Memorization as a Creative Process

In previous posts, I wrote a bit about memorization and how we may be shying away from it too much. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as they say. Education needs to be about much more than rote memorization, but having memorized facts and vocabulary at your disposal is also part of being an educated person. I've also found in my tutoring experience that students who have not memorized their arithmetic facts or Spanish vocabulary cannot dream of doing well in the related classes. There is some basic knowledge that you need just as a pre-requisite, and the fastest way to get it under your belt is to purposefully try to memorize it. The same goes for SAT and GRE vocabulary - sometimes memorization has to be a big part of your strategy towards improving someone's score.

Our education system being the way it is, most of us are not that familiar with the process and practice of memorizing large amounts of information. Sure, we've all made a few flashcards in our careers, but have most of us excelled at really challenging memorization tasks? I remember mostly failing at my attempts to memorize the periodic table or all the countries in Africa when I was in school. How can we become better memorizers, and is it really as boring as it sounds?

Human memory is actually a fascinating thing if you think about it. It consists of a series of nodes and connections to those nodes, in theory anyway. It is a vast network (which makes sense when you realize your brain is a network of connected neurons). Some researchers say that everything you've ever heard or experienced is still marked or recorded somewhere in your brain, it's just that usually it is activated at such a low level and so disconnected from everything else, that you cannot find it in order to re-activate it. The process of memorizing then, is a process of raising the activation level of different ideas by repeating them over and over, and of building strong connections, cues, or pathways to those ideas so that you will be able to retrieve them later. Once you've used a new word hundreds of times in context, it will become so familiar to you (so highly activated) and so interconnected with the others words you commonly use with it, that you will usually have no trouble recalling and using it. For new words or concepts, however, it is a fun game of trying to build connections and keep the idea actively buzzing in your head until you have a chance to use it and incorporate it into your daily systems of usage and knowledge.

How can you build associations or pathways to new items? One way is to organize the items somehow. Many people use strategies such as building a visual image that is composed of the items, or in which each object or visual element in the picture stands for one of the items. Of course there are mnemonic devices like acronyms, rhymes, songs, and stories (just as any doctor or medical student how they remember the bones of the body or the symptoms of a certain disease). In trying to learn lots of new Korean vocabulary, I have been coming up with little logical associations that help me retrieve the correct item. I find this to be quite a creative process and sometimes kind of fun or amusing! Memorization doesn't have to be all drudgery - it can actually be kind of creative and can incorporate many arts like music, visual imagery, poetry, etc.

Have fun with your memorization tasks, and post your ideas here as comments! Happy memorizing.


I totally believe that memorization has its place! I'm an elementary special educator, and I am completely frustrated about the fact that some students don't know their multiplication or even addition facts simply because they haven't been taught to memorize them. When they came up with that multiplication chart where you go across and down and find the answer, it became the worst crutch for third graders I've ever seen then or since. Some old school ways of teaching should have never been dropped. What happened to cursive handwriting? I know for a fact that some educators don't even teach it. I learned it in third grade. I'm all for progress and I love technology, but face it, when it comes to basic skills, a lot of our students really aren't even on grade level, and they're not special ed. Our children are great with electronics, but there comes a time when you just have to read, write and do basic math without a calculator, or sometimes even, in your head!


Julia S.

20+ hours
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