Understanding or Memorising?


Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).



8 thoughts on “Understanding or Memorising?

  1. Actually, the chess example seems to prove the opposite of your thesis. The fact that chess players intuitively recognize when chess pieces are positioned randomly vs real game scenario, shows that they are not “memorizing” the board. They are connecting the positions of the pieces to a conceptual understanding of how the pieces got there. The emphasis on understanding in contemporary education is not because “facts prevent understanding,” but because the brain holds on to facts better and can make better use of them when they are seen as an interconnected web, rather than discreet random facts.


    • The point is that memorisation and understanding are intertwined, both in the chess example and generally. They are both essential. Who’s asking anyone to memorise ‘random facts’? Your use of that odd phrase suggests you consider memorisation to somehow be the opposite of understanding. That’s precisely the bizarre position that this blog post aims to refute.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You obviously have never sat in at a ballet class either. What we see on stage, is the result of repetitive exercises at the barre, hours every day. Kids are first taught the steps, and intuitively “understand” what they are to do based on thousands of hours of practice. As they get older, ballet dancers still revert back to the basic exercises at the barre on a regular basis, to ensure their understanding behind their steps, along with their mastery, is never lost.

      I get weary of those consistently trying to dissect meaning between these two aspects of learning. What’s more important…memory doesn’t equal understanding blah blah blah…it’s tiresome. How did the world get to this place if meaningful instruction did not include understanding along the way?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: In Praise of Off By Heart – A Chemical Orthodoxy

  3. Having explored the work of Kember (1996), I have come to the conclusion that it is the testing program which schools in England are subjected to which force a memorisation approach to learning. Knowledge based tests don’t promote understanding and reasoning in the classroom as these qualities are not required of the children in passing their tests.

    Kember, D. (1996) ‘The intention to both memorise and understand: Another approach to learning?’ Higher Education 31, pp. 341- 354.


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