If you're active in the teaching world, you've probably noticed that in the past few years we're not being encouraged to focus on teaching our students to remember facts. You may have actually noticed a strong backlash against drill & practice, in favor of “constructivist” activities and “project-based learning.”

The actual memorizing of facts, many argue, is an outdated educational practice, since anyone could just Google a fact on-demand or look it up on Wikipedia these days. The mantra seems to be that we should focus all school activities on the acquisition of skills as opposed to knowledge.

Well we disagree — and not just because we have made the world's most effective web and mobile “smart flashcards” app. Here's our argument for memorization (as part of a wider, varied education):

The value of rote memorization

There are numerous cases in which having knowledge immediately at the tip of your tongue can have tremendous social and professional value.

For example, recently at a networking event, when I casually asked a Nigerian entrepreneur how much of his business was conducted in English versus in his native Yoruba, he immediately became more engaged in our conversation. It was as if the simple fact that I knew that Yoruba was spoken in Nigeria seemed increase my social credibility, and therefore our rapport.

The same goes for professional settings. If I am a pharmaceutical salesman talking to a doctor about a specific digestion drug, and he asks if it has any effect on the process of peristalsis, it will look quite unprofessional if I have to pull out my medical dictionary to look up the word. Those facts need to be ingrained in my brain so I can access them immediately.

It's true that we don't have to remember everything. There's good reasons we give out formulas for physics or math tests—we don't really care if students remember the formula for the area of a circle; we care if they can solve problems using it. You can be a perfectly good coder without remembering every single Python command, you can speak French fluently without remembering every word, and you can even be a pretty good lawyer without remembering every legal case in the history of the world.

rote memorization, code on a screen
You don't have to memorize every command to be a good coder, but you do have to memorize a lot of them.

But each of those jobs does require you to remember some things. You can't code effectively without remembering most commands, you can't speak French fluently if you have to look up every word, and to be a competent lawyer, you really do need to remember a lot of law.

Memorizing every fact isn't essential for most people's lives; but memorizing at least some facts is. Imagine how effective your teaching would be if you couldn't remember your students' names?

The most important thing is that educators carefully determine where in the curriculum that rote knowledge retention is necessary, and draw the line before such memorization becomes a waste of time.

Rote memorization vs. constructivist learning

Rather than rote memorization, many educational situations need more personalized learning. Of course, most constructivist educators will argue that real-life simulations, on-the-job training, and project-based learning are more effective at learning new concepts than rote memorization.

And it's true: these forms of education can be very effective. They can teach skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, even while teaching facts for students to remember. The problem is that there is no single cost-effective constructivist activity will guarantee that your students (or you) will be exposed to all the concepts you need—or that you will fully remember the facts that you are exposed to. For example:

  • Medical residency can teach you a lot about the body, but can't reliably teach full, comprehensive anatomy.
  • Articling can teach law students a ton about how being a lawyer works, but isn't designed to teach them all the law.
  • Working at a vineyard can teach someone a ton about how wines are grown and made, but can't reliably teach all the concepts needed to become a sommelier.

and so on.

wine glasses on a barrel, rote memorization
Like any job, remembering facts is an important part of being a sommelier.

How to do rote memorization effectively

Like it or not, memorizing facts is essential. And some people need to remember a lot.

Luckily for you, we're a little obsessed with the research around learning and memory. Here's what you need to do if you actually want to acquire a full range of knowledge about a given topic.

  • Study deliberately. Deliberate practice is still the best way to master something—including information.
  • Use active recall. This means that rather than doing matching, multiple choice, or re-reading exercises, you should instead perform learning activities where you need to actively reach back into your memory to find the information. This can include flashcards or testing yourself.
  • Use spaced repetition. You need to space the learning out, but not space it out so far that you forget it.

Brainscape's web and mobile flashcard app is designed using these principles. It's the most effective app out there to quickly learn—and remember—large amounts of information. It offers a personalized learning experience that optimizes student performance. You or your students can use Brainscape in their out-of-class time to remember the facts, leaving you free to do more collaborative and constructivist activities in class.

Learn more about how you can use Brainscape as a learning tool with your students. And check out our huge guide on how you can double the learning effectiveness of your students.