Memorization to cognition: Using learned lists in a practical manner

Memorizing through repetition and recitation can be a useful first step in the development of cognitive abilities. By applying the memorized and practiced material in realistic situations, teachers can help students to associate and better learn the material at hand.

Throughout the history of education, students have been asked to memorize and recite certain facts as part of the traditional method of learning. From the times-tables in math to the capitals of countries in social studies, most students have been run through the mill of the recitation of facts. This recitation, which often leads to rote memorization, can be outlined in the following fashion:

  • If the information is presented only once, it will more likely be forgotten.
  • The second time the information is presented, it may sound familiar.
  • On the third time around it may begin to stick and become available for practical application.

Though such activities can be useful at first, in order to actually retain the information, it should be cognitively applied. Unless the information is applied to practical situations, students will often forget, or tuck that material away once a marked goal, such as an exam, has been achieved. By taking memorization further, using learned or remembered facts in a practical manner, we are helping students to cognitively apply and thus associate the material to their lives.

Taking as an example the memorization and recitation of irregular verb forms in the normal ESL or EFL class, one can readily see the difference between simple rote and more complex cognitive activity.

Students of ESL and EFL are often required to study a list of irregular verbs through memorization. They are presented with a list, usually in four columns. The first column contains the root or base form of the verb. The second column presents the simple past form while the third column is the past participle. The final column is usually a translation of the verb into the student’s native language.

Exams are reproductions of this list with blank spots that students are required to fill in. While for the verb “be” they may have to fill in the past simple space, for the next verb on the list the empty space will need the participle or the translation. Though irregular verbs are an important aspect of verb study in ESL, students often only retain the information through the taking of the exam. Later on they don’t always remember what form is needed as it has been exclusively associated with a list, outside of a meaningful context.

After having studied the verbs in the above fashion, students should be asked to use each of the verbs in contextual sentences that help them to associate meaning and use with the information memorized. For example, many students might remember, by rote, that the three columns are “break, broke, broken” but they may not remember what that verb means or how it is used in a meaningful context. By having students learn the word in a sentence, such as “The boy broke the window with a ball yesterday,” we are helping them to not only use the word but to associate it to a particular situation and time frame. What happens when you put a boy, a ball and a window together in the same sentence? Something gets broken. When did it happen? Yesterday.

This type of practical association practice is necessary in any area of learning where a great deal of information must be remembered as a starting point. Putting the times table into practice in real-life role plays concerning shopping for apples or pears, converting capital cities into a part of an exciting round-the-world travel activity enlivens the information, makes it easier to retrieve when needed in the future.

It is usually easier to remember something that we have repeated several times. This remembering is a kind of recognition. In order to recognize we should first help students to recognize the material practiced in the memorization and recitation stage. Using both methods hand in hand can result in a satisfactory achievement of learning objectives.