How memorization fits into a curriculum

I recently took a closed-book exam in a graduate-level engineering course.  The expectation was that through this exam, I would be able to demonstrated my ability to apply various complicated engineering tools to a variety of problems, but before I could apply the tools, I had to memorize them.  So, in a tradition that has been carrier on for years by students around the world, I crammed information into my head that would inevitably be lost in a few weeks.

As I am hoping to pursue a career in academia, this “wasted” effort in memorizing troubles me.  It is not that I cannot see value to memorizing, it is just that the format in which it is being applied does not appear to be working.  Instead, I am proposing that we examine why we have students memorize, and then focus on how we can help them to do this better.

It has been my experience that the primary purpose of memorization is fluency.  Imagine trying to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” with a Spanish-English dictionary for each word.  The lack of fluency would make it a difficult experience.  The same is true of basic math, such as the multiplication tables.  Without possessing some degree of fluency, it is difficult to work through very many math problems in a reasonable amount of time.  But these are rather simple examples, and these are areas where it is generally accepted that students should be practicing memorization.  I am proposing that we incorporate memorization in higher level courses, even in engineering course that do not typically emphasize memorization.  The reason for this is that we speak our own language in engineering (not a really surprising statement to you non-engineers), and it is important for us to be fluent in this language to be able to expand our learning beyond what we have been given in a classroom.  This is analogous to a student who has moved from learning to read to reading to learn.  Once students become more fluent in the material, they can go off on their own and read it to learn more.

Using exams alone to promote memorization doesn’t seem to be working.  Rather, regular practice with the material to be memorized is key.  For instance, imagine telling students at the end of class specifically what they will be responsible for memorizing for the next class.  Then at the beginning of the next class, the students have 3 minutes to write down and turn in what they had to memorize.  The specific topics can evolve over the semester, but it is important that there be a lot of repetition throughout the course.  Now the students can gain fluency through quizzes so that on the exam, they can focus on the problem solving.

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