What the Experts Say About Memorization

Numerous studies (by Clement, Ross, Holyoak, Gentner, Foss, DiSessa, and others) show that what students learn needs to be grounded in a way that is meaningful to them. Yet, schools still insist on rote memorization of principles and facts taught independently of their potential use. DiSessa found, for example, that while experts in physics could look at a problem and know exactly what physical principles were needed to think about the problem, students with some training in physics, when confronted with a real-world problem, did not realize that they needed to use the principles they had learned in class.

We have learned from these studies that when students learn in meaningful contexts, they can transfer knowledge they have learned in one domain to another. When learning tasks are grounded in things students care about, students can establish mental indices from old situations to new ones, thus allowing natural case-based reasoning to function. However, when students are just given principles and facts, out of the context of their use, they simply do not have the concrete experience they need as raw material to be able to properly apply what they have learned.

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