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!

10 Responses

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  1. busyevent said, on August 6, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Hi there Larry . . . excellent observations and your ideas for improvement are central to the idea behind ‘learning’. As a former flight instructor and now as a ski patroller/instructor, I can tell you that making sure people understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘do’ is critical.

    And, it’s not restricted to the teacher/student world either. For instance, at our company, we find that it helps significantly that our developers understand where we’re headed and are on the bus because they believe in that direction. Having them understand where we’re going and how we’re getting there makes it easier for them to ‘do’ their part – providing great products to get us there.

    And, I think, this can also be extended to the world of the entrpreneur/VC relationship. The ‘nuts and bolts’ are the numbers; how many users, how much EBITDA, etc…there’s not a lot of understanding going on, it’s just the facts. But, when a VC can understand your vision, buys into it, can repeat it back and then gets on board, well, cool things can happen.

    Wonder what you think of this premise: the job of an entrepreneur seeking an investment is to make sure they teach the VC about their vision such that it’s not a memory but a true understanding. If that occurs, does that increase the opportunity or chance that someone would invest?

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • larrycheng said, on August 7, 2009 at 11:47 am

      I can totally appreciate your comment on VCs/entrepreneurs. I think it’s important that the relationship between an entrepreneur and their VC is a true partnership where both “get it”. That type of mutual understanding and commitment to the end goal and how to get there is really crucial.

    • slingster said, on August 7, 2009 at 8:17 pm

      Bus Ye Vent, a note regarding your final paragraph premise that entrepreneurs “should make sure they teach…”

      An LP might take a different position-they pay vcs good $$$ to find the most promising ideas, innovations, and visions of the future that can be the next Fortune 500 company. These are the rare things in the world of innovation. Thus even if the entrepreneur is filthy, doesn’t publicly speak well, mumble or whatever, an LP might see it as the burden of the VC to understand the concept rather than the burden of the entrepreneur to convey his ideas clearly.

      Hisistory reminds us that some of the worlds great innovators were also quite wierd and not that presentable. Would you want your VCs to turn away calculus because they din’t find lunching with Isaac Newton at Le Cirque that pleasant? You can always give someone a tooth brush, personal coaching, etc. You cannot always find someone with an idea such as calculus.

      Therefore an LP

      • busyevent said, on August 8, 2009 at 10:02 am

        One of the best experiences I had in college was learning from one of the most slovenly people I’d ever met.

        And, her ability to teach, engage, have people understand and make connections between two disparate ideas was legendary.

        Heck, they event named a building after her!

        If there is a connection between ‘socially acceptable’ and ‘teacher’, I don’t see it . . which was my point; the job of the entrepreneur is to present ideas in a way that the VC can understand it.

        Not that VCs are inherently dolt, I’ve only met 2 that are :>), but hey, the 15th social network for crayon collectors had better have some teachable moments or it’s going to be a short meeting!

  2. Desmond Pieri said, on August 7, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Larry, a few quick comments.

    First, I have to agree on the CPR training. I’ve completely forgotten how to do CPR. Maybe states should require us to prove we can do CPR when we get our auto license renewed? A thought, but maybe too draconian.

    Second, we saw close-up the “memorization vs. understanding” teaching techniques when we lived four years in Ireland. There, education is all about memorization for the “Leaving Certificate” exam. A student’s Leaving score is the sole determinate on their entrance to college and course of study. (Actually, this year there was a national uproar when the history paper asked a single “understanding” type question, throwing everyone off balance. None of their years of memorization mattered.)

    Third, your use of the gross margin example reminded me of Meg Whitman. When Meg took over at eBay, it was a huge change from her prior industries (shoes, toys, flowers, etc.) She spoke once about how on her first day she focused on “understanding” things like…the gross margin! A internet-savy audience member was heard asking, “What’s a gross margin? And what does it have to do with growing an internet company?”

    I move from industry to industry in my interim CEO / COO roles so I don’t have each industry data “memorized.” Rather, I focus on “understanding” — understanding the fundamentals (of margins; sales forecasts; competition; etc.) To date, it’s worked.

    Great post. Thanks!

    • larrycheng said, on August 7, 2009 at 11:48 am

      That’s a pretty funny story Des. Thanks for sharing. I didn’t realize that Ireland or any European country would be so memorization-centric. A lot of Asian countries are that way as well.

  3. Enoch Liao said, on August 7, 2009 at 12:18 pm


    As it so happens, I actually taught CPR & First Aid for the Red Cross for a number of years. At that time, my trainers told me that the average retention for CPR/FA training was 2 weeks–after that most people would not be able to pass the tests.

    In terms of memorizing and understanding, I agree that if memorize or simply learn the what/where/how stuff, you will not truly internalize it as much as if you also learned the why. That being said, as both a Red Cross instructor, and now a public speaker, I’ve observed that many people either are not interested and/or do not have the capacity to understand the why for various issues.

    Like Evelyn said in her comments on your previous post about music, often memorizing the brute facts can lead to a greater understanding. In fact, understanding probably comes after memorizing for many things. For instance, I recently learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube by memorizing various algorithms. So I can solve it but I don’t tell people that “I solved it” because I just memorized different patterns. But after memorizing them, studying them, and now teaching Evan them, I’m gaining an understanding.

    I have to admit, I probably would not have tried to figure out a solution to the Rubik’s Cube. (I’m not sure I could have!) But having memorized the steps, I’ve been better able to understand them.

    Back to CPR, I found that when I did try to teach for understanding, my students learned faster, retained information longer, and enjoyed the class more.

    So thanks for your thoughts… and let me mention about another area where people are taught to memorize but perhaps not understand:faith & religion!

  4. slingster said, on August 7, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Larry, next time try one of the online video courses with a family member. You will be able to learn at your own pace, and get answers to specific questions, rewind a lesson, search the web for a spedific question.. You will likely remember longer and another member of your family with have also learned CPR-and you will have never left the house!

  5. Rameze said, on September 3, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I agree with your argument. I was a notorious memeorizer during elementary school. middle school, and some portions of high school. I became a very lazy student and never took the time to understand what I was studying. Instead, I relied on my above average memory to get me through the year which allowed to do obscene amounts of cramming. I would score high grades on tests and forget most of the material only a few weeks later. Then I encountered AP classes. These classes throw so much information at you in such a short amount of time that learning purely on memorization becomes impractical. Yet, as a naive and stubborn young man, I continued to learn through memorization until I learned that learning through pure memorization is not only impractical, but detrimental because I cannot say that I learned how to apply what I know to the physical world. But, over time, I learned how to combine my above average memory with the idea of understanding to become not only a better student, but a better human being.

    Now I am in college, where I am beginning to try to combine my memory talents with he struggle of trying to understand material. Had I learned how to learn through both memorization and understanding, who knows where I would have ended up.

    • larrycheng said, on September 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      Rameze, I have to say, so much of learning is the transition from memorizing or knowing something factually to understanding the actual content. It’s not just for kids but adults as well. For example, there’s a big difference between being able to calculate gross margin in an income statement, and understanding what picture gross margin as a metric says about a business. So, I don’t think starting with memorization is a bad thing – you have to start somewhere!

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