April 26, 2012

Cram. Memorize. Regurgitate. Forget.

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicBy Peter Kaufman

clip_image002If you are or have ever been a student, then the title of this post probably needs no explanation. You should know exactly the process I am referring to. You probably also know why I am writing this post at this particular time of year. After all, this is the season to cram, memorize, regurgitate and forget.

As another school year comes to a close, students all across the country and at all educational levels are spending many of their waking hours engaged in a similar ritual: Shoving large amounts of material into their brains with the hope that they will retain it all just long enough so that they can spit everything back on a final exam. Once this act of expulsion is complete, the information is banished from their heads and they will probably never think of it again.

In educational circles this process is referred to by many names: drill and kill, rote learning, or the banking approach. It is the dominant paradigm or model of education in the United States and it has been for a long time.

clip_image004 When I was a high school student in New York in the 1980s, we had to take yearly standardized tests in most subjects called Regents Exams (students in New York still take these). In eleventh grade I took the math Regents on trigonometry. Much to my surprise and delight, I got a 100 on this exam. A perfect score. I was obviously very good at cramming, memorizing and regurgitating.

clip_image006 Apparently, I was also very good at forgetting. I recently decide to re-take a version of the current Regents trigonometry exam. Of the thirty-nine question I was able to understand only four of them. Of the four questions that I could answer only three of them were correct. My final score was a 6. In 28 years I went from a perfect score of 100 to a nearly imperfect score of zero.

Just because I have forgotten how to calculate and use trigonometric functions such as sine, cosine, and tangent does not mean that I did not learn anything back in my eleventh grade math class. I know that by learning this form of advanced mathematics I was exercising important compartments of my brain that may not have been otherwise trained. I’m sure this gave me some of the building blocks of analytical thinking.

But I still wonder: If we are learning so many subjects in school just to forget them soon after we take a test on them then what is the function of this educational method? Why rely so heavily on a system of testing when we know that most of these tests are measuring students’ abilities to hastily cram and memorize facts and figures for the short term instead of authentically engage with and retain information for the long term?

As sociologists we often speak about manifest and latent functions. These ideas were developed by Robert K. Merton—one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. Manifest functions are those things that occur that are observed or expected. Latent functions are those things that are unobserved or unanticipated.

The manifest function of testing in schools—especially with our increasingly and nearly fanatical obsession with standardized tests—is to measure the extent to which students are learning and to gauge how effectively teachers are teaching. Educational administrators and policy makers who promote more testing believe that the tests provide the best measure to determine the performance of students and their teachers.

The latent functions of testing in schools are not so clear. They may include such things as teachers feeling as if they must “teach to the test” and students feeling alienated and disengaged from learning. These results were not expected nor are they easily observed. In fact, there are few attempts to even measure them.

Sometimes latent functions such as these are also referred to as unintended consequences. No administrator or policy maker would want teachers and students to feel detached and frustrated with the process of teaching and learning but increasingly that seems to be the result of this over-emphasis on testing.

What troubles me most about an educational system based on cramming, memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting is that these latent functions and unintended consequences result in something else about which Merton wrote: Dysfunctions. Dysfunctions are the negative effects of a process that disrupt social life.

As a college professor, I see the dysfunctional effects of an educational system based on testing when I look out into a room full of students. After years cramming, memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting, many students enter college with little intellectual curiosity much less a sense of academic excitement. Too often, the students just want to be told what they need to learn to pass the test or what they need to write to get a good grade on a paper. Because so much of their schooling has been based on this dysfunctional model, they have forgotten how to be the self-directed and genuine learners that they were when they first entered school.

In all my years as a college professor, I have never given quizzes, tests, or final exams. Instead, I ask students to write papers, make oral presentations, participate actively in class discussions, and work on collaborative projects. The manifest functions of my method are to strengthen students’ oral and written communication skills—the two most important skills they need for their future career pursuits (I don’t know of any job that requires you to fill in little bubbles).

