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There is a fundamental contrast between the stated goals of most systems of education and the direction those systems are leading the students towards.

No schooling system likes to admit that a significant aspect of its program is nothing more than rote memorization. Teachers will talk about how they want to give their students a better understanding of information. They will virtually never talk about how much their systems value memorization without regard for understanding.

Memorizing information and understanding information are intimately connected with one another but they both are very distinct from one another. Memorization is relatively easy. Sure, some students struggle with it but that struggling is almost always due to a few strategies that they’ve never learned. Scientists have been studying memorization for decades now and the required steps to memorize information can be broken down into a relatively simple procedure.

Understanding is a much more complicated problem. Even describing what the average person considers understanding is almost impossible. In most cases understanding is more of a feeling than a measurable goal. Heck, I can remember moments of epiphany while studying subjects that I’ve studied for weeks when suddenly, the information sinks in instinctively. That’s what I like to think of understanding as.

You might also think of understanding information as the ability to go beyond answering questions about something into creatively thinking about that information.

Understanding is absolutely fundamental to day to day life. It’s what’s usually promoted through the words of educators but this is not what is expected of a successful student in school. Students can get amazing grades without a bit of understanding of the subjects they’re learning.

Standardized Testing

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The people designing standardized tests for a school environment are in a tough spot. Standardized tests are meant to be a way to measure the progress of certain classrooms, schools, and strategies. That measurement process is much easier said than done. Even in situations with a similar curriculum, it’s tough to find the common space between different classrooms. Some classrooms will emphasize certain points more than others. That will give all students a rather broad spectrum of knowledge.

Then, of course, all standardized tests need to be graded objectively. If a test asks a question that requires creativity from the student then the teacher will also need to judge that creativity creatively (in interpreting the response.) Since both sides of a creative question require creativity, it’s impossible to tell whether the test is rating the creativity of the student or the creativity of the teacher. Two teachers would rate the same answer differently. One might say, “the answer was off-track” while the other might say, “the answer was off a hair but it was pretty much right.” This problem makes it impossible to judge creativity objectively (particularly when getting many teachers and students involved.)

Since creative questions are out of the question for objective standardized testing, virtually all questions end up becoming questions answerable through brute force memorization. Sure, some creativity could answer some of the questions but they could just as easily be answered by a person who memorized the facts involved.

Since understanding can’t be measured objectively and memorization can, most of testing involves memorization.

Standardized Teachers

But not all of schooling involves standardized testing… Right?

To some extent, school does include factors beyond standardized testing. The problem is that teachers are regularly judged by their ability to train students for standardized testing. It’s a constant push underlying every lesson that a teacher is required to give. It may not be everything but it is a constant consideration in a teacher’s decision making. Teachers generally don’t run their classrooms differently than a standardized system anyway though.

Teachers are looking to be objective in their testing for similar reasons to standardized tests and more. Of course, teachers don’t want to unfairly grade their students. For that reason, very few teachers ask only creative questions in their testing.

Creative questions are also a whole lot more intensive for the teacher to grade. A multiple choice question takes them a second to mark right or wrong. A complex question with unlimited potential answers will take them time. Considering they regularly have classrooms with dozens of students, this is time they don’t like to waste.

There are exceptions to this focus in individual classrooms but more often than not, memorization is sufficient to get good grades in a classroom.

Master Memorization

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While schools will constantly push the idea of “understanding,” focusing on understanding can be one of the least productive things a student can do when looking to improve their grades. Understanding is not predictable. It can require a significant investment of time despite offering no certainty of results. And… of course… considering how many questions are completely dependent on memorization to solve, it’s usually an inefficient use of time.

Memorization is a much more attractive option. Memorization, as discussed earlier, has been studied for decades (mostly because it can be studied.) There are explicit strategies that can help a student improve their grades in virtually no time at all. When compared to understanding, memorization is a sure thing. (Make sure to follow along with this blog and check out the archives for more details on how to make memorization work.) With that in mind, memorization will regularly also increase a student’s understanding of a subject despite it not being the focus of the session.

For some specifics on mastering memorization you might be interested in reading 9 Reasons Your Memory Sucks and 6 Memory Strategies You Need In Your Study Toolbox.

Don’t waste your time trying to get an abstract understanding of the information you’re trying to learn for class. You don’t need to understand information to be able to pass a test on that information. And, sure, you’ll need to understand something if you plan on working day after day with that information, working with that information day after day will eventually let you understand that information anyway.

Imagine if you could study for less than 15 minutes a night while scoring higher grades than you’ve ever scored in your life. This is a reality that thousands of students are living through. Sure, the studying is tough but it’s short, habitual, and predictable. It doesn’t come with extra hours of cramming the night before a test. It doesn’t come with worrying whether or not you studied enough. It’s just using high efficiency study techniques instead of the usual low efficiency strategies most students are taught.

Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? Follow this blog and check out the archives. Also, if your kindle could use a new slew of study awesome-ness be sure to check out the ebooks in the sidebar.

You Can’t Test Understanding

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4 thoughts on “You Can’t Test Understanding

  • February 2, 2016 at 6:32 am
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    My issue is the opposite… I have no problem understanding whatever I’m studying, it’s memorizing stuff like dates, definitions and meaningless details that I have problem with.
    The only thing that helps me is studying extra early (a week or two before the test), but I don’t always have time for that. Sadly, it’s my mental illness’ fault, so I can’t do much about it.

    Reply
  • February 1, 2016 at 7:22 pm
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    As an EFL teacher, I understand the value of both memorization and understanding. To me and for my students, knowledge is the list of vocabulary words that they have memorized and understanding is being able to put those words into a grammatically-correct sentence or to use them to communicate an idea.

    Understanding is definitely more important for a student whose goal is to learn, but memorization is what is necessary for improving standardized test scores. It’s really all about the goal of the individual, and the schooling that they are a part of. Sadly, for many degree programs as well as primary and secondary schools, memorization for the sake of high test scores is more important than actually understanding the concepts being taught.

    Although I’m fortunate to not be in a country where standardized testing has taken over which allows me to make my own exams for my students, I do still want them to rely at least in part on memorizing facts because that is the school system today, and I do believe there is some value in memorization.

    Reply

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