While reading John Medina’s fifth and sixth chapters from Brain Rules, I found myself reflecting on classroom experiences and the significance of memorization. Since I teach world and American history, I inevitably face the memorization challenge on a weekly, if not daily, basis. I try to steer away from heavy memorization of facts, dates, and names as that usually makes people hate history in my experience. If you ask the average person how they liked history, most will say, “it was a bunch of dead people and dates I had to memorize!” Not effective teaching, right?
Yet I realize that much of knowing what happened in the past must involve some memorization. How do I balance memorization with significant learning experiences? Medina gives me some insight to how I can make this possible.
In terms of short term memory, Medina points out that, “retrieval may best be improved by replicating the conditions surrounding the initial encoding” (Medina 113). This can be pretty difficult at school. Our system is set up in many ways for students to study and read material at home and thus memorize material. They then are tested on that material in school! This does not replicate the conditions! We have a base level challenge that will be difficult for students to overcome. Although this challenge in not impossible. By having students study names or a list of terms in the classroom on their own during my teaching time, I may be setting them up for future success. They can continue to study outside the classroom, but the initial encoding happens right there where they will take the quiz or test. This happened recently with a terms of Islam exam I gave to my freshman. They worked on learning the terms in partners in class and almost all of them did very well on the quiz.
While the initial encoding environment is important to memorization, the significance of the material proves to be the most important aspect of the process. As Medina states: “We know the information is remembered best when it is elaborate, meaningful, and contextual” (Medina 114). This is how I strive to teach history. My philosophy never revolves around memorization. I try to use memorization to aid in the process of making meaning out of events in history. The more meaning students can attach to the history, the more they will remember.