The latent functions of my pedagogical methods are not as easily observed nor are they as readily expected—at least not by students who are unaccustomed to this type of teaching. By refusing to use quizzes, tests, and final exams, I hope to transform this dysfunctional educational model into a functional pursuit of knowledge: Instead of cramming, students will engage authentically with the material. Instead of merely memorizing, students will connect what they are learning with their lived experiences. Instead of regurgitating information, students will use their new-found knowledge in their daily lives. And instead of forgetting everything they were “taught,” students will retain and build upon their comprehension of the subject matter.

I’m not naïve enough to think that my teaching methods are a panacea, a cure-all for the problems of education. But I do find that most students appreciate the opportunity to be treated as real learners and not as parrot-squawking automatons. What’s your opinion? Given your experiences in school what type of educational model do you prefer?


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I have to say that I can barely remember anything from my Freshman year four years ago. I am a good test taker and like the title states i can regurgitate information and forget. However the things I have forgotten are the things that I don't use so I find as long as things are taught in a praticle manner I retain a lot more.

Well said Peter. I hear so much discussion about how our education systems needs to be changed. It's good to know that you are in action, and setting an example.

I strongly prefer your method of getting students involved with education. Personally, I have to cram, and I force myself to learn the material given just to pass. I really do enjoy education, but it is hard to retain the information through tests and exams. I also agree that as students, we need to improve our oral and writing skills because we simply do not do enough of it.

The only way that I ever learned anything was to produce an original piece of work, be it a paper, or a presentation, or some sort of project that could be displayed. I loved tests, because I found them easy, and could cram the night before and ace the test. I learned from taking tests-- I really did learn from cramming. But I learned even more when I had to produce an original piece of work. That was the only way I was ever passionately involved in learning anything.

I can very much relate to this article. As high school senior, I cannot relay how many times I have crammed for a quiz then retained close to nothing. One approach that my teachers have taken, say with vocabulary tests, is the cumulative effect. Each week, we can be tested on that week’s words but there are also words from previous weeks, forcing one to retain past vocab words. However this is not much better. I think that the best way to ensure that someone understands and remembers a concept is to make them apply it. Having students use vocab in a speech or using math to construct a project forces them to go beyond memorization and into application. I agree with the author, education is something that is constantly changing. It will be very interesting to see how my kids are taught new information several years down the road.

I can relate to this article very much. I am a sophomore in high school and I cannot remember things that I learned my freshman year. Also, I cram, memorize, regurgitate, and forget every week in my English class whenever we have vocabulary quizzes. I also do the same thing on my Spanish tests even though it would help me in the long run if I remembered the words we are taught and practice them verbally everyday.

I like your method better, it teaches students to apply it rather than to repeat it back and not know what it is they are repeating.

Oh goodness! I can't tell you how much I agree either! I am a high school senior and what the teachers are making us cram in the last two weeks of school is absolutely ridiculous. I can't always handle what they are giving us because I have five other classes to cram for too. Your method seems very helpful and everyone should try and adapt to it.

great site

Yes, I completly agree!
Memorizing every single vocab takes time and it takes away my social life. I am forced to stay in and spent most of my weekends in my room just to memorize everything in order to get good grades. In my classes, I barely interact w/ my teachers and classmates and I just feel disconnected from the world.

I agree with your method 100%, and I feel that schools should also enforce this method for education. I currently am a student, and find myself cramming too much information for weekly quizzes and tests, and now thinking back I don't even remember material covered from the beginning of the year. I am a very oral and visual learner, and I find that hands on presentations and lectures help information stick in my head longer.

Yes I completely agree with you! Cramming is pretty much useless later in life, yet that it was the school system is teaching us. Sure the results of the tests may be good at the time it is taken, but surprise students with the same test later in the year and it looks as if they were never taught that material! Teachers tell as all the time, "don't cram" yet how else are we going to learn this stuff if we don't have assignments that will help us actually learn the material?

As a high school student, I can completely relate to this article! Before any test I will cram a bunch of information into my head, take the test, and then as soon as I walk out of the classroom doors my head is completely cleared of everything I just memorized.

This article explains exactly what my AP language teacher hates about schools. We have been fed so much just so we could take a test in the years before we got to his class, and by the time we need to be the learners we were in kindergarten, we have lost all of those skills. Even though he hates this about schools, he just told us to do the same thing on some material for our AP exam. We don't really need to know it, but it might show up on the test. I will remember it for the test and then I won't even recognize the words.

