Thinking About Thinking

Memorizing v. Understanding

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on August 6, 2009

I went to a Red Cross CPR training class last night and it brought up some more thoughts on educational philosophies.  The methodology of teaching for the class was very much based on memorization.  The entire class was taught in the following pattern: If X happens, then do Y.  After you do Y, then do Z.  After Z, check for A – if A exists, then do B.  By the end of the class, after sufficient repetition, you pretty much had it drilled into your memory.  But, interestingly, the teacher made a passing comment at the end that everyone would forget most of the training after a few months.  Having taken the class before, I can attest to that fact.

It did occur to me on the way home that while we were taught the steps of administering CPR, we were never taught why we were doing the steps.  It was never thoroughly explained to us why you give 2 rescue breaths when you don’t see signs of breathing.  It was never really explained why you administer chest pumps in the first place let alone why you do it 30 times at a relatively fast rate.  We were taught to memorize the steps, but we were not taught to understand why the steps are needed or effective.  I really believe that had the latter happened, more people would remember the steps months later.  To oversimplify, in my experience, memorization tends to more consistently deposit information in short-term memory, but understanding transfers that information into long-term memory. 

In addition to recall, I think the utility of understanding something is generally superior to the utility of just memorizing something.  For example, any undergraduate finance student has learned a basic equation like: revenues – cost of goods = gross margin.  But, few seem to understand what gross margin tells you about a business.  What does a high gross margin mean?  What does a low gross margin mean?  What does it say about a business when the gross margin is growing over time or declining over time?  And to pay homage to the Internet bubble – what does a negative gross margin mean (many equity research analysts of that era seemed to forget this one too)?  Understanding what gross margin means is a different plane of knowledge than just memorizing the equation to calculate it.

This is not a pure critique of memorization as an educational philosophy.  I just don’t think memorization should be applied in such a way as to exclude or trump the teaching of understanding.  Both working together are key components to building knowledge.  With that said, I still highly recommend that people take a CPR training class because remembering anything from the class is better than not having any idea what to do.  I doubt the victim you’re helping will really care if you understand what you’re doing as long as you memorized the right steps!