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Teaching Opinion

The Roles of Memorization in Teaching & Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 29, 2020 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the appropriate role of student memorization in teaching and learning?

What is the role of memorization in teaching and learning today? Do students have to remember as much as they did in a pre-Google world? Is there value to memorizing poems or other works of literature? We’ll explore these questions in this two-part series.

Today, Blake Harvard, Donna L Shrum, Keisha Rembert, and Sarah Cooper contribute their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Donna, Blake, and Keisha on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Memorization is key to creativity

Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Ala. His blog (www.effortfuleducator.com) focuses on the application of cognitive psychology in the classroom. You can find Blake on Twitter at @effortfuleduktr:

While memorization of information is certainly not the goal of education, it is necessary in many instances. I’m sorry if that upsets some, but it is true. In an age where everything can be “Googled,” we cannot rely on any search engine for the answers to all questions. Think about it ... can you imagine a world where you have to look up the answers to everything you ask during any given day? Our time would be much less efficient, and we would not be any closer to solving complex problems that rely on memorization and understanding of more simple information. For example, if students do not know their multiplication tables, how can we expect them to complete any math problems requiring that understanding as a base?

In an age where it is much more popular to be flashy and use the new “latest and greatest” piece of technology, we are still in the business of teaching kids stuff, ... and this involves student memorization of material so we can build upon what others have done. Memorization isn’t anti-creativity or anti-innovation, it is the foundation of that process. Students cannot be creative or innovative with information they do not have. Knowledge is needed as a base for developing vaccines to combat disease, for discovering more efficient energies, for furthering and bettering our societies. Ignoring this fact may make our classroom look more “engaging and fun,” but it is doing our students a disservice.

Memorization isn’t the enemy of education. It does not kill creativity. It is not lazy teaching. It is the fuel that sparks interest and innovation. It is essential for education. It has a place in the classroom and should be incorporated when necessary.

Memorization provides “scaffolding”

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

My ancient-history students in 9th grade need to identify Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes of the Persian Empire and their major contributions. Those very odd names and cultural events made no direct contribution to their rural American lives. With zero background knowledge, the only way to acquaint my teens with these gentlemen starts with memorization.

A psychologist and teacher said, “Memorizing facts can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving. ... Memorization, therefore, produces a more efficient memory, taking it beyond its limitations of capacity and duration. ... There exists a considerable body of evidence to suggest that a memory rife with facts learns better than one without” (Smith).

With a high-stakes end-of-course test, my students can’t afford confusion about basics. Moving the memorized facts into long-term storage requires next attaching a context—why the events mattered—and later events that compare and contrast. My students won’t be able to discuss how Darius’s Royal Road contributed to the empire’s expansion and later provided Alexander the Great an easy route of conquest if they can’t first remember and differentiate names, places, and events.

Thanks to the ubiquity of technology, learners can look up anything, but that consumes time and working memory (not to mention that it isn’t allowed during tests). Basic fact memorization makes information readily available for deeper learning and making connections to new material. The storeroom of knowledge packed into memory makes it much more likely a creative connection will occur when the next round of facts come along.

Once the fundamentals are committed to memory, research has shown that retrieval practice will significantly increase learning. Having to pull the information out and make meaning is how learning occurs (www.retrievalpractice.org). At first, the information will be inflexible, like random jigsaw pieces that come together to create one picture, but, with more retrieval practice, what was memorized will become flexible and applied to new situations and problems (Willingham).

To compare to Vygotsky’s model, memorization is what the learner can easily do alone. The instructor can then lead the student into the challenge of the ZPD (zone of proximal development) with the scaffolding memorization provides.


Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying Cognitive Psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242-248.

Smith, Marc. Why memorising facts can be a keystone to learning. 21 November 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/nov/21/memorising-facts-keystone-learning-psychology

Willingham, Daniel. Practice, Drill, and Memorization. 17 July 2012. http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/practice-drilling-memorization

“A foundational skill”

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

Memorization is a foundational skill that can be used to build understanding and then application and creation. Students memorize poems in ELA class for cadence and flow. I want them to hear and practice the language and rhythm of poetry before I can ask them to create their own poems or dissect them. Rhythm is an essential component of poetry. I ask students to memorize portions of self-written speeches. I want them to own their context and understand the nuances of effective speaking, and sometimes memorizing their own words enables us to dig deeper into those nuances.

“I am forever tormented by this question”

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog, and she lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons:

As a social studies teacher, I am forever tormented by this question.

If we spend a day unpacking the Emancipation Proclamation—worthwhile in so many ways, not least to appreciate Abraham Lincoln’s legal and linguistic brilliance—how many details of the Battle of Antietam, of Gettysburg, of the New York City draft riots go undiscussed?

Pretty much every day’s lesson plan offers a similarly wrenching example.

Those of us who teach social studies and science, especially, with facts and information coming out of our ears, engage in endless compromises: what to dive into, what to gloss over, and what we hope someone, somewhere, tells our students someday because we certainly won’t have time this year.

I do ask students to memorize key dates in history to create a scaffolding, a framework on which to hang future knowledge. If they don’t know that the Civil War came in the 1860s and the Vietnam War started in the 1960s, I haven’t done my job, because they can’t appreciate the scope of history, the interplay between cause and effect.

When determining what else students should memorize, I find some solace in asking two questions:

1) Would an educated adult reasonably be expected to remember this?

I love this question because the answer so often is no! That the Civil War ended at Appomattox Court House with a surrender by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant, for sure. The list of Lincoln’s revolving door of Union Army commanders leading up to Grant? No way.

2) What are the benefits of knowing this fact as an adolescent and/or an adult?

Sometimes a fact opens doors to new understandings. For instance, I want my students to know the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention precisely because many people do not know about it. By remembering that the first women’s rights gathering in the United States occurred in the mid-19th century, long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, students can remember, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Thanks to Donna, Blake, Keisha, and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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