Parents need to raise their children up knowing they try their best without pushing themselves over the limit were they getting sleep loss. Children need more praise and showed structure than any other human role/ or position in life.

Wow, you couldn't have spoke the truth any clearer than that Mr.Kaufman. I'm currently a high school senior about to graduate and now that I look back, cramming and then spitting the information back out is pretty much how I worked. And I certainly can't say that I'm proud of that either...

I agree because I have been in the same situation and cramming doesnt help. Education, I think, focuses too much on pushing all of us kids through school just so they can get the money off of us all. But that is not right at all and it isnt fair to the kids. Recently I have taken my AP exams and I studied and studied and studied and I am positive I excelled on the exams, but sadly just a week later when i took the final for one of my AP classes, i did poorly, i didnt remember a ton of the stuff that I studied. ANd i know that i remembered it on the AP exam.I just couldnt remember it all because i was cramming. Cramming is just not as effective as learning. Teachers need to teach us the material and how to remeber it, not just how to take notes that we can forget about until next week when we have to start franticaly studying for exams about information we barely learned. It isnt fair to anyone. We need to be more engaged and absorbing of the material- but thats not possible without a good education system.

While I agree (and am a sociology prof), there is something to be said for learning the language of the discipline you are studying. I dare say chemists have to memorize basic terms and formulas in order to effectively create and problem solve. My 200 level classes have very little memorizattion, but let's not completely throw out the work of memorization in the learning process, yes it is lower on blooms taxonomy but it is a necessary part of education. Cheers, rob evans

Fascinating!!! I'm a recent high school graduate, and I actually just wrote an essay for my Sociology course that touched upon this very topic. And after taking into account my entire academic career, I couldn't agree more with this assessment of our current failing educational system. All students are forced into doing these days is disingenuously taking information and trying to write it on water within their minds. They keep it momentarily to get a good grade and a high-five, but even months after "learning" the material instructors seem perturbed by the fact that the students can't remember anything. To be honest, it shouldn't be a surprise at all! It also isn't surprising to note the general lack of motivation and excitement to go to school and learn for students because they are being treated like robots to perform monotonous functions instead of as dynamic learners to explore the vast reaches of human intelligence. I think the American education system needs to be revamped to allow today's and tomorrow's children to have a more successful time during and after school.

I am 40 years old, and a college junior majoring in Educational Psychology. I originally attended community college for two semesters back in 1992 then dropped out after getting pregnant. I returned to school when my son was 16. For all those years, I fantasized about returning to school and having lively discussions with brilliant professors and interesting, engaged classmates.

Talk about a let-down. I am currently taking a biology class with 300 other students in my class. I rank in the top 13% of my class and anyone who knows me well gets a good belly laugh out of that one.. the hard sciences have never been my thing. I am, however, good at those multiple-guess tests (as a teacher friend of mine calls them), and I just keep regurgitating the right answers. Ho-hum.

I hoped for this amazing and enlightening educational experience. I have certainly had some stellar classes with great professors but for the most part I feel like I am shuffling along, playing the game to get the meaningless A and forever worrying about my GPA without really absorbing anything unless I pursue it on my own.

I feel like I learn more in a month on the internet, following my natural interests, than I do in a standard 16 week semester and that is just depressing.

I hate that education cannot be (or often isn't) valued for the sake of education alone, but is mainly, nowadays, a means to an end to get that degree to make the money. Well,you gotta eat, right?

And of course I am here commenting on this blog when I should be writing an absolutely dreadful paper that is allowing for zero creative thought (and is due in a few hours). But I am sure I'll get an A! ;)

OK, this discussion needs a devil's advocate. Even though I by and large agree with the article and all its comments, let's exercise some of that critical analysis that we're all in to. First, are there facts that we should memorize that are important? Is it useful for a biologist to know the parts of a cell? Are those best learned through discussion or do we just have to memorize some things? I am disappointed when sociology students cannot name more than two or three sociologists, and it may be beneficial for some to spend some more time memorizing the names of sociologists or important historical figures or the time periods when important social events occurred. It may be a superficial form of knowledge (and people who name drop all the time just annoy me), but knowing some facts is a part of being an educated person. There may be more effective ways of memorizing, but some facts should be memorized nonetheless.

