Employee: There is a holiday this week but I still worked 40 hours. Do I get overtime pay?

    You as the new Manager: Let me look that up.

    How long before the new manager has absolutely no credibility with his or her employees?

    When I explain this to the students, they are more willing to learn the knowledge, skills, etc. they will need to be successful.

  3. Derek Bruff Says:

    The student perspective you mention (“What’s the point in memorizing?”) runs counter to another student perspective I frequently hear. I often hear concern from faculty that students aren’t engaging seriously with course material, that instead they’re just trying to memorize whatever they can so they have something to regurgitate on tests. I think this is a learning strategy that many students (at least those at selective schools) employed very successfully in high school. Faculty who want more from their students–conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, critical thinking–find it frustrating when students shy away from higher-order thinking and fall back on their memorize-regurgitate-purge approach to learning.

    Might students see memorization as both pointless and–lacking other useful approaches to learning–their only option for surviving college? If so, no wonder some students see their courses as frustrating.

    I’d also like to point out that if you have a good conceptual understanding / mental map of a domain, then it’s much easier to remember facts relevant to that domain. Flash cards might help you memorize isolated facts (like your girlfriend’s phone number), but a good conceptual foundation can be important for any kind of lasting memorization. Without that conceptual foundation, most of what you memorize ends up disappearing from your memory at the end of the semester…

  4. Sidneyeve Matrix Says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective Derek! Of course I would not suggest that flash cards are “the” answer, but in combination with other learning tools they work wonders for students facing multiple choice exams and the like. In my course we use them not for isolated facts but to help grasp vocabulary and theoretical concepts with precision. They can also be used to distribute a deck of images or slides that function as either mnemonic devices or test analytic skill.

  5. Sidneyeve Matrix Says:

    Hello Delaney, thanks for weighing in here.
    *Credibility,* such a key point! I love the way you present this so clearly with the mock dialogue.
    You’re so right about the link between having a firm grasp of key concepts in your field, and being perceived as authoritative and trustworthy.
    This link between memorization and leadership is one I hadn’t thought of. Many thanks for the contribution!

  6. Sidneyeve Matrix Says:

    Well put Larry! Context and content are linked, so very true. We do expect higher and lower degrees of memorization and precision from different conversations and relationships as we pass through cultural spaces and communities. Thanks for this insight Larry. Thanks too for those great resources, very helpful and much appreciated!

  7. Phil, Says:

    This article highlights two important points, the need for us to maintain a strong working memory and not to outsource all of our thoughts to the cloud, and the importance of technical knowledge for one’s job (e.g. doctors shouldn’t whip out their phones to google duing surgery).

    However, I still think many students have a valid claim when being asked to memorize as they are often asked to retain large amounts of knowledge that benefit neither of the two above points. Yes, certain information is beneficial for “cultural literacy” but a meaningless rote assignment should not be justified to students by any means. If they must do it then so be it, but I would rather just say that then tell them a story about how calculating the determinant of a quadratic equation will benefit each and everyone of them someday (not that doing that isn’t beneficial to some students).

  8. Sidneyeve Matrix Says:

    Thanks Phil, and by the way I could not agree more. It’s important for instructors to align all the assignments and assessments to clearly stated instructional goals. To keep engagement high, we have to ensure that students never feel they’re tasked with doing pointless “make work.” Thanks for checking in here, hope you return and do so again.

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