Learning is a complicated subject particularly when you try to mix school into the equation. Studying verbatim is an area where most students don’t completely appreciate the potential advantages for school.
School has something to do with learning but the best things to do to learn something are not always in line with the best things to do to score high in school. Sometimes they’re almost complete opposites from one another. More often they’re just angled in slightly different directions. Focusing on the wrong aspect will end up with you working less efficiently than you could.
Studying verbatim (word for word) is one of those strategies where learning and schooling are pushing in nearly opposite directions.
The most efficient way to learn something is usually by putting that information in terms that you understand better. The most efficient way to score high for your classes is often by using the same exact words as your source is.
If you’re just looking to learn something and aren’t too concerned with a grade (or one of the other factors discussed later in this article,) then you’re best off avoiding verbatim learning completely. It will just waste time that you could be spending actually learning to understand the information without the actual words. If you’re in class and just looking to pump up your grade a little bit (and aren’t too far behind in class) then you’re usually better off sticking with verbatim studying.
When should you be studying verbatim.
1. Detail Heavy
When you’re studying a detail heavy subject, you need to be willing to learn certain information verbatim.
If you’re studying human anatomy then you can’t get away learning “that bone in the middle of your foot,” or “that muscle that lifts your elbow up and down.” The subject is almost completely dependent on your ability to learn a very technical verbatim vocabulary. If you were to continue through medical school you might end up with later classes where the opposite situation happens.
You might have to learn the common symptoms to common diseases. Just memorizing the common symptoms exact wording has very little value compared to actually understanding how the information interacts with each other. (Of course, no one would want a doctor that doesn’t know the difference between coughing and sneezing but beyond a base level, it’s more important they understand the whys than the whats.)
In class, the weight of the details will usually be dependent on your specific teacher. Some teachers grade almost completely based on the details while others base their grades heavily on developing a general sense of what’s going on.
The more detailed you need to understand something, the more you’re going to want to focus on studying verbatim. If just having a general idea what they’re talking about is enough for the test then verbatim isn’t as useful.
2. Limited Timeframe
Most of what you do in class has a limited timeframe.
If you were in the last 10 minutes before your test and had to study as fast as you possibly could, the best approach would be to try and memorize the information verbatim. Verbatim memorization is dramatically faster because it requires dramatically less thinking. That less thinking does come with the consequence of being less memorable when you need it. To make up for that you often have to use cheap brain tricks like mnemonics to make the information stick.
The more time you have to learn something, the more you should focus on trying to get it instinctively connected to you. You don’t just want to think about the words you’re told but you want to think of related words. You want to think of other ways to say the same thing. You may want to think of how to say the opposite. The more you’re able to turn those abstract words into solid relatable concepts, the more easily you’re going to remember them.
When you have less time you need to focus on a more short term approach.
Studying verbatim is ideal when you don’t have time to really process the information you’re trying to learn.
3. No Future In It
If you’re a math student that plans on making a career discussing math, you’re going to want to focus on a healthy amount of understanding. You may be able to memorize a few equations and fake your way a bit but it’s going to get you nowhere once you get into the real world.
The real world requires dramatically more understanding than memorization. You may be able to impress people with complex memorized statements but it doesn’t take long for most people to see the difference between someone talking a big game and someone playing it. (That is, excluding tests. Tests are designed, not to find people who can creatively think about a subject in an impressive way, but to check whether students can do what they need to do. Memorizing is one way to do. It’s usually as effective as having the knowledge to figure it out.)
If you plan on making a career out of something then you shouldn’t be worrying about getting a verbatim understanding. (This will come naturally eventually anyway.) It’s better to focus your energy on reframing what you’re learning into something easier to conceptualize for yourself.
If you’re just showing up to a class to pass it then studying verbatim will often be sufficient.
4. You’re Frustrated
There is one thing that studying verbatim has going for it.
This is one of the main reasons I recommend it for a large chunk of studying for class.
This is a very powerful and important reason because when people don’t like to do something, they usually don’t do it very often. If a student hates studying, they’re not going to study very consistently. The more tolerable a student finds studying the more likely they are to follow through with it.
When you’re frustrated trying to understand something, always be willing to settle for the verbatim memorization.
(This reminds me of an old Stephen King quote. To paraphrase it: “If I can’t get the scare then I’ll at least go for the gross out.”)
Verbatim memorization is a bit cheap but that’s not a reason to dislike it. It’s a reason to be willing to utilize it. Sometimes memorization will be too costly to get you motivated to continue. Instead of losing the little motivation you have to the stress involved with the situation, use that little motivation to just sit down and memorize a few simple facts.
Verbatim is significantly less stressful than certain attempts to understand information. (I know a lot of readers think their memory sucks. The science suggests that’s probably just in your head.) Don’t be ashamed to settle for it when you’re struggling to understand something. The ideal scenario may be understanding something but don’t lose sight of the power involved with just memorizing it.
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