Why learn when you can memorize?

In reading Alfie Kohn’s piece, “The Case Against Grades”, I feel like a lot of what he is saying makes innate sense. When we know we are being assessed, we always want to be the best and come out on top.  I think it is in most of our nature to be competitive and strive to be the best.  However, as mentioned in his piece as well as the piece by Dan Pink, this most often inhibits any chances of learning or thinking.

A personally relevant example of this is how fourth year veterinary students are assessed. The first three years of veterinary school (here) are primarily didactic in nature.  You spend all day in a classroom learning lots of facts and a few ways to problem solve.  However, in your fourth year, you get the opportunity to use everything you have learned and rotate through the veterinary teaching hospital.  Here, at Virginia Tech, fourth year rotations are graded pass-fail (well, at least they were when I went through 5 years ago).  This was exceptionally relieving to me.  As a lifelong overachiever and fact-memorizer, I was just as Alfie Kohn discusses in his essay.  I was completely fixated on grades and would do whatever it took (ethically of course) to get the grade.  If I needed to pull an all-nighter to memorize a bunch of facts, spit them out the next day and forget them forever, I would.  When I had to write an essay, I would sit the rubric right next to my computer making sure to address each point whether it related to my topic or not.  (In fact, I once got an A on a paper with a note from the professor stating this was almost the worst paper he had ever read as it made absolutely no sense.  However, I had earned an A based on the criteria laid out in the rubric.  If THAT’S not suggestive of a problem in the system, I don’t know WHAT is!)  But, in my eyes, I needed the good grade to get into the good college to get a good job.  I kept this mentality through vet school (although now, looking back-it seems so silly).  When I got to my fourth year clinical rotations, I finally felt like I could take a breath and use what I had learned.  I wasn’t concerned with making the highest grade or knowing the most factoids.  The beauty of it was that I could focus on my patient, learn my case, and integrate facts with real world situations.

I think this generally applies to most disciplines. In real life, there is typically not a “right” or “wrong” answer.  You take what you have learned, integrate it into the problem you have in front of you and create a solution.  In my case, not being graded on an A-F scale in my fourth year allowed me more freedom to feel comfortable learning.  I’m sure many would agree that, I afforded the opportunity, they would find this just as freeing.

6 thoughts on “Why learn when you can memorize?”

  1. I completely agree with you! Not being graded, I think, allows for much more creativity. It allows a student to feel safe, take some critical thinking risks without fear of penalization, and receive peer and/or instructor feedback in a less formal (and often more constructive) setting! I also think this type of setting allows for collaboration, leadership skill development, and autonomy- all of which become extremely important once we enter the “real world.”

  2. I also agree with you. Thinking about having an exam on A-F scale makes me memorizing materials instead of mindful learning!

  3. Nice post and I agree with you! I grew up memorizing facts as well – in my case because, the tests/assessments mostly required me to “vomit” out those facts rather than apply it.
    Had the focus been more on continuous feedback on your activities without any grade/label assigned to it, would you have worked equally (or even more) hard? Would it have helped you to grow further?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am not sure “work harder” is the words I would use. I think if things had been pass/fail, I would have pursued information more deeply. By memorizing the facts for the test, I feel like I still “learned” information . . . I just kept it all at a superficial level. Pass/fail grading or assessment might have allowed me to learn all things superficially but maybe given me the freedom to learn what I was most interested in a lot more deeply.

  4. I have had many of the same experiences! For me, I had to very consciously tell myself I didn’t care about my grades in order for me to be able to focus on the learning and not the A. I wonder what school would have been like with pass/fail grades, or I had adopted this mentality earlier… I wonder how much more I would have learned and enjoyed myself!

  5. I completely agree with you–worrying about the grade is inhibitory for skill transfer. To add to that, I feel it’s even worse when students are concerned with their grade in a lab. Labs are generally added to courses so students can put their new found knowledge/skills to use. When students are more concerned about memorizing a particular technique or following the step-by-step instructions for a grade, I don’t think they can be fully “in the moment.” They may loose sight of why they are following that particular procedure in the first place.

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