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There is only one scenario in life where I’d suggest memorizing information is more important than understanding information.

That one scenario just happens to be school.

Understanding allows you to do dramatically more with dramatically less. Understanding allows you to infer information. It allows you to think creatively about a subject.

When you’re able to understand a subject you’re much better off in your day to day life than if you just memorized it. You have some options in how you use that information. (I’m tempted to say their is less domain dependence to your understanding.)

Memorizing information has relatively small use for life outside of school.

There are only so many things that you really need to remember in life. They’re very limited in scope. Outside of school, there is virtually nothing that you need to remember when you have access to a resource you can look the information up in. Sure, you may memorize information you use on a day to day basis but their is essentially no point to memorizing most of the stuff you go over.

Memorization can assist in developing understanding. That amount of memorization usually comes naturally though.

In school, memorization tends to be essential. The vast majority of tests you end up taking will not be open book. You can’t go looking up information in other resources to try and solve your test problems. You need to know the information without looking it up.

Learning to test well almost always requires a significant chunk of memorization.

Understanding (even a basic one) is still where you’ll get most of your points. Most of this understanding doesn’t require too much work on your part. The simple act of memorizing the information will usually give you the bulk of the required understanding. (It’s hard to memorize something without accidentally picking up some understanding of what’s happening.)

That being said, you can’t get top notch grades with understanding alone. Understanding can get you most of the way but it can’t get you all of the way. At a certain point, when it comes to school, you have to be willing to just brute force memorize information.

The reality is that brute force memorization isn’t as hard as most students seem to think.

When it comes to class time, it’s usually best to emphasize trying to understand what the teacher is saying. If you can understand what the teacher is saying then you have the basic knowledge required to pass most tests on the information taught. If all you’re looking to do is pass then you’ve probably learned enough at that point.

(If you failed to understand the teacher then it’s a complicated game of trying to figure out why. Did you have a bad teacher? Did you focus? Are you prepared to learn what they’re teaching? That’s a subject too deep for this article.)

If you’re looking to boost your grade even higher then you need to emphasize memorization.

Understanding may be easy with the basics of any subject but the deeper you attempt to understand a subject, the harder it becomes to understand the information. You can waste hours trying to understand harder concepts. At a certain point, it’s more efficient to just focus your energy on memorizing it.

To learn a little more on the subject you might want to get into this article: You Can’t Test Understanding.

Also, for some specific guidance on how to know when you really understand something you should read this subscribers only article: How To Know When You Really Understand It

So… understanding plays a role but when you’re studying, it’s usually better to focus on memorizing. The first big chunk may come cheap from understanding but the next chunk comes easiest through memorization.

Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to check out the archives and follow along. Also, be sure to read the books in the sidebar to learn more.

When To Memorize And When To Understand

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4 thoughts on “When To Memorize And When To Understand

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