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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Guest Opinion: Memorization and critical thinking in education

In many lower division classes, we are asked not to take the facts we have learned and apply them to a new situation, but only to regurgitate memorized information. We are not asked to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of opposing theories, but only to know them. Our education often does not teach or ask us to think critically, missing the point of schooling.

For example, every lab course I know provides step by step instructions for each “experiment.” This does not foster critical thinking, only following memorized directions. Instead, the lab manual should tell us what we are to measure and give an overview of the materials and equipment available to us. It could provide general guidance and useful facts, but should not reduce us to machines executing commands. If we are stuck and cannot think of what to do, the teaching assistants are there to give advice.

I understand that one reason for step by step instructions is safety and liability issues, but those could mostly be bypassed by not using dangerous chemicals, which is likely possible at least in the lower division labs. In addition, at the start of each lab, the teaching assistant could identify common hazards or mistakes and how to avoid them. In effect, teaching laboratories would simulate research laboratories; we would have a goal and decide, mostly on our own, an experiment to achieve it. This method would foster synthesis of learned facts into a working experimental procedure.

While the goal of any class, or education in general, is to help us think critically, many of us do not study with that aim. Many of us study by spending countless hours and sleepless nights memorizing the professor’s slides and lectures. When we do this, we think we know all of the material, and we are right! We do know all of the material covered, but we can only regurgitate it, not synthesize it to solve new problems; we cannot think critically about it.

For some classes, often lower division science classes, this approach is sufficient, even encouraged, to do well in the class. However, when we move on to upper division classes, where we learn facts more rapidly and are asked to synthesize what we have learned on exam questions, this approach is disastrous, resulting in studying for seven to 10 hours yet failing the exam. However, as we did not learn how to approach material without brute force memorization in earlier classes, we cannot adapt, so we struggle and stress.

To address this problem, lower division exams should not consist of questions that lend themselves to memorization, such as definitions, matching, or pure calculations. Instead, questions should address novel systems not covered in lecture but that can be figured out based on material in lecture. We should be asked not just to know facts but also to be able to use those facts.

However, memorizing facts should not be abandoned. Rather, it should be seen as a means to the end of being able to use those facts to analyze a new situation, i.e. to think critically. If we do not know something, we cannot think critically about the implications of that knowledge.

Unfortunately, in many classes, especially lower division classes, memorization of facts is not a means to an end but an end in itself. This approach leaves us unprepared and struggling when we pass the point where memorization is sufficient.

WILLIAM CONNER is a fourth-year biochemistry major. He can be reached at wrconner@ucdavis.edu.

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