Is Memorization Underrated?

Do people in the United States underrate the value of memorization?

Although rote learning has negative connotations, former high school English teacher Justin Snider writes that there are several worthwhile reasons for learning something by heart. (The distinction between rote learning and learning by heart is that the latter requires a level of engagement and passion for the subject matter.)

  • It’s a challenge and good exercise for the brain.

  • Practice uncovers nuances and new understandings of the material. Reciting from memory “is helpful in making the procedures second nature, which allows you to focus on the structural elements of the problem,” E. D. Hirsch Jr. says.
  • Practice builds mastery. Testing yourself leads to better learning than studying does, says cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

Even if you agree that people in the United States underrate the value of memorization, greater questions of practice remain.

How do teachers convey the higher purpose of learning by heart? Should students be allowed greater freedom in choosing what they memorize? Can we decouple memorization and standardized testing?