Next, isn't the ability to memorize information for short term reproduction sometimes useful? You may be asked to make a presentation to a client on short notice and being practiced at organizing core ideas quickly and being able to cite appropriate terms or figures may prove very useful. This may not be essential to good citizenship, but employers may appreciate that capability, thus they will want to know that their employees are capable of such 'performance'.

This gets us to a latent function that many of us may find troubling. Education is not just about educating. It is used as a sorting mechanism (one that is designed to serve economic interests and one that often times reproduces inequality and injustice). What if we found that those who perform well on standardized tests often (but not always) are the same ones who can write and speak well and who can demonstrate critical thinking capabilities? Educators COULD do a lot of labor intensive paper grading and create all kinds of complex rubrics in an attempt to fairly grade those who demonstrate critical thinking skills in class discussion. OR, they could give a multiple choice test that closely reflects the same performance distribution. Relying on the latter allows us to carry out "education" much more efficiently. Granted, if that is ALL we did, then students would not develop the abilities for which standardized tests serve as a surrogate measure. But utilizing tests for some evaluation may serve the goals of economic efficiency (thus justifying education budget cuts!). In an even cruder sense, those who perform well on standardized tests and who will, as suggested, forget it all later, have still proven their ability to function within "the system". This reflects an ability that most likely serves those of privilege. The children of the privileged are taught to navigate within educational and economic institutions just as they obtain the cultural capital that allows them to impress other elites and obtain jobs that reproduce their status. In this sense the latent function of testing is simply an efficient way of justifying the reproduction of social relations. It may be a mistake on our part to say that testing is dysfunctional because it does not reflect true learning if it is not primarily used as a means to facilitate learning. It may serve other functions very effectively.

Great piece, Peter.

Unfortunately, my college is pushing for more standardized testing, or what we call SLOA (Student Learning Outcomes Assessment). Basically they want data from our courses so they can assess what students are "learning" over the semester. It's been a real challenge coming-up with an assessment that is not only applicable to fourteen sections of Introduction to Sociology taught by several faculty, but trying navigate these college requirements and not compromise what I believe higher education should really be about: gaining knowledge via critical thinking.

One corollary to this: I wonder, to what extent is the need for remediation in college(mostly math and english) a consequence of memorize and regurgitate as a teaching and learning style? Students do this in high school, forget the material, repeat the same courses in college, and forget the material again. The colleges then complain about the high schools, and the employers complain about the colleges because the graduates STILL sometimes struggle with math or writing(depending on how strong these skills were coming in and how much their major focused on it).

I believe every student can relate to this topic. In every class I am forced to cram and memorize the material without ever being able to enjoy what I learned. My role as a student is to cram, memorize and regurgitate, making "learning" not as fun, causing a role strain. I agree that the "drill and kill", "rote learning", an the "banking approach", are creating dysfunctions. It is hard for students to be self directed and be true learners when all there is time for is standardized test. I agree with Professor Kaufman, students should be able to express their learning through communication skills and presentations to help us for the future. School districts are more focused on manifest functions, determine how well students memorize the given information. However they need to also focus on the later function in order to understand the unintended consequences. My sociological question would be, "what can we do to change the way of leaning to a more creative aspect?

English teacher and professor of education here, so one of those, as you wrote, who 'gets' the title of your post. Let me ask though: how do you grade your students' performance on all those writings, presentations, participations, and collaborations? You do or don't share your expectations for those tasks with your students ahead of time? Say you use letter grades; what's going to be the difference between an A and a B? (Here the Rubric rears its head, which once it's created and distributed to students ahead of time does seem like simply a variation on the theme of standardization, 'teaching to the rubric' even, as a student, 'working to the rubric'.) I guess I'm wondering if standardized testing per se is the bottom of the problem or if maybe it's the fact that part of doing school is coming to grips with having all one's work graded (and, from the teacher's end, having to put grades on everybody's work). Because what other individuals and entities do with the record of a student's grades (use as a basis to hire or not to hire, to assign 'capital' and how much or not assign it, etc) is beyond the control of every teacher.

Thanks for writing this blog.

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